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The Fascinating Protea


The strange, exotic beauty and incredible variety of Protea are reason enough for the growing fascination with these spectacular flowers. But their history, distribution and cultivation add another intriguing dimension to this most ancient family of flowering plants. Their origins reach back to the time of the dinosaurs, 300 million years ago, when the mega-continent known as Gondwanaland was still intact. Until the emergence of flowering plants, such as the Protea, the plant kingdom consisted primarily of ferns and conifers.

In the commercial and hobby cut flower world, the name Protea refers to the broad variety of flowers of several genera within the family Proteaceae, including Protea, Banksia, Leucospermum, Leucadendron, Mimetes, Telopea and Serruria. The name, Protea, was given to this family of flowering plants by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, in 1735.

It is widely held that the name Protea is a reference to the mythological Greek god of the sea, Proteus, who foretold the future, yet defied efforts to extract prophecies by changing his form ‘to those beasts who will mock your grasp’. Proteus was reluctant to reveal a prophecy, so one had to catch and hold him firmly while he transformed into an ever-changing array of animate and inanimate shapes. Mr. Linnaeus likely did not know, in the early 18 th century, how appropriate the name he ascribed to this grand variety of flowers would become, as the identification of some 1500 species occurred during the subsequent 250 years.

Virtually all of the approximately 1500 species of Protea are found throughout the southern hemisphere. 400 species are indigenous to Africa. Southern Africa enjoys some 360 species. The “King Protea” is the national flower of South Africa. More than 800 species occur in Australia. 550 of these species are in southwestern Australia. The state flower of New South Wales is and the official flower of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney was the Waratah. About 90 species can be found in Central and South America. The remaining species are found through Madagascar, New Guinea (80), New Caledonia (45), South-East Asia and New Zealand (2).


The arrival of Dutch settlers to Table Bay, South Africa began what was initially a utilitarian relationship between humans and Protea. Protea wood fueled cooking fires and became wagons. The bark tanned leather for shoes and the nectar, gathered from the flowers, was thickened into nutritious syrup as a substitute for sugar, which was otherwise unavailable. Protea became known as “Sugarbushes”. Now that name is given to the most prolific nectar producer of them all, Protea repens.

In April 1770, Joseph Banks, the renowned botanist, with Daniel Solander, aboard the sailing ship Endeavor captained by James Cook, became the first European to identify and collect specimens of the genus Banksia. Captain Cook later named the place of Banks’ first encounter with the Proteaceae of Australia, Botany Bay. As samples of Protea from South Africa and Australia were sent home to Europe, during the 18 th and 19 th centuries, a fascination grew among botanical scientists and hobbyists alike.

Despite the general fascination with Protea, they remained the realm of the dedicated hobbyist and scientist until the latter half of the twentieth century. Commercial cultivation of plants and cut flowers is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. This is in part because of the environmental requirements for healthy, long-lived plants. Today, commercial production and private cultivation occur throughout Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Southern California. Israel and Central and South America are also joining the commercial Protea cut flower industry.

With the exceptions of Hawaii and Central America the primary growing regions share a temperate, “Mediterranean” climate, with generally rainy winters and dry summers. Interestingly, many Californians believe Protea are tropical flowers from Hawaii.


The flower of a Proteaceae is actually not a single flower but a mass of small flowers making up a composite flower head. In the genus Protea, also known as “Sugarbushes”, the flower head is then surrounded by bracts or modified leaves, which are often mistaken for petals. Prior to opening up, the flower head resembles a pink, red or yellow artichoke. It is the colorful, often bearded bracts, with the central core of furry flowers, revealed as the flower head opens, that are the true attraction of the ”Sugarbushes”. A favorite “Sugarbush” would have to be Protea cynaroides, the “King Protea”.

Leucospermum, or “Pincushions”, don’t need conspicuous bracts for their appeal. Pins are prized for their incredible variety of colorful, reflexed mass of flowers that resemble their namesake. The various parts of each flower, the styles, perianths and pollen presenters, can be yellow, orange, red, scarlet, lime green, pastel pink or any combination of these colors. A favorite “Pincushion” hands down is one of the “Fireworks Pincushions”, Leucospermum formosum, what we call the “Pinwheel”.

Banksias range from long spikes to rounded heads of dense flowers resembling “Q-Tips” or bottlebrushes. Most have foliage with serrated margins that may be long and narrow, or short and wide. Other varieties have needle-like leaves that may be long or very short. The flower heads, as well as the plants themselves would be right at home on the set of a “Godzilla” movie. While not as exotic as the more familiar Banksia prionotes, the “Acorn Banksia”, a favorite variety of Banksia is the bronzy, bottle-brush-like Banksia erica .

Leucadendron, or “Conebushes”, are prized primarily for their foliage, although the cone of the female plant with its yellow “fuzz” completes the assemblage of color and shape. As with the Pincushions and the Sugarbushes, Leucadendron have benefited at the hand of the horticulturalist with a tremendous variety of foliage color, shape and size. One favorite is the variety ‘Cloudbank Ginny’ with its yellow and red tipped foliage surrounding a striking red ball-shaped male flower.

Telopea, or the “Waratah”, gained some familiarity during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Its first introduction came at the closing ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Then, in Sydney, each medal winning athlete was presented with a small arrangement including “Waratah”. Telopea resemble large “Pincushions” with deep burgundy color, some with white flecks. However, there is no doubt the most beautiful “Waratah” is the white variety known either as “Shady Lady – White” or “Wirrimbirra White”.

Finally, the Serruria, or “Spiderheads”, would likely top anyone’s list of favorites. Their delicate, papery white bracts with pink hued flower centers and needle thin leaves are so unlike the large, leathery flower heads and foliage of the other Protea varieties. For the cut flower enthusiast, there can never be enough Serruria florida, known as “Blushing Bride”, or the lesser known variety, “Sugar-n-Spice”, with its richer pink bracts.


The majority of familiar Protea of South Africa and Australia are adapted to harsh environments that are both arid and nutrient deficient. Protea as a whole thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soils (pH 3.5 – 6.5). They are adapted to regions with wet winters and dry summers, though dry season irrigation is beneficial for the hobbyist and commercial enterprise. Summer irrigation promotes vigorous foliage, long stems and fully developed flower heads. Protea are not well suited to prolonged freezing conditions, however they will tolerate brief encounters with frost or mild freeze.

In addition to the particular characteristics of the Protea flower head, the other unique feature of the family Proteaceae is the proteaoid root. Protea utilize proteoid roots, clusters of fine roots growing near the soil surface extending from the main roots that have an extraordinary ability to extract almost nonexistent quantities of nutrients and moisture from the soil. It is these proteoid roots that are the plants’ vulnerability. Too much fertilizer, especially phosphorous, will either preclude the roots from developing or destroy those already in place. Soil moisture, without adequate drainage, is also harmful to these vital feeding roots. Weeds around the base of the plant and out to the drip line should be removed by hand. Never dig or hoe within the drip line of a Protea.

Most Protea enjoy exposure to full sun. The best orientation is southeast and it is better to have morning sun than the heat of the afternoon sun. While some varieties tolerate varying degrees of shade, shade and crowding tend to result in “leggy” plants with less foliage in the lower branches. Flowers on shaded plants also end up smaller and less impressive.

Protea respond well to pruning. Both thinning and heading back branches is beneficial. Generally, thinning removes interior and crossing branches to allow light into the center of the plant. Heading back to a growth node retaining a stem length of approximately 6 inches with 4 to 5 healthy leaves generates the best results. Some Banksias and the “King Protea” have lignotubers allowing them to be cut back to the base of the trunk. This is an adaptation to fire prone regions. Very few varieties will sprout new growth on bare stems. Some varieties grow so much stem length that they may be pruned multiple times during the growth season to keep the flowering stems at a reasonable length.

To enjoy Protea in your garden you will probably rely on large containers, or at least raised beds. Either way, it is vital to ensure good drainage, sufficient sunshine and good air circulation. Garden soils should be amended with organic matter, peat moss to lower the pH and other amendments to enhance drainage. A layer of gravel at the native soil level can help carry moisture away for the raised bed.

A good potting mix we use at the farm is a blend of 1.5 parts Peat Moss, 1 part Perlite, 1 part fine Orchid Mix or redwood bark and 0.5 part coarse river sand. Any potting mix you use should drain quickly when watering. No water should pool in the container for more than 5 seconds after watering.

While fertilizer is generally not recommended, a slow-release organic fertilizer is acceptable. It is very important that any fertilizer used not contain phosphorous. Fertilizer is applied at 1 month intervals from February through July. Applying fertilizer in the fall is not recommended, as the new growth may be susceptible to frost in December. At the farm we use a fish emulsion with kelp for micronutrients.

The various Protea range in size from small or medium shrubs to trees. Leucadendron and Banksia can be quite large. Sugarbushes and Waratah are generally small to medium sized upright shrubs, 4 feet wide by 4 feet high to 6 feet by 8 feet. Pincushions are usually mounding and can grow as large as 4 feet high and 6 feet wide. Serruria are small shrubs from 1.5 to 3.5 feet high. Leave enough space around the plant to allow good air circulation and exposure to the sun.

Cut flowers are the bonus of growing Protea in your yard. Protea bloom fall through spring. While most varieties bloom for a couple of months or less, some produce blooms for much of the flower season. Careful pruning will generate long, straight stems.

After cutting your flowers place them in a vase of fresh water with flower food, an aspirin or a couple of drops of chlorine. By changing the water every 3 to 4 days most Protea flowers will last 2 to 3 weeks. When you’re done with the fresh flowers, remove the water from the vase and let them dry naturally for an everlasting arrangement. To help retain some color it’s a good idea to keep them out of direct sunlight.

With their exotic look, stunning color and timeless, long lasting beauty, Protea flower arrangements by Golden Hawk Protea are the perfect solution for:

  • Flower arrangements for decorating your home or office;
  • Sending flowers for a corporate or holiday gift;
  • Flowers delivered just to say you care.

A cut above, nothing has more impact than an stunning & timeless Protea Flower Arrangement from Golden Hawk Protea .

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