Proteas Please and Tease Me

The Proteaceae family was named after the mythical god Proteus, son of Poseidon, because the flowers have so many forms. Proteus could foretell the future, but changed his shape so he didn’t have to.

Doesn’t the king protea above look like a snow cone?

And this banksia, a corn cob? The petals feel like coated plastic wire, the kind used in telephone cables.

Proteas (plants in the genera Protea, Banksia and Leucospermum) are from Australia and South Africa. Although grown commercially in my area (Southern CA) I’ve not been able to keep one going in my garden. The plants need superb drainage, acid soil, good air circulation—but protection from dry winds—and don’t like to have their roots disturbed. They prefer to grow on slopes. If given fertilizer that contains phosphorus, they will glut themselves and die.

During a recent visit with me to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum south of San Francisco, my non-gardening husband was wowed by proteas and observed that they look like they came from another planet. Not surprisingly, proteas were used to suggest exactly that in the old Star Trek TV series.

Proteas are the ultimate cut flowers—long lasting and also intriguing dried—but ants love the nectar. When friends give me protea blooms from their gardens, I am of course thrilled, but I also know to hose them down (the flowers, not the friends) before bringing them into the house.

About Debra Lee Baldwin

Debra Lee Baldwin gardens on "an inhospitable half acre" in Escondido, CA, near San Diego. She is an award-winning photojournalist and artist with hundreds of articles and columns to her credit. Debra's books are Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified.

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17 Responses to Proteas Please and Tease Me

  1. Will Holley May 4, 2012 at 4:45 am #

    Wow lovely post and brilliant photos. I agree they do look like they originate from a far flung galaxy. Some of them, to me, resemble coral reef like plants. It just shows what an amazingly diverse planet we live on.

    Very true, Will. When I read your post, I heard the theme from the old Star Trek series ;+) — Debra

  2. Capital Gardens May 4, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Firstly, your photography is AMAZING! And secondly, I can’t believe these plants are all so closely related, each one is so different to the others!

    A visitor from the UK! How cool! And thank you so much for the compliment. The light was good that day—bright overcast. Glad you enjoyed the post! — Debra

  3. Loree / danger garden May 4, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Wonderful photos Debra! I too love Proteas and wish I could grow them up here in Portland, Oregon. I make do with Grevillea, while their blooms are much smaller they are just as alien. The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is on my “must see” list.

    Lots of grevilleas at the Santa Cruz Arboretum! I’ll have to look at my photos and see if I have enough good ones to do a post. Yes, do go there. It’s a magical place, even if not as manicured as a botanical garden. — Debra

  4. Marie May 4, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Beautiful images, especially, and weirdly (for this Capetonian) with frost on the first protea. But it is not a king protea (P. cynaroides), which is very distinctive. We see it often on our walks in Cape Town’s mountains:

    The wind recommendation is interesting for their cultivation- as wind buffets the Cape continously in summer.

    They also like nutrient-poor soil…

    Hi, Marie — I should have explained that the flower in the first photo is dew-covered. It was foggy the day I shot it, and tiny droplets clung to the flower’s fine hairs. So, no frost! The plants are surprisingly tough—large and woody. Even cutting off a flower for a bouquet would require long-handled pruners. It’s like growing anything, I suppose. Understand its native habitat and replicate it as closely as you can. — Debra

  5. Elephant's Eye May 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    That’s why it is called suikerbossie (sugar bush). The early settlers harvested the nectar to make syrup. Imagine how many flowers ripped off and discarded.

    No kidding. Sugar bush! Makes sense. I wonder if the nectar gatherers had to battle ants. Odd, I didn’t see a single ant at the arboretum. Either I wasn’t paying attention, or they’ve managed to keep them at bay. Wish I knew their secret. — Debra

  6. Jannie du Toit May 4, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Complements on a beautiful article Debra! I love Proteas and the habitat they create. I lived in Wellington (SA) and would find them on my walks in Bain’s Cloof as well as on Groenberg, both prominent landmarks in Wellington. Proteas are mostly found in what is called Vynbos there. I have seen baboons chewing on the flowers and sunbirds drinking the nectar. I have found some at altitudes as high as 1500m above sea level on snowy peaks. Again, I loved your article, please do a book on them.

    Hi, Jannie — Baboons chewing on them? Now that WOULD be something. Love your description of South Africa and its exotic flora. I don’t think I’m the one to do the book, but thanks! — Debra

  7. Kaveh May 4, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    I’m lucky to live in Protea land. We seem to have the perfect conditions for them here on the central coast. I have some Grevillea now but in the fall I’m planning to add some Protea, Leucadendron, and Leucospermum.

    Hi, Kaveh — I love your blog! Your photos of the succulent garden Nick Wilkinson designed in Cayucos, CA are better than mine—either that, or it has filled in a lot since I was there. And your protea shots are marvelous, too. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll bet our garden paths will cross some day. — Debra

  8. Chookie Inthebackyard May 5, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    I know of a Banksia nut who was growing every species in his very small inner-city garden!

    Try growing them in a raised sandstone rubble bed (sand and gravel if you don’t have it there). They mostly grow on well-drained, rocky, thin acid soils. The only species I’ve attempted to grow is Banksia spinulosa, which is native to my part of Sydney and a bit less fussy about drainage. It sulked for many years before finally giving me a couple of flower heads!

    How marvelous that an Australian is reading a post written by a San Diegan, and can weigh in on the subject of Banksias! Kudos to you for your persistence in growing them. It makes me think I should give them another try. — Debra

  9. ann May 5, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Amazingly, protea captivates me even if Dakota does not have climate for these. Beautiful photos are wonderful.

    Thank you, Ann. I think sometimes the more exotic a flower or plant is, the more captivating. It makes us kids again, fascinated by the natural world. — Debra

  10. Peter Johnsen May 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    My mother would have loved these, (and your Photos, Debra) she spent a good many of her early years in Southern Africa, including the Rhodesias, where her Dad worked with Cecil Rhodes, She had so many stories. She lovd the Proteas, and the BoboJohnnies too. Thanks, it brings back memories.

    Wow, Peter, your mother must have had an amazing life. I’m so glad this post brought back memories of her. What are BoboJohnnies? — Debra

  11. Cathy May 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Such amazing images but alas, my guess is that none of them are hardy enough to survive in our zone 6b garden.

    I wonder, are they sold there by vendors of cut flowers? We have them here in our farmer’s markets. — Debra

  12. Karen Chapman May 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Another world of plants to be sure.

    Hi, Karen, with all the writing I do about succulents, I’ve overused the word “unworldly.” Now I avoid it, like “unique.” — Debra

  13. Andrea May 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Wow these photos are really amazing. I’ve seen them in person only once in Australia. ..and i also love the fun in your post….Andrea

    Thanks, Andrea. It must have been something to see them in Australia. — Debra

  14. Les May 7, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    There are few plants that give me climate envy, but these are some of them.

    If it’s any consolation, I live in the right climate, and I can’t grow them! — Debra

  15. Cathy May 10, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Debra, I have never seen them as cut flowers either at the local farmer’s markets (which is almost all local produce) or at the local flower shops. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t available in Boston, at the Boston Flower Exchange, for example, but only wholesalers cam shop there. I buy flowers for the house all winter and have never seen anything so exotic!

    Coincidentally, our favorite garden center has expanded their inventory of hardy succulents. We still need to special order some for our succulent project, but considering that a couple of years ago, all you would ever find is some sedum and hens and chicks, this is pretty exciting!

  16. Reg Munro May 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Truly great photos. A group of us men walk in the Cape Peninsula regularly and see thee amazing flowers. These photos take the cake though, they are truly great and show off the flowers’ beauty very well

  17. franniesorin May 21, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Aren’t we all? You know what the experts say? The first step in recovery is admitting your addiction. But do any of us really want to not be plantaholics? Fran