Proteas are beautiful and fascinating flowering plants. Their blooms are commonly seen in floral arrangements and are known for their unique appearance and long vase life. In the United States, they are grown best in the coastal areas of San Diego, although they are not native here.
These warm-weather plants are treasured for their blooms, above all. They are a bit of a challenge to grow, given their specific and limited climate range. For the experienced gardener living in zones 9-12, proteas are an adventure that can be conquered.
Let’s discuss these interesting plants with their highly desirable flowers and how to care for them in your home garden.
Protea Plant Overview
What are Proteas?
Renowned for their resilience, Proteas excel in surviving wildfires compared to other plants.
Proteas are flowering evergreen perennials that produce large, colorful flowers. These flowers are popular for their unique and fanciful appearance and their long-lasting nature. They are also known for their incredible resilience and ability to survive wildfires better than most plants.
These plants grow mainly in the southern hemisphere, although many gardeners in California and Hawaii have had great success growing them. This is largely due to the climate and soil content in these areas. They are a wide-ranging and striking group of plants.
These plants stand as one of the oldest recognized flowering plants on Earth.
Proteas are one of the oldest recognized flowering plants on Earth. Some sources date their existence back to over 300 million years! They were named in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, commonly regarded as the father of taxonomy.
Sometimes referred to as Sugarbushes because of their abundance of sweet nectar, the taxonomical name Protea comes from the son of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. This son, Proteus, was a shapeshifter, able to change from one form to another to avoid capture. The protea flower comes in many shapes and forms, developing from a bud to a fully opened bloom.
The Proteaceae family comprises 83 genres and more than 1600 species amongst them. The Protea genus contains about 136 of these species. They are known for their incredible resilience, as their strong and fibrous root systems withstand fire and are known to return after other foliage nearby has since been destroyed.
The African proteas exhibit a wide range in size, from small shrubs to tree-sized.
Proteas are typically considered native to South Africa, although Australia is also home to various species. In South Africa, 90 percent of the plants are found in a region known as the Cape Floristic Region. This exciting area is known as one of the worldwide hotspots for biodiversity.
The African proteas can range greatly, from small shrubs to tree-sized. These plants also appear in Australia but tend to be smaller, and some are found in South America, although they are commonly suspected to be non-native in this region. They grow well in many similar environments, though.
Renowned for their unique flowers, proteas feature tubular blooms clustered on a large, cone-like head.
Protea plants are shrubby in form and vary widely in size. Some are barely three feet tall, while others can be up to 25 feet tall and more treelike. The largest protea flower is the King protea, which is quite an impressive and reliable cultivar.
The leaves are leathery and tough and vary widely from needlelike to paddle-shaped. They also vary in color from dark to light green, bluish, or gray-green. These leaves are arranged in a spiral or loose rosette around the plant’s stems.
Proteas are best known for their impressive and unique flowers. These tubular flowers are arranged in a cluster on a large, cone-like head. Most flowers are surrounded by large, colorful bracts that open to a cup shape, around the inside of which are many stamens or pollen presenters.
The most common color of protea flowers is pinkish red, but they can also be warm shades of orange, pink, yellow, and white. The flowers are usually imposing, with even the dwarf varieties producing flowers up to five inches in diameter, all the way up to the King protea, which produces flowers up to 12 inches across!
Beyond their ornamental value, Proteas hold significant ethnomedicinal importance.
These incredibly resilient plants have gained popularity in recent years in the world of floral design, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Protea flowers stand out in floral arrangements, not only for their rarity of form and undeniable beauty. They also have a very long vase life of up to three weeks with proper care.
In addition to their value as an ornamental, Proteas have important ethnomedicinal uses.
Where to Buy Proteas
Locating protea plants locally is challenging in most regions, especially outside warm climates.
Protea flowers can be purchased from floral distributors between March and December. They can fetch astounding prices, from $20 to more than $40 per stem.
Protea plants can be difficult to find locally in most areas but are more common in warm climates. It is not difficult to find them online, but the plants are even more costly than the individual flowers they produce. A protea plant is an investment.
Avoid using highly fertile amendments, as proteas are not heavy feeders.
Proteas are fussy about their location, and unless you live in the right kind of climate, it is best to keep them as potted plants that can be moved indoors or into a greenhouse in cold weather. When planting them in the ground, look for a sloped, sunny spot with excellent drainage.
Your proteas need good air circulation, so low-lying areas are not advisable. They prefer acidic soil that is rocky or sandy, so amending your soil may be necessary unless you are keeping it in a container.
Dig a hole twice as wide and one and a half times as deep as the rootball. Position your protea in the hole and backfill to the level of the root ball. Don’t amend your soil with a highly fertile amendment, as they are not heavy feeders. Keep your plant watered until new leaves develop, and then scale back on watering to once per week.
How to Grow
Proteas are picky, and it is important to create an environment that is as close to their native areas as possible. They prefer hot weather to cool and enjoy infertile but acidic soil types.
Insufficient sunlight is likely to result in limited or no blooming for proteas.
Full sun is a requirement for proteas. Some species can be grown in partial sun, but for the best and greatest number of blooms, the more sun your protea gets, the better it will perform. Full sun is a minimum of six hours of direct sun daily. Less than this, and your protea is unlikely to bloom very much, if at all.
The exception to the full sun rule is in very hot climates. If you regularly see temperatures above 100°F, your protea’s leaves may experience sun scorch. Under these circumstances, plant your protea in a location where it will receive the bulk of its sunlight early in the day. Some shelter from the afternoon sun will help protect the leaves from being burned.
Newly planted proteas need more water compared to their established counterparts.
Newly planted proteas will need more water than their established elders. For the first two years, paying attention to your plant’s moisture level is important. Too much water will kill a protea, but so will too little until the plant is established. Expect to water your newly planted protea once per week during the first one to two years.
Established proteas are very drought tolerant. Very few of them tolerate normal garden moisture levels, so be sure to plant them away from plants that require regular watering. For mature plants in the ground, proteas should not be watered frequently. An occasional deep watering, only in prolonged drought, is best for these plants.
To grow proteas successfully, it is crucial to ensure proper drainage.
Proper drainage is extremely important for growing proteas. They prefer soil that is nutrient-deficient and rocky or sandy. They grow well in Mediterranean-type soils, similar to those that support lavender plants.
Proteas can tolerate soil with very low pH and don’t like alkaline soil. Even soil with a neutral pH is not preferable. Stay away from or heavily amend soil with a high silt or clay content with rock, pumice, or gravel. Avoid adding compost or other highly fertile amendments to the soil for these plants.
Temperature and Humidity
Prolonged cold exposure harms foliage, and a hard freeze proves fatal for roots.
The ideal temperature range for these plants is wide. Proteas are happy at temperatures between 40°-95°F. Some plants can survive temperatures down to 25°F, but generally, they are not frost tolerant and should not be left outdoors when the temperature drops into the 30s.
Prolonged exposure to cold weather can damage the foliage, and a hard freeze will kill the roots. At temperatures of 100°F and higher, proteas run the risk of sunburn. During very hot weather, increase watering to protect your protea from sun damage.
Proteas don’t particularly appreciate high levels of humidity. Although their cut flowers can tolerate higher levels, the plants don’t like moisture in the air. They are naturally predisposed to grow in hot, arid climates, where there is little risk of the plants staying damp for any prolonged period.
Avoid fertilizing proteas, as they are highly sensitive to phosphorus.
Fertilizing is a big no-no for these plants. They are very sensitive to phosphorus. In fact, sensitive might not be a strong enough word.
Proteas are intolerant of this nutrient, so if you must fertilize, choose a formula with little to no phosphorus. These plants have adapted to low nutrient conditions, so fertilizing is typically unnecessary.
Prune proteas at the end of their flowering cycle for optimal results.
Proteas should be pruned at the end of the flowering cycle. If you are growing your proteas for their flowers and have cut them throughout the flowering season, then very little pruning will be necessary. When pruning, be sure always to use a clean, sharp tool.
When you prune your protea, the objective is always to increase the flower yield for the following year. Only prune branches that have flowered in the current season, as non-flowering branches, will bloom in the following year. Proteas bloom on second-year growth.
Leave at least 10cm of healthy growth on each branch. Avoid pruning any branches all the way back. Cut off any branches that are broken or bent and any that interfere with the aesthetic balance of the plant as a whole.
Growing in Containers
Proteas thrive in containers due to their drought tolerance and preference for well-draining soil.
Proteas make great container plants as they are drought-tolerant and prefer to have well-draining soil. Plant your protea in a pot with ample drainage. A clay pot works very well for these plants because they are better at controlling moisture.
Cactus soil is great for proteas in pots. If you prefer to mix your potting medium, start with a standard potting mix and heavily amend it with coarse material like you would amend your garden soil. Remember that these plants like soil to be poor in nutrients, with a high level of acidity.
Keep your potted protea in full sun, which will help it produce the greatest number of flowers. These plants do not like to be root-bound, so make sure to repot and size up yearly to keep your plant happy. While drought tolerant, potted plants will need some extra care where watering is concerned. Your potted protea will need to be watered weekly.
Proteas can be propagated by seeds or cuttings, depending on the number of plants you desire and how long you will wait for them to flower. For plants that mature and bloom faster, cuttings are always the way to go. However, seeds are the superior option if you plan to grow these plants for their beautiful flowers and want a large quantity.
Harvest cuttings in a cool environment, avoiding drought-stressed plants.
When propagating proteas by cuttings, use cuttings from only healthy plants. Take your cuttings between December and April. You want to harvest your cuttings from the tips of branches and do it during mild temperatures.
Keep your cuttings in a cool spot, and don’t harvest if the plant is experiencing drought stress. Remove the leaves from the bottom half of your cutting, and dip this end into a rooting hormone. Place your cuttings in growing bags with a mixture of peat and sand. Mist your cuttings several times a day.
It will take about six weeks for your cutting to begin forming roots. Wait until the roots are well-developed before planting them in acidic, well-draining soil.
Store the seeds in a cool, dry place until you sow.
You’ll need to acquire seeds from a plant or another source to grow your proteas from seed. To harvest from a plant, allow the flowers to dry on the plant for nine to 12 months before harvesting. Store your seeds in a cool, dry place until ready to sow.
Protea seeds should be planted in the spring. These seeds can be broadcast sown and raked into the soil or sown in rows and lightly covered with soil. Water the ground regularly, keeping it lightly moistened but not soggy. Germination takes between one and three months.
Although they are mostly pest-resistant, proteas can fall prey to a few diseases and environmental factors. Most can be dealt with if caught early on.
Blight and Canker
Proteas may suffer from the detrimental effects of Colletotrichium fungi.
Proteas can be negatively impacted by the fungus Colletotrichium, which can cause blight, canker, and even dieback in your seedlings. If treating with fungicides does not save your plant, sterilize the soil before planting anything else in its place.
Overwatering can lead to root rot, causing the entire plant to shrivel.
An overwatered protea will have yellowing leaves and will tend to drop these leaves. In advanced cases of overwatering, root rot can set in and cause your entire plant to shrivel. If you notice these things happening to your protea, start your remediation by scaling back on watering.
It is advisable to test the soil for phosphorus levels before planting proteas.
Phosphorus toxicity appears in proteas as a chlorosis of the leaves, ultimately leading to necrosis. Early signs include something called ‘little leaf,’ which takes the form of smaller leaves forming in the shape of a rosette. It is best to test your soil for phosphorus before planting proteas.
The ‘King’ protea is characterized by sparse branches and a less imposing stature.
The ‘King’ protea is named for its extra large and impressive flowers. Its branches are sparse, and the plant is not especially imposing in stature, but the blooms are incredible. Large and bowl-shaped, ‘King’ produces flowers six to 12 inches in diameter.
Large, stiff bracts form a crown around the flower head, which is intricate and beautiful. The colors range from pink to white, green, silver, and red. The plant has glossy, leathery, elliptical leaves, and the large flowers provide an excellent nectar source for pollinators.
The large flowers of this variety add stunning beauty to cut flower arrangements.
Protea eximia hybrid
‘Passion’ is the perfect name for this striking plant. ‘Australis Passion’ is a large shrub that produces magnificent flowers. The outer bracts are green, fading to white and creamy pale pink. They open to reveal a very dark, almost black center. The foliage of this variety is silvery green.
‘Australis Passion,’ like all proteas, is a great nectar source and attracts plenty of pollinators to the garden. These large flowers are just stunning in a cut flower arrangement.
This variety is endemic to South Africa and is one of the larger protea species.
up to 20’
‘Cream Mink’ is as gorgeous as it sounds. Dreamy cream-colored bracts are lightly tipped with dark brown and open to reveal that the entire flower interior is lightly flocked with cream and brown fuzz. These soft, delicate hairs are what give the plant its interesting name, as the flower appears to be covered in fur once open,
Although it may appear as something that must certainly be a hybrid, ‘Cream Mink’ is a naturally occurring protea species. It is endemic to South Africa. It is also one of the larger species.
A petite variety, ‘Pixie’ fits well into any space without overshadowing nearby plants.
Protea pudens x longifolia
‘Pixie’ is a petite protea and a hybrid variety. Its compact size means it fits into just about any space and won’t overtake or cast too long of a shadow on nearby plants. Its size also makes this a great container plant.
The attractive dark green foliage and extra long blooming season make this a popular cultivar for the cut flower garden. The bracts are bright pink with a yellow glow from the base and are lightly flocked at the margins. The interior of the flower is dark, creating a striking contrast.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. Proteas are toxic to cats, dogs, and humans and should be kept out of reach of pets and children.
Proteas are not listed as invasive in any source. However, they do have extensive root systems.
Yes, they do! Proteas retain their color when dried and work very well in dried arrangements
If you enjoy a challenge, proteas will present just that to the experienced gardener. The payoff, however, is significant and spectacular when your protea produces its glorious blooms. These interesting and heat-loving plants can be particular about their environment, but they are simply wonderful once you get it right.