Tricks to grow proteas away from their home

King Protea has the largest flowers produced from spring to summer.
King Protea has the largest flowers produced from spring to summer.
Image: JULIA SMITH

Growing proteas, pincushions and leucodendrons is a challenge in our part of the country, as the care you render to your usual garden plants here is rejected by the protea family.

For instance, feeding proteas with fertiliser as you would any other plant may be likened to letting a child loose in a sweet store. Unlike other plants the protea plant cannot control its uptake of nutrients - gorging itself to the detriment of the plant growth and sometimes leading to its demise.

The most feminine of the Proteaceae family is the Blushing Bride.
The most feminine of the Proteaceae family is the Blushing Bride.
Image: JULIA SMITH

In their natural growth region, the soil is lacking, so proteas have evolved highly specialised roots which are adept at extracting their needs from the poorest of soils.

Although nurseries throughout the Eastern Cape are generally stocked with a wide range of protea plants, there is very little instruction on their labels on how to ensure these fairly costly plants will survive away from their natural habitat.

Pincushions are favoured among sunbirds for their sweet nectar.
Pincushions are favoured among sunbirds for their sweet nectar.
Image: JULIA SMITH

Interestingly, proteas have a long history on earth – some having been around to witness dinosaurs roaming the land. Their existence harks as far back as the time of Gondwanaland, before the prehistoric land mass split into various smaller landmasses including Africa, Madagascar, India and Australia.

Today, a concentration of protea species is to be found in South Africa’s Western Cape, as well as Eastern and Western Australia.

The term “protea” is used to refer to any member of the Proteaceae family. Proteas, pincushions, cone bushes and blushing brides belong to this family.

The genus Leucospermum includes the pincushion, while the Leucodendron genus is prized for its attractive leaves and cones. The blushing bride belongs to the Serruria genus.

The Leucospermum produce yellow and orange flowers from September to October.
The Leucospermum produce yellow and orange flowers from September to October.
Image: JULIA SMITH

Growing proteas

Here are some dos and don’ts for growing proteas in your garden:

*It is best to mimic a protea’s natural growing conditions, such as offering it slightly acidic, nutrient-poor, well drained soil, preferably on a slope to encourage drainage and development of well-anchored roots.

* Choose a site which has an unlimited supply of sun. The protea family cannot withstand huge variations in temperature. They need full sun to produce flowers and colourful leaves.

* Dig a hole twice the size of the container. Do not use bone meal or superphosphate or add fertiliser or compost to the soil.

* Do add peat or pine bark to the soil (to make it more acidic) before using it to fill in around it.

* A tip from a professor who grew a yard full of proteas in Port Elizabeth is to create acidic soil by pouring 50g of ammonium sulphate dissolved in 10 litres of water onto the soil every two weeks in summer and monthly in winter.

* Proteas dislike their roots being disturbed in even the slightest way. They grow horizontally under the soil surface, making them sensitive to activity around the plant.

* They do not like competition, so avoid cultivating other plants around them and try to keep the area free of weeds. If weeds do appear, pull them out by hand while they are still small and have not developed strong root systems. If you think larger weeds will disturb the plant when you remove them, rather cut them off at ground level.

* The best time to plant proteas is in March and September.

* Select plants with a good all-round growth form that are six to 18 months old (or 15 to 30cm tall) with healthy, disease-free leaves. Bear in mind that young plants transplant best.

* Proteas are not immediately drought resistant on planting. In summer, water them daily or every second day for the first 18 to 20 months.  There is no need to water them in winter except in winter rainfall areas, where they should be watered weekly. Remember that in their natural habitat they obtain moisture from mountain mists.

* Avoid overwatering as they don’t like wet feet.

* Do not water the plant from above - rather wet the soil around the plant.

* Lay a mulch of pine bark chips or other wood chips around the plant.

* Prune and tidy the plant by removing branches growing on the ground or those with growth which aims towards the ground.

* A few months after planting, cut off the tips to encourage bushier growth. In the late winter, after planting, cut back two or three main stems. After that, prune the plant once a year after it has flowered.

Leucadendrons are prized for their attractive foliage.
Leucadendrons are prized for their attractive foliage.
Image: JULIA SMITH

Proteas as cut flowers

Proteas last in the vase for ages. Here is how to make the most of them:

* Cut the stems at a slant, creating the larget possible surface for absorbing water.

* Scrape the stems 2.5cm from the end, removing the hard outer layer. Prepare them for a longer life in the vase by crushing the ends and then steeping them in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Then transfer them to cold water for two to three hours. After this, they will be ready for arranging. Recut the stems under water should they need to be shorter for the arrangement.

* Proteas are very thirsty cut flowers, which do well if the vase is topped up with water every day. Adding a ¼ teaspoon of household bleach to the vase water will prevent it from becoming cloudy and will also retard the growth of bacteria.


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