Striking goblet-shaped creations, they’re an amazing combination of fluffy centres and brightly coloured bracts, which look almost too fabulous to be real. And just as beautiful are the protea’s close cousins, leucadendrons, leucospermums and serrurias, all with incredible flowers that can offer splendid colour to a garden.
Meeting the family
It’s often assumed that proteas and their relatives are Australian natives, but they in fact hail from South Africa. However, they are closely related to some of our showiest plants, such as banksias, grevilleas and waratahs.
Proteas put on a gorgeous display in gardens, mainly through the late winter and spring months. They are tough and hardy evergreen plants, will thrive in exposed positions with poor soils, and are also both heat and cold tolerant (from -6° to 40°).
In terms of their preferred climates, they’ll grow in most regions except for the more humid zones. However, there are two things they won’t negotiate – one is full sun and the other is perfectly free-draining soil. Get those right and you can invite the protea gang to your garden party!
Probably the best-known member of this genus, the spectacular blooms of king protea (Protea cynaroides) symbolise beauty, strength and the ability to thrive under tough conditions. If there’s no room for a king at your place, seek out the compact form Protea ‘Little Prince’. Another favourite among the hundreds of available varieties is Protea ‘Special Pink Ice’, whose superb flowers look just as good in the garden as in a vase.
Often called pin-cushion proteas, leucospermums are reminiscent of the NSW waratah, with their stunning upward-curving flowers. As rounded low shrubs, they’re well suited to mass plantings and love sandy soils. They’re dramatic to display in wide shallow pots, and make for stunning cut flowers. Leucospermums are best suited to cooler mountain regions, temperate zones and coolish coastal areas, but will succumb to high humidity and summer rains.
Different and unique, Serruria ‘Blushing Bride’ is a sweet plant boasting exceptionally beautiful creamy flowers, with the cultivar ‘Pretty in Pink’ looking like pink-cheeked bridesmaids. They’re best suited to pots with very free drainage, and unless you are lucky, they won’t last much longer than a season or two. Enjoy their ephemeral beauty while it lasts, then replace them – it’s cheaper than a bunch of flowers!
Closely related to proteas, leucadendrons (sometimes called cone bush) are grown for their attractive tulipshaped flowers and vibrant leaf colour, intensifying to fabulous bursts in autumn and winter. They’re versatile and can be used as specimen shrubs, in containers or as screening plants. As an alternative to the common red photinia hedge, consider using Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’, or ‘Inca Gold’ with its mellow yellow hues. Newer varieties ‘Burgundy Sunset’ and ‘Gypsy Red’ are also stunning. For something larger, try Leucadendron argenteum (also known as silver tree).
How do I grow them?
Position: More sun means more flowers, so give them an open sunny spot with plenty of air circulation. Raised beds and sunny banks are ideal, while potted plants will enjoy a sun-drenched position facing north.
Soil: Free-draining soil is a must for members of the protea family. Sandy, gravelly or open loam is ideal, and raised beds or mounds will also increase their chances of survival. And they’ll grow happily in large pots filled with a native plant potting mix.
Fertiliser: Proteas and their relatives have a root system that absorbs nutrients quickly, requiring only a small amount of controlledrelease fertiliser. Use a formulation for native plants at half the recommended rate.
Water: Once established, proteas have very low water requirements. After the first year, water about once a week, especially during dry periods or when they’re in bud and flower. Young or potted plants may dry out faster, so water a bit more often.
Pruning: Picking the flowers is the best way to keep the plants tidy and compact. Remove spent flower heads with a good length of stem, leaving new growth behind. Tip-pruning young plants in spring and summer will also encourage bushy growth.
Tip: Prune only the flowered stems of proteas – un-flowered stems are next season’s blooms.
Mulch: Proteas dislike root disturbance, so don’t dig around them. Apply a leaf or bark mulch around the drip line (away from the trunk) and pull out any weeds by hand.
If you would like to incorporate a selection of the protea family in your garden’s design, here are our top ideas to help you get started.
Hedges and screens Select larger-growing varieties of leucadendrons and proteas (that will reach above 2m) to create low-maintenance hedges. They’ll rival traditional hedge choices and add great life to your garden – and your neighbours will thank you for the injection of colour.
Patios and verandah
Fabulous choices for containers include low-growing Leucospermum ‘Calypso Red’ and ‘Hullabaloo’, lowgrowing Protea ‘Little Prince’, Leucadendron ‘Strawberry Fair’ and ‘Possum Magic’, and serruria.
Flowers in all seasons
Different proteas flower in different seasons, so plant a variety to extend the floral display over the year. Don’t forget the intense autumn and winter foliage colour of Leucadendron species.
Border plants and rounded shapes
Mounding low-growers (under 1m) have marvellous potential as border plants, or for massing in raised beds or on embankments. Consider Leucospermum ‘Calypso Red’, Leucadendron ‘Strawberry Fair’ and Leucadendron ‘Summer Sun’. Try teaming them with the low-growing Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’.