The protea plant is a sumptuous feast, not just for the eyes but all your senses. They look stunningly beautiful, they feel soft and fluffy to the touch, and they give your garden that exotic tropical feel. So what’s there not to like? As natives of South Africa, the protea plants are grown mainly for ornamental and landscaping purposes. They mainly flower in the late winter and early spring. But apart from the flowers, they have some redeeming qualities that make them a favorite flowering plant by many gardeners.
The protea plant is hardy and evergreen with USDA hardiness zones between 9 and 12. This makes it ideal for warm climates where it can thrive in just about any soil. The only issue you might have with this member of the Proteaceae family is if you live in a very humid region. Proteas need the full sun and well-drained soil as preconditions for their success.
Protea Plant Varieties
Popular in Australia, the protea plant is a close relative to the waratahs, banksias, and grevilleas. They are all showy plants but the protea takes it up a notch with its astounding blooms. With so many protea varieties, you will be at a loss at which one to grow and which one to leave out. From King Protea to the Little Prince Protea and Pink Ice Protea, the varieties and cultivars are available for every space, taste, and weather conditions.
- Leucospermum (Pin-cushion Protea): They grow best in sandy and loose soil. As low shrubs, they cover large spaces and transform the garden with their upward-curving beautiful blooms. You can grow them in pots as well and the flowers make wonderful floral arrangements. They also grow in mountainous regions where the weather is usually cool, but they can’t deal with high levels of humidity.
- Serruria (Blushing Bride): The original variety has creamy flowers although a recent cultivar was introduced called “Pretty in Pink” that has more pinkish petals. Best grown in pots, they barely last more than one season though. So you’ll need to grow new plants every year. They’re easy to grow though, so you’ll have no problem replacing them.
- Leucadendron (Cone Bush): You would often favor this variety over the others on this list not just because of its tulip-like flowers, but the colorful leaves as well. They last longer than the serruria and when the flowers fade, you still have a vibrant plant with leaves bursting with colors. Moreover, the leucadendrons are versatile plants and you can grow them in pots, in garden beds, or as screening plants. New cultivars are coming up every day in different colors. Some notable ones include Inca Gold, Gypsy Red, Burgundy Sunset, and Safari Sunset.
Protea Plant Design Uses
With a showy plant whose flowers and even leaves take your breath away, you can expect the protea plant to appear frequently in the floral designs and landscaping ideas you come across on online forums. While the blooms of some varieties fade quickly, others last longer and even have colorful leaves to keep you entertained all year round. Here are some of the common design uses for the protea plants.
- Screens: Some varieties of the protea plant work better as screens and hedge plants than others. Large proteas such as leucadendrons that grow up to 6 feet serve this purpose. Their colorful leaves are another bonus of course. You’re not only protecting your privacy but also creating a splash of colors across your fences and hedges. They don’t need much maintenance so that’s another advantage.
- Patios: Since some protea varieties grow best in containers, they become an ideal choice for patios, terraces, and verandas. For this, it’s recommended that you go with low-growth cultivars that dazzle with their bloom and don’t require much attention or care. Experts suggest Little Prince, Calypso Red, Possum Magic, Hullabaloo, and Strawberry Fair as ideal candidates. Serrurias also serve this ornamental purpose well thanks to their small size.
- Borders: Whether you have an embankment, a raised bed, or a border, you can grow many varieties of protea to suit your landscaping needs. Choose mid-grower proteas such as Summer Sun or Calypso Red that barely reach 3 feet when fully grown. Some horticulturalists mix leucospermums with their banksia cousins to create a stunning-looking border. You can’t go wrong with the Proteaceae family.
How to Grow Protea Plants
For a versatile plant like the protea, the ways to grow it also vary. Here we will mainly focus on growing the protea plant in a pot or container. However, the same steps we detail below also apply to growing the protea as screen plants or in raised beds. Your main focus should be on the well-drained soil and making sure the area gets plenty of the full sun every day all year round.
- Pick a pot that ranges from a few inches in diameter to a medium-sized one that takes up to a gallon.
- The best time to grow the proteas is in the fall when the weather is milder.
- Select a spot that gets about 6 hours of full sun every day. If you’re growing it in a container, you won’t have to worry about the location since you can move the pot around.
- Well-drained soil is crucial for the success of the protea plant. Sandy soil is ideal although loam and gravel also improve drainage and prevent waterlogging. Avoid clay soil as it smothers the roots of the protea.
- Fill the pot with slightly acidic soil mix and dig a hole twice the width and one and a half the length of the original pot it came in.
- Plant the protea making sure the top roots are well covered but not pushed deeply into the soil.
- Fill the hole with loose soil.
- When planting more than one protea in the same container or in a bed, space them out to ensure air circulation. Depending on the size of the grown protea, keep anything between 3 to10 feet between each plant.
- Water the plant making sure the spray doesn’t touch the foliage. Aim for the roots.
- Wait for the soil to go dry before you water it again. Depending on the weather you would only need to irrigate the protea once a week in the summer or once every 10 days in cooler months.
Protea Plants Care
Proteas tend to take care of themselves once their roots have established. Sun and dry weather are the two most important ingredients in the protea success formula. However, soil, pruning, and fertilizers are also part of the care package.
The reason you should worry about the type of soil you grow your protea plant in is that this evergreen doesn’t do well in clay or soil that doesn’t drain well. Its roots are susceptible to rot more than many other flowering plants. If you don’t have the right soil in your garden, add sand or even gravel to the soil to improve drainage. This is why you should grow proteas in embankments and raised beds. In pots and containers, always choose clay ones with plenty of drainage holes.
The protea plant doesn’t need much irrigation. Water should be the least of your worries with these plants once they have established. On average you should water your protea once a week in the summer months and during the flowering season. Plants growing in pots tend to need more water since the soil dries up faster.
The roots of the protea are so well developed, they can seek and absorb any trace amounts of nutrients in the soil. As such, you won’t have to use a fertilizer with your proteas. To encourage the plant during the growing cycle, you can use a mild fertilizer and only in small doses. Too much fertilizer will burn the proteoid roots and could kill the plant. One thing to keep in mind is that the fertilizer needs to be phosphorus-free.
Mulch not only improves retaining moisture which saves you the trouble of watering the plant so often, but it also adds to the natural look of the garden. Cover the soil around the base of the protea with a thick layer of mulch. You can use any natural material from leaves to shredded bark and wood chips. Don’t use fresh mulch since it sucks the nitrogen out of the soil as it rots and might cause a fungal infestation. For that reason, you should also keep the mulch away from the base of the plant to avoid the spread of fungi.
Pruning and Cut Flowers
During the first 12 to 18 months of the life of the protea, they need some pruning to help the stem get thicker and stronger. This is also the time to shape the plant into the design you prefer. Once the protea plant matures, you should go easy on the pruning. If you cut or trim it too deeply, you might damage the whole plant.
When cutting the protea flowers to make a floral arrangement, make sure to cut as close to the base of the stem as possible. A long stem usually gives the flower a few more days extra. Don’t remove the leaves on the stem. They keep the flower blooming longer and also have their decorative value. Change the water in the vase every day and cut one to two inches near the end of the stem to prolong the life of the bloom.
Protea flowers make excellent dry arrangements as well. Cut the fresh flowers and hang them upside down in a dark room. Ensure there’s enough air circulation in the room to prevent the growth of mold and to keep the flower colors from fading.