How to grow Proteas in your outdoor space
AUG 20, 2021 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen, Photos by Zoë Chapman Poulsen
Above: The king Protea comes in a variety of different colour forms and sizes, depending on the space available in your garden. This is one of the darker colour forms. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
One of South Africa’s most iconic plant groups, the Proteas are both the most well-known members of the Protea family (Proteaceae) and one of the most famous plant groups of our beloved fynbos.
Named after the Greek God Proteus, who could change his form at will, the Proteas are known for their extraordinary diversity of spectacular blooms. It is for this that they are also much loved by plant growers.
It’s easier than you might think to grow a Protea in your outdoor space, rewarding you with stunning flowers and attracting a range of wildlife to the garden.
Pink (left) and creamy yellow (right) colour forms of the narrow-leaf Protea (Protea neriifolia) in bloom. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Garden with your environment
Most Protea species are adapted to growing on acid soils that are relatively poor in nutrients. However, there are some species that will also grow on alkaline soils.
Knowing whether your soil is acid or alkaline is an important starting point in deciding which Protea species to select from your garden. If you are new to gardening or are gardening for the first time in a new area, it is worth finding this out.
You can either use a pH testing kit available from your nearest garden centre or test the acidity of your soil using baking soda. You can test for soil acidity by adding ½ cup water and ½ cup of baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, you have acidic soil. You can do the same with vinegar to test the alkalinity of your soil too.
Examples of Proteas that will do well on slightly alkaline soils include the common sugarbush (Protea repens), the thistle sugarbush (Protea scolymocephala) and the narrow-leaf protea (Protea neriifolia).
Above: The common sugarbush (Protea repens) in full bloom at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Make space for wildlife
As urban areas have expanded, space for nature has significantly reduced over time, with gardens becoming increasingly important wildlife habitats.
When planted in gardens, Proteas can play a significant role in providing a food source for pollinators. Visitors to your Protea you might see include nectar-feeding birds such as sunbirds and sugarbirds, honeybees, protea beetles and monkey beetles.
All these garden visitors form an important part of the food chain and ecosystem of your garden. To keep them safe and thriving, avoid the use of non-organic pesticides and herbicides.
Above: A malachite sunbird visiting a Leucospermum at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
When to plant your Protea
The best time of year to plant Proteas in your garden depends on where you live in South Africa.
In winter-rainfall areas, plant Proteas in your garden or into permanent containers during autumn in the cooler weather or April or May. In summer-rainfall parts of the country, plant your Proteas out in spring after the first frosts have passed during August and September.
Above: A lighter pink and larger form of the king Protea (Protea cynaroides) in bloom at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Once your Proteas are established in your garden, most species are hardy, drought tolerant and waterwise. However, one of the most important ways of gardening with your environment in water-scarce South Africa is to retain water in the soil.
The best way to do this is to mulch your garden beds with decayed organic material such as leaves or wood chips. This also keeps the roots of your plants cool during hot summer weather and cuts down on growth of weeds, in turn reducing time spent on garden maintenance.
Above: The thistle sugarbush (Protea scolymocephala) has attractive soft yellow flowers and is one of the smaller members of the genus. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Consider a container
Is your soil too alkaline or heavy-clay derived to grow Proteas? Is your outdoor space on concrete with no garden beds? Do you want to take your Protea with you when you move? Why not grow your Protea in a container?
Some of the smaller Protea species adapt well to being grown in deep containers. One popular example is the king Protea (Protea cynaroides) which is South Africa’s national flower.
For greatest success, select one of the dwarf forms of the king Protea. Ask the staff at your local nursery or garden centre for more information.
Guidelines for watering and feeding your Protea
In the first two to three years after planting your Protea out into the garden, they will need regular watering until they have become sufficiently well established.
Watering frequency depends on your soil type. On loam soils you will need to water two to three times per week, depending on the weather conditions. On sandy soils that are more free draining, you will need to water your Proteas more frequently, either daily or on alternate days.
Most Protea species are adapted to growing in very low-nutrient conditions and application of many fertilisers can be detrimental to their survival. However, organic fertilisers derived from fish or seaweed can support the growth of seedlings and cuttings. Organic fertiliser in granular form can be applied along with mulch on more sandy soils.
Above: Green protea beetle visiting a Protea flower at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Starter Protea species for beginners
One of the easiest Proteas to grow is the common sugarbush (Protea repens). It is tolerant of a wide range of soil types and comes in a variety of different flower colours from white to crimson.
One should not be put off growing the stink-leaved sugarbush (Protea susannae) by its name and aroma. It is easy growing and an excellent choice for coastal gardens where it is highly tolerant of salt-laden winds.
For colour in the winter garden, there is no better choice than the narrow-leaf Protea (Protea neriifolia). It makes highly attractive cut flowers that will add botanical beauty to your home during the coldest months of the year.
Our Reference Picks
Duncan, G. Brown, N. Nurrish, L. (2013) Grow Proteas, Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa
Available from the Kirstenbosch Bookshop.
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