Although proteas are not exclusively ours, we do own the unique king protea…
When the supercontinent of Gondwana split during the Mesozoic Era, the large floral kingdom Proteaceae, which is regarded as one of the oldest families of flowering plants on the planet, landed mostly in Australia, South America and South Africa. The gods favoured us though, as the beautiful king protea is endemic and widely distributed in the Western Cape.
The name ’protea’, as in Protea cynaroides, was inspired by Greek mythology, named after Proteus, the son of Poseidon who could change his shape or appearance – the same extreme variability is true within the Protea genus and even within a single species. The ‘cynaroides’ is rather unimaginative as it refers to cynara (the artichoke), which is no slouch when allowed to flower but definitely not in the same class as the king protea!
The king protea became South Africa’s national flower in 1976. It is represented on our birth certificates, passports, R5 coins and is the emblem of our national cricket and netball teams. This flowering shrub, which in nature can reach a height of 2m, can bear up to 10 or more flower heads within a flowering season, each with a diameter of 30cm. The flowering season is from July to October. It can also withstand the toughest of weather conditions while at it. A thickened underground stem (lignotuber) with dormant buds survives frequent wildfires, allowing the plant to resprout, while the shallow root system sustains the plant in nutrient-poor soil.
Due to the world-wide popularity of this wonderful cut flower, local and international breeders have developed king protea cultivars with flowers in shades and sizes other than the standard blushing pink found in nature. They have mastered the art of propagating healthy plants vegetatively, making this beautiful heritage plant available to any gardener.
King proteas to look out for:
Look out for the following beautiful cultivars of Protea cynaroides that are newly available:
‘Madiba’ – Large flower heads in bright reddish-pink.
‘King White’ – Very large, velvety flower heads in pristine white.
‘King Pink’ – The soft-pink king protea in its original form.
‘Little Prince’ – Very prolific with red flowers and a petite size of about 50cm x 1m, making it perfect for small gardens.
How to grow a king protea:
Position: Plant in full sun with good air circulation – they like windy conditions.
Soil: They like acidic, sandy and well-draining soil. If you have loamy garden soil, dig out a big hole and mix the excavated soil with composted pine bark or a specialised protea potting soil.
Planting: Prepare a hole at least 40cm deep for each plant. Do not add any bonemeal or any other soil amendment such as compost or any form of phosphate to the planting hole. After removal from the nursery container, be sure to place the plant at the same level as it was in the container and do not disturb the roots. Firm the soil down around the plant and water well. Remember that proteas like to be planted in groups, which provide mutual support in strong wind, keep the soil cool and give a better display.
Mulching: As surface roots are very sensitive to disturbance, mulching is critical to suppress weed growth. Mulching also conditions the soil by adding small amounts of nutrients and organic matter. It should be in layers of 5 – 8cm thick but kept away from the stem. Surface mulches can be decayed organic material such as leaves, straw, wood chips, pine bark or very well-decayed pine needles. Never use mushroom compost.
Watering: Plants should be thoroughly soaked for their first two summers (twice or even three times a week, depending on the weather). Watering can be reduced as the plants become established.
READ MORE: Indigenous flowers for small gardens
When to plant king proteas:
In winter rainfall areas, proteas are best planted out into the garden and permanent containers in autumn (April and May), once cool, moist weather has definitely set in.
In summer rainfall areas, proteas are best planted out immediately after the frost period has passed, in Aug and Sept, while the air is still cool.
Potted king proteas:
King proteas will grow well in pots, providing great pleasure when in flower. Use a quality, well-draining potting soil or a specialised medium mixed for fynbos plants. Watering regularly is very important and can even be daily in hot weather. To keep the soil moist for longer and the roots cool, mulch contained plants regularly. Feeding sparingly with an organic slow-release fertilisers like Bio Ganic and Bio Ocean from Atlantic Fertilisers will be beneficial for both garden and container plants.
Cutting the blooms:
The flowers of king proteas symbolically represent strength, courage and resilience. Cutting the flowers for the vase is a form of pruning that the plants love and will result in more stems for another flowering season, so don’t hesitate to do so. They will last up to two weeks in a vase if the water is changed daily and some cut-flower food or household bleach is added to it. Flowers also dry very well if suspended upside down in a cool place.