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Growing Proteas in Your Garden

In planting proteas there is only one variable which can be changed. Your garden is fixed: the soil is there and can be only slightly modified by the use of fertilizers, mulch and compost; the climate cannot be changed much, although water can be added and frost sensitive species can be covered in winter; and, wind, salt-spray and shade are constraints you either have to live with or do without. So the only option available (other than moving house) is to select appropriate proteas - ones that will grow where you live.

Have a look at Matching Proteas to Your Garden to ensure that you choose the 'right' kind of protea that will hopefully grow in your garden.

That said, if you are desperate, there is an option you might try. Most Pincushion allies will graft well onto a Ls conocarpodendron or Ls cuneiforme rootstock. So with a little horticultural fiddling, you may be able to get those spectacular high-altitude Pagodas, root rot-susceptible Pincushions, and the specialist ericoid proteas, into your garden after all. For the "specialist" who wants the Marsh Rose or Golden Mimetes, this is the way to go - your only major restrictions are the rootstock’s soil requirements and the availability of material for grafting! More work needs to be done on suitable root-stocks for the Spiderhead allies, but I think that is only a matter of time.

If you have a good loamy soil, well-drained with a coarse-sandy feel, then you have free range. Almost any protea will feel at home under these conditions.

Coastal gardens are among the most problematic. The number of species which can grow in alkaline coastal soils is very limited, but try Limestone Fynbos species. Visit Still Bay, De Hoop, Cape Agulhas or Gans Bay on the south coast, or Jakkalsfontein or Koeberg on the west coast and get a feel for the species which will do very well in these garden. Salt spray is a problem for proteas, but wind is relatively well tolerated by most species. Of course, houses from Gordon’s Bay to Hermanus are on acid sands and can easily grow the Fynbos species which used to occur there.

Clay-rich soils are a real problem. Few proteas will grow well in clay unless these are well drained. The clayish-soil loving proteas tend to be drab, so try the Limestone Fynbos (see Coastal Garden) species - they are quite tolerant of a variety of soil types and quite hardy.

The best method though is to look around. Choose plants from your area, taking careful note to match the soils in which they grow with your garden’s. For the more widespread species, choose morphs from your area. Unfortunately, few nurseries will be able to tell you where the Pr repens or Ld salignum on sale originated from - it may be dying because it should be growing 400 km away in a different climate and soil. So think about planting from seeds - collected from your area, of course.

Indeed, often the hardest task of planning a protea garden is finding the plants to plant. If your local nursery cannot help, approach the various botanical societies - many have specialist nurseries which may help you. Alternatively, grow your plants from seed! It may take a few years longer, but the reward is well worth it!

Most Conebushes are far hardier than Sugarbushes and definitely more so than most Pincushions. It is unfortunate that their use is not appreciated. Most especially the Stream Conebushes can be pruned regularly and will form good screens and hedges. With Conebushes the emphasis should be on the foliage and not primarily the cones or flowerheads. For yellow and red foliage in spring, few Fynbos plants compare with Conebushes.

Pincushions are quite susceptible to Phytophthora root rot and you may have to experiment extensively (but hopefully not expensively) to find a spot in your garden without the pathogen. Better drained spots are best. Alternatively, go for the species which are less susceptible (Ls conocarpodendron, reflexum), or graft your cordifolium or tottum onto a hardier rootstock.

If you are having continuous problems with establishing proteas, have your soil tested. Proteas will not grow if the potassium or phosphorous is too high. So avoid - like the plague - bonemeal, chicken manure, other manures, fertilizers rich in these elements. Poisoning by these elements results in yellow or black leaves, dying at the edges and weak-looking plants. If you feel the need to fertilize, use ammonium-based, rather than nitrate-based fertilizers. Fertilizing is only really necessary if you are removing cut flowers, or if you want to get plants to grow faster, but it does reduce the lifespan of the plants and make them more susceptible to root rot and other diseases and stresses.

Gardening with birds

Proteas are ideal for attracting Sunbirds and Sugarbirds, but will also attract White-eyes, Weavers, Starlings and other birds to feed at the nectar. All large-flowered Sugarbushes, all large-flowered Pincushions, and all Pagodas are highly recommended for this purpose in any book on the topic!

There are no indigenous proteas which produce berries or edible fruit and so attracting fruit- or seed-feeding birds cannot be achieved with proteas.

Water-wise gardening

All proteas must be carefully watered for the first dry season, and often the second as well (i.e. summer in the winter-rainfall area). Thereafter, most species should be able to take themselves through the summer without any watering. The principle here is that the plants need to get their tap roots to the water table, which may drop many metres in summer. Once they have reached the water table, they can be considered established. In areas where the drop in the water table exceeds approximately 10 m, it may not be possible to "establish" proteas without watering in the dry season. So be prepared to rescue any wilting plants with some water, but don't overdo it or you will give both yourself and the plants extra costs and unnecessary stresses.

Fynbos Gardens

Proteas are "Fynbos"! Some might point out the Cape Reeds, Heaths, Buchus, and other elements that make up Fynbos, but proteas are the most appealing elements in any Fynbos Garden, to the extent that many consider the other elements to be mere fillers or fringes. Choose any protea, to your hearts content, but don't forget the minor elements as well.

Arid Gardens

In arid regions it is best to select species capable of dealing with very low water conditions. Among the best are:
Ld nobile, Ld pubescens, Ld rubrum, Ls erubescens, Ls rodolentum, Pr glabra, Pr nitida, Pr laurifolia, Se aitonii, Se flava.

Container Plants

The method of growing Proteas in the early 19th Century was to have proteas in glasshouses and pots. The pots could be placed outdoors during summer and returned indoors to protect them from frost. Provided pots are not too small, most proteas should grow in pots. Many of the smaller species may be well suited to pots. Someone needs to experiment and determine some local rules of thumb (those for the UK were enumerated by Richard Salisbury and Joseph Knight in 1810). Elsenberg was experimenting with the Mountain Rose Pr nana and a Spiderhead hybrid Se florida X rosea as indoor pot plants, but apparently indoor light levels are too low to induce flower bud formation. Jonkershoek Nature Conservation had spectacular Marsh Rose Or zeyheri plants for many years, each in half drums. These dozen plants produced hundreds of fruit per year. Needless to say, these plants were grafted on Leucospermum rootstocks and needed careful pruning to prevent their getting leggy and dying (the cuttings can be used to establish new grafted plants). I have no doubt that the other high-altitude Pagodas, such as Mimetes arboreus, argenteus, capitulatus, hottentoticus, pauciflorus, saxatilis and splendidus will all thrive with similar treatment. Perhaps someone needs to experiment with a rootstock for King Gustavs Sceptre Pa sceptrum-gustavianus. I am sure Van Stadens Sceptre Pa reflexus would work very well.


It is easy to compile lists of species from books. The problem is deciding which species "might" do well (the so called "wish lists"), which species occasionally do well, and which species are ideal for certain conditions. If you have had success with certain species, or if you know of species which will do well under certain conditions, or, if you have tried the species mentioned above without success, please contact me, and I will include your observations in future lists. Tony.

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