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Essentials of Growing Proteas

Several books have recently dealt with growing indigenous plants. How should one go about growing our plants?

Reader's Digest Your Gardening Questions Answered. Third printing 1995.

This book does not do justice to indigenous plants or proteas. The material is far too cursory and the examples listed will not even satisfy a "token" indigenous gardener. An outline of issues covered is listed below.

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What's in a name - white seed.

The right position - well drained, full sun, well ventilated.

Which ones to grow - large (3 spp) and small (4 spp) garden types.

Caring for pincushions - as for proteas, but less frost tolerant.


Changing forms - in which we learn, by example of the name Protea, that the "... King Protea (Protea cynaroides) belongs to an interesting species which has many variations..."

Growing Proteas - Proteas are easy to grow if you take into account that they live in poor, well-drained, acidic soils, dry summers and wet winters.

This is only true in the western Cape, southern Cape species often get summer rain. What is most important is that humid conditions should not prevail in summer, nor prolonged severe frosts in winter. Good air circulation is important. Certain species grow well on shale and alkaline soils.

Never feed with any type of artificial fertilizer.

This is not strictly true - ammonia fertilizers are suitable, provided they are low in potassium and lack phosphorous.

Mixing and matching - grow with indigenous plants.

Planning a protea garden - standard design advice, but plan 2-4 years in advance to allow for flowering.

Buying protea plants - buy very young plants without exposed roots which may be disturbed.

When and how to plant - March or September in winter-rainfall regions. Don't disturb roots.

Cuttings and seeds - former tricky, latter very easy.

Pruning - Don't. Merely cut flowers for vase with very long stems.

Growing in pots - Use young plants of smaller species and resprouters.

Sugar from proteas - Bossiestroop from the sugar bush protea!

Popular protea species - Which includes Pr minor (Pr longifolia) and Pr pulchra (Pr burchellii), but with the correct common names!

Silver Trees:

Growing Silver Trees - As for proteas, but susceptible to root rot.

Your own trees from seed - Seed best, but unless you have both sexes you will get no fruit.

Silver Tree relatives - male flowers small and fluffy and female flowers which develop into hard cones. "... you should try to collect as many of the less well-known species as possible ..." Sound Advice!

Given that the above account is so cursory, what are the general principles to growing proteas?

Herein, we will deal just with general principles. In future issues we will explore some aspects in detail.

Match your soil to a species' requirements:

  Alkaline species, which naturally grow on limestone, will grow well on almost soils:

Ld meri, muir; Ls pate, tctm; Mi saxa;Pr lanc, obtu; Sp eric.

  Neutral sand species do almost as well anywhere:

Au umbe; Ld cfrm, gand, lini; Ls muir, prcx; Pr susa.

  Very few species can tolerate thick clays (try the limestone species, and perhaps some of those which tolerate drier loams).

  Many species will tolerate good loams, provided that these are well-drained. Species adapted to these soils include:

Ld arge, cham, cory, daph, elim, gydo, lani, mode, sess, sgrm, sllr, tere, thym, tinc, vert; Ls hete, line, vest; Pr burc, coro, lact, lore, mucr, mund, nana, niti, odor, pude, rest, scor, subu; Se acro, brow, flor, incra, krau, pinn, rose.

  Acid sand species tend to be most sensitive, but some species are very tolerant. Examples include:

Ld disc, levi; Ls cflm, refl, tott; Pr cpct, gran, long, sphl.

  The following species are widespread and occur on a wide variety of substrates. Forms suitable for almost any conditions can be found, but, sadly, few nurseries adequately document requirements for the forms in their stock. These species thus require that you collect your own seeds from suitable localities or repeatedly try your luck.

Ld pube, rubr, sgnm; Ls call, cath, cono, cune; Mi cucu; Pr aure, cyna, exim, laur, magn, neri, repe; Se fasc.


Proteas typically require very little fertilizing - this applies particularly when growing species on their natural soils. At all costs avoid phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), as the plants soak these up so efficiently that they die of self-poisoning. Do not use nitrate or nitrite fertilizers on species which favour acid or neutral soils - use ammonia-based fertilizers. Be cautious with trace elements - only minute quantities are required unless you extensively cut flowers from your plants.


Mulching is the organic "in thing" to do in gardens. If you like indigenous plants, especially annuals or bulbs, then don't mulch! Mulching encourages snails and slugs, but if you hypocritically use malacocides (slug and snail bait - which is not organic), then such problems are academic.

The major problem with mulches is that they decay to release nitrates which neutralise soil acids. Pine needles and peat do not present this particular problem. But bare sand is natural! Exposed sands soon become hydrophobic (repel water) and become every bit as waterproof as a good mulching. If you practice water-friendly gardening in the Cape, then this waterproofing will work all summer until the winter rains wash away the waterproofing and water your plants. This will also hinder the spread of fungi, such as those causing root rot which spread in surface water.

Bare soils are ideal for annuals, as the seeds germinate once the waterproofing has gone, so that germination takes place in autumn with plants ready for flowering in spring. In addition, this eliminates habitats for slugs and encourages beneficial wasps, which use the sand to bury the caterpillars they have removed from your other plants.

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