Marianne CannonGrowing proteas

I talk with horticulturist Sabina Fielding Smith about growing proteas, such as Protea neriifolia (the oleander-leafed protea) which comes from South Africa, and how the first thing you need is an open, sunny position with good drainage. They do well in poor soils, and many don’t mind salty, coastal areas but humidity will knock them around. If you are north of Brisbane they will prefer the cooler, drier inland regions. In southern Australia they’ll do really well in places where the soil is well drained and it’s not too frosty.

Protea neriifolia RBG Photo by Melburnian

Protea neriifolia RBG Photo by Melburnian

 

How to get the most out of your proteas

– Great drainage, so if you’ve got heavy clay soil, forget it. All Proteas love a sandy loam or open soil.
– Do test your soil pH as most Proteas need acidic soil with a pH below 6. That’s quite acidic.
– Full sun with good air movement. Because they keel over with humidity.

The more sun the more flowers for all proteas which means around 4-6 hours of direct sunlight, and that’s not dappled sunlight. Proteas won’t grow on south facing walls.

Protea neriifolia Photo by sb616

Protea neriifolia Photo by sb616

 

Mulch your proteas using a natural mulch such as bark or straw or leaves.

– Don’t disturb the plants roots when weeding. They have surface, matting roots that are easily damaged. This makes them very unlikely to survive transplanting, so choose your spot carefully.

– Proteas are pretty tough once they’re established. Water at least twice a week in the first summer, even daily when it’s really hot. You can gradually reduce this as the plant becomes established. Watering in the morning is best so there’s less humidity around the plant through the evening and night.

– After the first year, plants labelled ‘drought resistant’ don’t need much attention at all. The rest should be watered weekly during dry periods.

Attractive foliage on Protea neriifolia

Attractive foliage on Protea neriifolia

 

– Potted protea like a nice drink every day.

– Generally it is not necessary to feed proteas planted in the garden, unless your conditions are extremely severe, like by the coast in very sandy soil, or in Perth, or your proteas are growing in containers.

– Feed proteas by adding compost or a slow release fertiliser suitable for Australian natives, is a good idea as it will be low in phosphorus. Proteas are best grown away from plants you need to feed regularly with regular fertilisers.

– Proteas grown in pots will need feeding with a controlled release fertiliser that’s low in phosphorus.

– Proteas become untidy looking if you don’t at least prune off the flowers when they’ve finished. Removing flowering stems helps keep the bush compact and looking great. Always use sharp secateurs and cut off long flowering stems down low, near the base, which will encourage new bushy growth and more flowering stems for the next season. Tip prune young shrubs in spring and late summer. Mature plants can be pruned immediately after flowering, usually leaving 10cm of healthy stem.

South African Cape sugarbird feeding on Protea cynaroides Photo derekkeats

South African Cape sugarbird feeding on Protea cynaroides Photo derekkeats

 

Varieties – the King Pink protea, Protea cynaroides, has one of the largest flower heads in the protea family. Sue also recommends trying Protea ‘Frosted Fire’ and Protea ‘Pink Ice’ (Protea neriifolia x susannae). ‘Pink Ice’ has spectacular flowers fresh or dried. It’s probably the one you most see in floral displays.

Protea neriifolia bush

Protea neriifolia bush growing in its native South Africa

 

How to solve problems with your Proteas

Why won’t my Protea flower?

Some possible reasons are:
– It’s too young – some take 3 years, and the king protea up to 6 years.
– It’s in the shade – proteas need sun all day to flower.

–  It’s not had enough water during bud formation, so the buds have died.

Why did my Protea die?

Some possible reasons:

– overwatering of mature plants.

– unsuitable plant for the conditions, such as poor drainage and too much shade

– presence of root rot fungi (treat with Phosacid and do not replant proteas in this spot).

– unsuitable soil (like high pH) or inappropriate fertilisers. Do not use mushroom compost or all-purpose fertilisers in the garden. Proteas have special proteoid roots which are very adept at extracting phosphorus from the soil, so adding high P fertilisers can cause phosphorus toxicity.

 

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Marianne Cannon

About Marianne Cannon

Marianne Cannon has been broadcasting as Real World Gardener on radio 2RRR 88.5fm in Sydney, since September 2009, and the program is now syndicated to radio stations around Australia. It's about growing your own, the abc of plants, and how to create sustainable gardens to fit into today's environment. Not just a show about plants; it has a strong green and ecological bent, with co-presenters addressing issues such as native animals and plants, water conservation, composting, reducing waste, protecting native species and more.

16 thoughts on “Growing proteas

  1. Good morning

    I love your site and advice.

    You please be so kind to assist me on the following problem:
    Last year I prepared my garden for normal shrubs and plants. I worked a lot of pig manure in the garden.
    According to all the information I read on Google, the soil must be manure free.
    I want to change my garden to a protea garden. What can I do to prepare the garden for protea plants?

    Your assistance will be appreciated. Regards Wessie

    • Hello Wessie,
      Apologies for the extreme lateness in replying to your question.
      Firstly pig manure has an NPK (nitrogen, phosporous,potassium ratio) of 12:9:9, that means it’s extremely high in phosphorous and not that great for Proteas even if you compost if for a while.
      Because Proteas are very sensitive to phosporous you might want to plant your garden in an area where you’ve not used pig manure.
      Make sure the area you choose also is very free draining because Proteas hate wet feet – that means sitting in a puddle of water for even a short time.
      But they also don’t like to dry out too much.
      If you must fertilise at the beginning, use a native fertiliser which has a phosphorous content of less than 1.5
      hope that’s a start.
      regards
      Marianne

  2. j on said:

    hi can i divide proteas ?

  3. Hello J,

    Proteas can’t be divided. Do you mean propagate?
    That’s pretty difficult also because the strike rate is extremely low.
    However have a go because spring is a good time to take what’s called soft tip cuttings.
    Cut off only 6–8cm from the growing tips. These are best collected early in the morning or evening. Trim off all leaves from the bottom half and insert the soft stems into pots containing mostly coco peat or river sand. Don’t add any fertilisers at this stage. Cover the cutting and pot with a plastic bag over the top.
    Check every few days to make sure the mix is slightly moist and keep your cutting out of direct sunlight.
    good luck.
    Marianne

  4. Frank Bugeja on said:

    Hello Marianne

    I have a protea in a pot and it gets full sun. For some strange reason, the flower buds all seem to be dieing off – not one bloom! (They form then die) I notice that you mention lack of water can be a reason. That being so, how often should I water in this part of the year (December) to ensure that buds can develop into blooms?

    Frank

    • Hello Frank,

      If it’s lack of water then depending on where you live, you may need to water every other day. Let the mix dry out between watering.
      I always like to use the finger test on the potting mix. If the mix is dry a couple of centimetres below the soil surface, then water.
      There are moisture meters you can buy quite cheaply that have a probe you can insert into the mix to let you know when to water.

      In hot areas and on very hot days, potting mix can get to in excess of 50 degrees Celsius. Another idea is to double pot your Protea -that is, a pot within a pot if it’s feasible in your situation.

      Another reason for buds to drop is Grey Mould. If the buds and or leaves have brown decay spots, that’s a sign of that fungus. No overhead watering and good air circulation is the way to prevent this.

      All the best
      Marianne

  5. Leanne Beecher on said:

    Hi Marianne,
    We have moved to Alice Springs from Gippsland in Victoria where we have some frosts and proteas do well there and thought they may do well in Alice too, but I’m worried about the frosts in Alice because they are more frequent here, do you think that will be a problem?
    Thankyou, Leanne

  6. Hello Leanne,

    A big difference in climate but proteas can cope with frost.
    Proteas are fairly frost tolerant once established.
    Even though the frosts are more frequent in Alice Springs, proteas can cope with frosts to -2° Celsius and some of the more hardy species can tolerate frosts of -8° Celsius – for a short period time!

    The roots however are susceptible to cold damage so over winter, put down a layer of natural mulch.
    Some hardy suggestions are
    Protea “Rose Mink,”
    Protea cynaroides.
    Protea magnifica,
    Protea nerifolia “Red Robe”

    Happy gardening with proteas,
    regards
    Marianne

  7. tassie elf on said:

    Marianne,
    Are spring and summer the best times to plant proteas?
    We are near the sea, have lots of sun and sandy soil, but cold winds at differing times of the year.
    Is pea straw OK as a mulch for proteas?
    regards,
    tassie elf

  8. Hello Tassie Elf,

    Generally any planting is best done in Spring and Autumn.
    Even though you’re probably in Tasmania where Summers might not be quite as hot as warm temperate climates, I would still stick to that planting time.
    You’re average rainfall over summer is much lower than other times of the year and you can never tell if there is going to be a dry spell or a hot summer’s day which will affect any new planting.

    Pea straw is OK to mulch Proteas as long as you keep it away from the main stem of the plant.

    regards
    Marianne

  9. H on said:

    I planted a little Protea Pixie a month ago an it’s gone all droopy (two days after planting) any ideas?

  10. Hello H,

    By any chance did you disturb the roots when you were planting your Protea? That could be one explanation. Also did you fill the planting hole with water and let it drain before planting? In any case, give it a good water with seaweed solution and cross fingers.

    Good luck
    Marianne

  11. Barbara Blair on said:

    Hello Marianne, I have a beautiful, well established Protea Neriifloria, however the thick trunk at the base has split resulting in the leaves turning yellow on some branches. I am worried that I might lose this wonderful specimen. Your advice is appreciated.

  12. Pieter on said:

    Good day I am going to extend my house and a protea is in the way, it has flowered the first time this year. How should I go about to try to replant it elsewhere? Is the best time – end of winter?
    Thanks
    Pieter

  13. Hello Pieter,
    short answer, Proteas don’t transplant well. I would recommend buying another Protea instead.

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