Protea: species, care & in bouquets
Protea flowers can grow to the size of a plate and are striking not only in pots, but also in a bouquet or as a dried flower.
Several species of the Protea genus can be kept as potted plants indoors and in mild locations in the garden. Find out here which location is suitable and how to properly care for them.
Protea plant: origin and properties
Protea forms a genus of plants that includes about 100 species. Native to southern and tropical Africa, these evergreen shrubs belong to the silver tree family (Proteaceae). Protea naturally occur mainly in higher mountainous areas. Some species form a bulge at the base of the stem, the lignotuber, this serves as a form of fire protection. After a fire, the plant can sprout again from the lignotuber. The seeds are also contained in very hard shells, which only break open after a fire. This means that germination does not occur until after a fire.
The Protea inflorescences, which consist of small individual flowers and are often surrounded by very decorative, colourful bracts, are particularly characteristic. The bracts surrounding the inflorescence make the flower look a bit like an artichoke. The flowers can be up to 30 cm in diameter.
The stem leaves are leathery and, depending on the species, may be distributed on the shoot or found only at the upper end. The varieties differ greatly in growth height, which ranges from 1 to 10 metres.
We can also keep some Protea species as potted plants. Dried Protea is also popular as a decoration in a vase. A particularly magnificent species is the king protea (Protea cynaroides), which is often used as an ornamental plant.
Is Protea poisonous? Yes, Protea is poisonous and should not be consumed. When consumed, it may cause irritation of the mucous membranes.
The most beautiful types
The best-known Protea species, which are also suitable for pot culture in the home and on the balcony, are available in different varieties with different coloured bracts.
King protea (Protea cynaroides): forms flowers up to 20 cm in diameter in creamy white or pink. It is a particularly magnificent species, varieties of which are available in different colours.
- ‘White Crown’: with white tender green bracts
- ‘Little Prince’: with red bracts
- ‘Mini King’: a small-statured variety that reaches heights of 60-90 cm
Oleander-leaf protea (Protea neriifolia): the bracts of this species are purple-overlaid at the tip and hairy. The bracts are tilted together at the top, so you can only guess at the flower. But that doesn’t matter, because it is usually the colourful bracts that are so striking.
- ‘Pink Ice’: with pink bracts
- ‘Alba’: here the bracts are whitish-light green
- ‘Australis Ruby’: reddish-pink bracts that become lighter toward the top
How to grow Protea
In our latitudes, Protea is usually kept in pots or tubs and spends only the summer outdoors. In winter, it is placed in a sheltered location as it does not tolerate the low temperatures. Only in very mild regions, for example in wine-growing areas, can Protea be planted in flowerbeds. Low temperatures of about -7 °C are still tolerated.
If you want to plant the flowers, the first thing you need is a suitable substrate. This is not easy to buy, because the plants’ natural habitat of is very special. You can make the substrate yourself: it should be low in nutrients, permeable and slightly acidic. Protea plants require a soil pH of four to six. For permeability, a low-nutrient, low-phosphate soil should still be mixed with one-third sand. A mixture of two parts sand, two parts coniferous soil and one part perlite is ideal. In addition, a drainage layer, for example made of expanded clay or clay shards, at the bottom of the pot is important so that the water can drain off. Waterlogging is not tolerated at all. To keep the soil constantly moist but counteract waterlogging, a layer of mulch can also be spread. Not only does it look nice, but it also has a slightly acidic effect on the soil, reducing water evaporation from the soil and preventing unwanted weeds from sprouting. In addition, it has an insulating effect, so that the root of the Protea is not exposed to sudden temperature changes.
An ideal location for the Protea is bright and warm with a light breeze. It may also be sunny – stagnant air, however, should be avoided, as this can promote plant diseases.
Tip: Unlike other plants the Protea cannot control the absorption of phosphorus. Phosphorus poisoning can occur quickly in substrates containing phosphorus because the plant absorbs too much of the nutrient. This initially manifests itself in yellowing of the leaves, later also in withering leaf tips and whole leaves or in a shortening of the internodes, i.e., the distance between the leaves on the shoot.
How to care for Protea flowers
For the plant to develop well and remain healthy, a little care and consideration is required. In cooler regions, it is important to place Protea in a bright, frost-free location at around 10 °C from the end of October. A conservatory is ideal for this purpose. The plant can then be placed outside again from early April.
When watering Protea, make sure that the roots do not dry out completely, but also that the plant is never wet. The aim is to achieve a very low but constant soil moisture content. Rainwater is suitable for watering, as it is naturally slightly acidic. Hard water should be boiled or mixed with distilled water. From time to time, the plant should also be sprayed with lime-free water because some species do not tolerate dry air well.
The nutrient requirements of the Protea are rather low according to its natural habitat. Therefore, initially it does not need fertiliser at all. However, during the growing season from April to September, occasional fertilisation can lead to more abundant flowering. In the first year after planting, a little slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura Flower Food, can be incorporated into the top layer of substrate in the spring. This contains slow-release phosphorus, namely as rock phosphate. This can prevent the plant from absorbing too much phosphorus at once. However, fertiliser should only be used at half dosage for flower boxes to prevent too much phosphorus being added. The other nutrients contained ensure a healthy plant with magnificent flowers. Protea tolerates a maximum of 40 mg of elemental phosphorus per kilogram of rooted soil. This should be considered when choosing a fertiliser.
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After flowering, dried Protea flowers can be pruned, as removing them encourages further flowering.
Is the Protea hardy? Protea is not hardy because the winters in our latitudes are too cold for this plant from the Southern Hemisphere. In mild regions where it does not get colder than -7 °C, the plant can remain outside in winter, but should be protected by a layer of mulch for safety. In cooler regions, it should be overwintered at temperatures of around 10 °C in a bright place, such as a conservatory.
Propagating the Protea is not so easy. In principle, propagation is possible both by seed and by cuttings.
As a houseplant Protea usually does not produce fruit due to lack of pollinators, the seeds are purchased in specialist stores. Protea seeds are sown in spring at temperatures of 10 to 15 °C. The temperature differences between day and night are important for germination to occur, so sowing must be done outdoors. Before sowing, the seeds need to be soaked in water at room temperature for around 24 hours. The effect of pre-soaking is further enhanced with the addition of about three teaspoons of wood ash per 100 ml of water. Alternatively, place the seeds on a fireproof tray, cover them with 6 to 10 cm of dried fern leaves, and burn them. The ashes are then moistened. Next, put the seeds in slightly acidic, permeable and phosphate-free growing soil. A suitable mixture can be achieved by mixing two parts sand, two parts coniferous soil and one part perlite. The seeds are simply spread on the soil and very lightly sifted, because they are light germinators. The substrate is kept moist, but not wet. Germination occurs between four weeks and four months.
To propagate the Protea cuttings, you first need a healthy mother plant and a suitable growing substrate. The substrate is obtained by mixing two parts quartz sand and one part Sphagnum moss. From the mother plant, use a sharp, clean knife to cut off a shoot about 5 to 10 cm long at an angle. It should not yet be woody, but also no longer green. The leaves on the lower part of the cutting are removed and the cut is dipped in rooting powder. The cutting can now be placed into the substrate, which is then well moistened. It should be placed in a warm, bright place. High humidity is also necessary and can be achieved by occasional spraying. In good conditions, roots will form after about four weeks.
Protea is one of the most durable cut flowers in a bouquet. Cut it in the desired place with a sharp knife, then place the Protea flowers in a vase. This should be replaced every few days. The flower arrangement will then keep for up to three weeks.
Drying Protea flowers
To enjoy the beautiful flower of Protea for a long time and without much effort, you can dry them. To do this, cut the flower stem at the base and hang it upside down, for example, tied to a string. Let it hang in a warm, dry room. Once the Protea has finished drying, you can place it in an empty vase alone or create a flower arrangement.
If keeping the Protea is too much work for you, you can look for houseplants that are a little easier to care for. The Alocasia zebrina, for example, is a good houseplant with fewer flowers, but with decorative leaves.