How to grow Pincushion Proteas

Leucospermum 'Tango' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'Tango' Picture courtesy MadibriIf cared for correctly pincushions thrive in many of our provinces, adapting easily to the summer rainfall regions, and tolerating moderate frost. Our modern hybrids are irresistible, a lot more compact, and many thrive in pots.

After the winter rains the fynbos of the Cape floristic region bursts into life in late winter and spring with a diversity of stunning blooms full of busy pollinators. And this wonderful display of colour can continue for many months. Some of the most spectacular of these spring bloomers are our beloved pincushions with their strange looking flowers that never fail to intrigue, and one might be forgiven for thinking they come from outer space! They are produced in dense inflorescences which have large numbers of prominent styles, each thickened at the apex to form the stigma. The flowers look rather like a whole lot of pins stuck into a pincushion, hence the inspiration for its common name, "pincushion flower".

Leucospermum 'High Gold' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'High Gold' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum leaves are spirally arranged and are tough and sometimes leathery. And, when not in bloom, you can tell them apart from other members of the Protea family by their 'toothed' leaves. The small indentations with raised edges are often red in colour, and occur along the margins, or at least at the leaf tips.

Leucospermum is a genus of about 50 species of flowering plants in the family Proteaceae. They are admired for their ‘other worldly’ beauty and the fine show they put on in gardens around the world. The long-stemmed cut flowers last extremely well on the plant and in the vase, and are cherished by florists for their unusual form.

Most species are native to the Western Cape Province of South Africa, where they hug the coastline and extend up the west coast to Vanrhynsdorp. Their range also spreads eastwards to Port Elizabeth. Two species occur outside of South Africa, one in Swaziland and the other in Zimbabwe. In the wild they can be found growing in a variety of habitats, including scrub, forest edges, and mountain slopes.

The Cape flora thrives under highly variable climatic conditions. A maximum temperature of 32°C is not uncommon during the summer months, particularly in the Sandveld and Cederberg regions. The mountain ranges are cooler in summer with the effects of prevailing winds, mists and cloud, and in winter snow falls regularly, and the minimum temperatures occasionally fall below 0°C, but only for short periods of time. 

Many Proteaceae occur in regions where the rainfall is low, varying between 180mm to 2 500mm per annum, and for this reason you will find that many species form large colonies in depressions, gullies, valleys, and on south-facing slopes, where water seeps deep down into the soil, and which the plants utilise during the dry months. Protea cynaroides is a good example of this, because although it occurs where the annual rainfall varies from 300mm to 1 500mm, it survives by colonising areas where there is abundant underground seepage.

Leucospermum 'Scarlet Ribbon' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'Scarlet Ribbon' Picture courtesy MadibriAlthough there are a number of exceptions, essentially the Proteaceae family are social plants, with many of the species growing in close proximity to one another, forming close-knit communities, and putting on a spectacular massed show when in full bloom. The individual plants protect one another from prevailing winds, and the dense cover they create shades the roots to keep them cool, reduces water evaporation, and protects the soil from compaction.

This family of plants also grows in variable soils that are generally poor. In the mountainous regions they occur where there is a predominance of Table Mountain sandstone, and those which grow in close proximity to the coastline, thrive in virtually pure sand. Certain species even flourish on Bokkeveld shale which has a high content of clay. Generally the soils are on the acid side, but in a few areas the soils are alkaline, with pH as high as 8.0.

Typically Leucospermum are evergreen shrubs, but some species are groundcovers, and some are even small trees, but these are rare. The shrubs are usually neatly rounded in shape and free-flowering, bearing a flower head at the end of each branch. The flowers are not self-pollinating and produce an abundance of nectar to attract pollinators like insects, the Protea scarab beetle and many insect and nectar eating birds, including the Cape sugar bird and three species of sunbirds.

The scientific name Leucospermum means "white seed" and was given because the fruit, which is technically a nut, is very smooth and shiny, and usually a whitish-grey. The fruits ripen much more quickly than those of most other members of the Protea family and are released upon ripening. In the wild the nut-like fruit is collected by ants and stored underground in their nests. This relationship is called “myrmecochorous”, meaning there is an ant-plant mutualism which disperses the seeds.

Leucospermum 'Goldie' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'Goldie' Picture courtesy MadibriThe ants collect the seeds because they have an appendage called an “elaiosome” which ants love to eat, so they eagerly carry the seeds to their nests. They will remain there, safe from fires and predators, germinating again only after a fire has destroyed the mature plants and returned the nutrients back to the soil. This symbiotic relationship benefits both - the ants are fed and the seeds are safely dispersed and planted, waiting until the timing is perfect for them to germinate and continue this beautiful cycle of life.  The Afrikaans common name “luisiesbos”' is named after the appearance of this elaiosome, which resembles lice, or fat ticks.

Pincushions have become an increasingly significant export cut flower crop in several countries apart from its native South Africa. There are many named cultivars, and intensive breeding programs in South Africa and Hawaii are producing spectacular hybrids, many with disease-resistant characteristics. Available cultivars range from dramatic groundcovers to long-stemmed flowers produced on large shrubs.

Species like Leucospermum cordifolium, Leucospermum tottum, Leucospermum reflexum, Leucospermum lineare, and Leucospermum glabrum have been widely crossed with each other to produce a wide range of lovely modern hybrids for the home gardener, many of which are a lot more compact and can be grown in pots, enabling more gardeners to grow pincushions.

However, because many gardeners still prefer to plant non-hybridised species, and many indigenous nurseries will carry them, the above mentioned species are described below first, before the more compact hybrids.

Visit an accredited garden centre to purchase your pincushion proteas, and when purchasing your plants, remember that smaller plants will transplant easier than very large specimens.

Pincushion, Speldekussing (Leucospermum cordifolium)

Leucospermum cordifolium is one of the most decorative of the pincushions and makes a fine show in the garden. The long-stemmed cut flowers last extremely well on the plant and in the vase and are cherished by florists around the world for their unusual form. Nurseries in Zimbabwe, Israel, California, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand produce vast quantities of cut flowers for the world markets from hybrids and cultivars of this plant, in colours ranging from pale yellow and orange to deep orange-red and orange. The flowers can appear at any time from late winter to early spring and summer, and a mature plant can carry as many as 300 or more flowers at one time.

Click here for more information and to see beautiful photos of this pincushion at PlantZAfrica, a great resource for indigenous plants.

Naturally it occurs only in the winter rainfall region of in the South Western Cape, in a fairly small area from Kogelberg to Soetanysberg near Bredasdorp, where it thrives in the wet winters and hot, dry summers of this region, growing on slopes close to the ocean, in gravely, nutrient poor, acidic soils.

This pincushion makes an excellent focal point in a large garden or park, and has great impact if planted in groups.  When young it has a rounded, spreading shape, growing about 1.25 to 1.5m tall and 1.5 to 2m wide, although mature specimens may spread 4m wide. The stems tend to curve upward, giving the whole plant a rather elegant form.

This pincushion is hardy to moderate frost once established but needs protection when young. It likes well drained acid soil, and will not thrive in very alkaline soil.

Speldekussing, Vuurhoutjies, Matches Pincushion (Leucospermum tottum)

Leucospermum tottum is a handsome, much branched shrub which produces an abundance of pale pink to salmon-orange flowers, which give the impression of growing more or less horizontally at the end of the branches. The flowering season is slightly later than that of Leucospermum cordifolium, starting in mid-October and lasting until the end of December. The flowers are excellent for flower arranging, but do not stand up well to being packed in boxes, so are not great for exporting.

Click here for more information and to see beautiful photos of this pincushion at PlantZAfrica, a great resource for indigenous plants.

It occurs only in the winter rainfall areas of the south-western Cape, from the Cederberg to above Villiersdorp, and particularly in the mountainous regions where it can be found growing on sandstone slopes at altitudes between 300 and 2000m, in acid, nutrient poor soils.

This is a very attractive shrub, growing to a height of about 1.5m, and when provided with enough space, will grow to a diameter of 2m. The plants are suitable for planting in the foreground of a large border. A good plant combination that will provide a long period of colourful flowers could include: Leucospermum tottum planted with Leucospermum cordifolium, and the Veerkoppie, Featherhead (Phylica). Click here to read more about the featherhead.

This pincushion is hardy to moderate frost once established but needs protection when young. It likes well drained acid soil, and will not thrive in very alkaline soil.

Outeniqua Pincushion, Outeniqua Speldekussing (Leucospermum glabrum)

This prolific flowering pincushion blooms from late spring to early summer, August to October, producing exceptionally showy crimson flower heads that show up beautifully through the silky white hairs, which cover the buds. Many lovely hybrid varieties are available for gardeners, and they are widely used in the cut flower industry worldwide. The Outeniqua pincushion has a single stem with a thick trunk, growing quite vigorously to form a neat, rounded shrub, about 1 to 2m tall with an equal spread. The lush foliage is a dark glossy green, and the new growth is a soft red blush.

It is more frost tolerant than other pincushions, although it is wise to protect small plants until they are established. It also tolerates a wider range of soils, growing well in rich, well-drained pea,t to sandy soils.

Click here for more information and to see beautiful photos of the Outeniqua Pincushion at PlantZAfrica, a great resource for indigenous plants.

Its Conservation status is Endangered (Red Data List October 2007) and it occurs only in the Outeniqua and Tsitsikama Mountains at altitudes of 150 to 500m, where it can be found growing in isolated stands on the cooler southern slopes.

The Outeniqua pincushion is a wonderful low maintenance, water-wise, garden plant which blooms prolifically and is known for its hardiness.  It can be used as filler shrub or as a beautiful, stand-alone specimen plant, and is perfect planted between large rocks and in open bed plantings. With its medium height, it makes a good mid-layer planting, and if planted with other fynbos species such as Restio, Buchu and Erica, it makes a lovely display.

Rocket Pincushion, Perdekop (Leucospermum reflexum)

When in full bloom rocket pincushions will definitely be a talking point in the garden with their unusual shape  and fiery, deep orange to crimson, or clear yellow flower heads. Because the styles of the young flowers curve to start with and then bend back completely toward the stem as they mature, they have been likened to fireworks or a rocket with a fiery tail trailing behind it. The Afrikaans name “perdekop” is also a good one as the mature flower head looks like the head of a horse with its mane blowing back in the wind. Flowering is from spring to midsummer, August to December.

Click here for more information and to see beautiful photos of the Rocket Pincushion at PlantZAfrica, a great resource for indigenous plants.

Leucospermum reflexum is a large rounded shrub up which grows +- 4m tall with an equal spread. The leaves are a lovely silvery-grey and covered with dense grey hairs. It is recorded as having a threatened status of NT (near threatened) at present.

The plants occur in the Cederberg, from Wuppertal to Pakhuis, and the yellow variety Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum, comes from the Heuningvlei area in the Cederberg. The plants usually occur in groups of a few hundred, at altitudes ranging between 1 000 to 2 000m. In summer temperatures can soar to well over 30°C, and in winter they can drop below zero. These areas are also very dry and arid, but stands of plants can also be found growing on sandstone soils near streams and other water sources.

Rocket pincushions are valuable additions to large gardens or parks, and are really attractive feature plants, and valuable background plants in large shrub borders, where their beautiful grey foliage will help highlight other plants growing nearby, even when the plants are not in bloom. They are excellent cut flowers, and their foliage is used to add impact to any arrangement.

The rocket pincushion can be grown in most areas of South Africa as long as the soil is well-drained and on the acid side, and they receive water during the winter months. They can tolerate a fair bit of cold and can even tolerate some frost once established. They will not, however, grow in areas which are hot and humid, as they are very prone to fungal problems under these conditions.

Needle-leaf Pincushion, Smalblaarspeldekussing, Luisiesbos (Leucospermum lineare)

Leucospermum lineare is a prized cut flower which has been extensively hybridized and crossed with Leucospermum tottum, Leucospermum vestitum and Leucospermum cordifolium to produce an astonishing variety of hybrids that are tough and easy to grow in your garden.

Leucospermum lineare is a medium-sized erect shrub reaching 2m tall, with large, bright orange flower heads. The yellow-flowering form has a sprawling habit and grows +-2m tall with a spread of 2 to 3m.  Both have attractive, long green leaves, and flowering occurs mainly in spring (September and October), but odd flowers do appear anytime from winter to mid-summer (July to January).

Both the orange and the yellow forms are ideal for larger gardens and informal flower borders, and because the yellow flowered form is sprawling, it is wonderful cascading down low walls and banks, or very large, tall pots.

Click here for more information and to see beautiful photos of the Needle-leaf Pincushion at PlantZAfrica, a great resource for indigenous plants.

The needle-leaf pincushion grows wild mostly in Boland Granite Fynbos at altitudes of 300 to
1 000m. The soils are heavy clay and the average annual rainfall is only 985mm, with mean daily maximum and minimum temperatures ranging between 26.6°C and 5.9°C. Frost is rarely experienced, occurring on only about two or three days per year. The yellow form is fairly common, occurring from Bain's Kloof through to the Du Toitskloof and the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

Leucospermum lineare is listed as Vulnerable. The population is decreasing due to invasive alien vegetation, harvesting of cut flowers and habitat loss due to land transformation.

Plant out into the garden at the start of the rainy season, and because granite soils are richer in nutrients than sandstone soils, if your soil is very poor, incorporate a good amount of specialist compost for fynbos at planting.

 Leucospermum 'Solei'R Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'Solei'R Picture courtesy Madibri

Hopefully some of the brilliant pincushion cultivars documented below will inspire you to grow pincushions in your garden, they’re really worth it!


Leucospermum 'Annamarie' (Reflexum Hybrid)

Annamarie is a lovely light orange cut flower with a long flowering season, from September to October. Once established it is very hardy to frost and is also drought tolerant. It makes an excellent landscape plant for large gardens, growing +-1.5m tall with an equal spread. It also does well in large containers.

Leucospermum'Goldie’ (Cuneiform)

This rich yellow pincushion is a good cut flower which starts blooming later, from October to November, and is both frost and drought tolerant once established. Because it is smaller growing, +-1m with an equal spread, it is suitable for smaller gardens and does very well in a large pot.

Leucospermum 'High Gold' (Cordifolium x Patersonii)

This bright yellow pincushion is available as a cut flower and blooms for a long time, from August to October. It grows +- 1.5m tall with an equal spread, and is frost and drought tolerant once established. It is a strong grower and good for the garden or as a container plant for a sunny patio.

Leucospermum 'Scarlet Ribbon' (Tottum x Glabrum)

Scarlet Ribbon is a vigorous grower and very floriferous, with gorgeous red cut flowers from September to October. It is both frost and drought tolerant once established, and grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread. It grows very well in large containers.

Leucospermum 'Soleil' (Cordifolium x Glabrum)

Soleil has unusual yellow to apricot coloured cut flowers from July to October and grows quickly to +-1.5m tall with an equal spread. It does well in containers and is both frost and drought tolerant once established.

Leucospermum 'Succession' (Cordifolium x Lineare)

This is one of the best salmon-pink pincushions available as a cut flower, blooming for a long time, from June to October. It grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread, does very well as a container plant, and is frost and drought tolerant once established.

Leucospermum 'Tango' (Glabrum x Lineare)

This bright orange-red pincushion with long stems is available as a cut flower. It is a good early flowering variety, blooming for a long time from July to September. It grows +-2m tall with a spread of 1.5m and does very well in large containers. Once established, it is both frost and drought tolerant.

Leucospermum 'Yellow Rocket' (Reflexum)

This lovely pincushion has soft yellow flowers on long stems, which contrast perfectly with its grey leaves. It is available as a cut flower and blooms for a long time (August to October). It is tall, +-2.5m, with a spread of +-1.5m and is both frost and drought tolerant once established. Although tall, it does well in a container.

Proteas are ideally suited to low-maintenance and water-wise gardens, and are indispensable in the fynbos garden. In the wildlife garden they are a magnet for nectar feeding birds such as sugarbirds and sunbirds, which pollinate the flowers. Bees and beetles like scarab beetles and protea beetles, as well as a myriad of other insects are also attracted to the blooms, which in turn, attract insect eating birds.

Leucospermum' Succession' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum' Succession' Picture courtesy MadibriCultivation:

Although pincushion proteas are part of the Cape fynbos floral kingdom they are not very temperamental, and as long as they are planted and cared for correctly they thrive in many  other provinces of South Africa,  and around the world. They adapt easily to the summer rainfall regions, and once the plants are established they will tolerate moderate frost.

Before deciding which pincushions you wish to plant, visit your local garden centre first for the best advice on which species or cultivars will do best in your region. Some pincushion flowers are hardier to frost than others, and although most require slightly acid soil, there are a few which will grow in alkaline soils. And although the majority need light, well-drained soil, some will grow in clay which drains well. Read the individual plant descriptions above for more detailed information on the various species.

In the winter rainfall regions pincushions are planted out just before the autumn rains arrive, but inland it is best to plant in spring or early summer when all danger of frost is over and just before the summer rains arrive. Young plants will need frost protection until they are established, cover, mulch the soil, and keep the plants dry, during long, cold snaps, only watering moderately in between.

One of the most important factors to consider before planting pincushions is that they require soil with perfect drainage, and which is also light and well-aerated.  They do not do well in very heavy clay soils with poor drainage, so if your soil is less than perfect, try growing them in containers or raised beds. Most species also prefer acidic soil, so if your soil is not acidic, add generous quantities of a specialist protea potting soil to the planting beds.

If your soil is heavy but still drains quite well you can improve it to plant pincushions, but this must be done correctly. Simply filling a single planting hole with compost and planting is not the right thing to do, because the compost will form a reservoir for water to stand in, and this increases the chance of root rot. Instead, prepare an entire little bed for your plant, thoroughly digging in generous quantities of a specialist protea soil mix, and even some gypsum and washed river sand to break up the clay.

Whether your soil is heavy or not, it is advisable to always prepare a small bed for planting rather than a single planting hole, after all your pincushion can live for a quite a long time, so it’s best to give it a good start. Once the bed is nicely dug over with its additives well mixed into the original soil, dig a planting hole at least twice the size of the container the plant came in, and transplant carefully so as not to damage the roots. Never plant deeper than the depth the plant was growing in its original nursery bag or pot, and plant firmly in the ground, watering well afterwards. Water moderately but regularly for the first two years of growth, after which they should be well established and drought tolerant.

Pincushion proteas also require full sun to grow and bloom well, but they also like to have a cool root system, so grouping them together, or combining them with other suitable fynbos plants will help shade the soil and roots. Planting a permanent groundcover around the plants when they are still young, one which can be left to grow undisturbed will also keep the roots cool, or you can just mulch the soil well.

Another important point to remember is that these plants love a lot of wind circulation around their leaves and cannot be grown in walled in areas with little or no air flow. 

All proteas have what is called a “proteoid” root system, and plants with this root system form clusters of closely spaced short lateral rootlets which form a mat about 2 to 5cm thick just beneath the leaf litter. This type of root system allows the plants to grow in soil that isn’t rich in nutrients. For this reason proteas resent disturbance of any kind, so never cultivate around their roots. Weeds need to be pulled out gently by hand, and the plants must be sited in a part of the garden where they can be left undisturbed.

Water young plants immediately after planting and regularly thereafter to keep the soil damp but not soggy. When grown inland ensure that they are watered regularly from autumn to spring and that they are planted in extremely well-drained soil. Most garden soils are richer than the soils on which the plants grow in the wild, and in these loamy type garden soils watering two or three times a week in hot weather should be enough. However, young plants growing in sandy soil, or those being cultivated in pots, will need water every day or two. Consider installing a drip irrigation system to water your protea collection. Watering at soil level is much better than overhead irrigation, as wet leaves are more susceptible to diseases.

Because our garden soils are generally quite fertile, it may not be necessary to feed plants growing in garden beds at all, and because fynbos plants are very sensitive to many fertilisers, never use chemical fertilisers, and especially those with a high phosphate or nitrogen content. Also, do not use bone meal, mushroom compost, or any kraal manures when planting.

Young plants and those growing in pots will need feeding, and fynbos growers recommend that plants fed with organic fertilisers derived from fish emulsion or seaweed, diluted at half the normal recommended strength to help them along. For fully gown specimens they recommend feeding twice a year, in spring and autumn with organic fertilisers like Seagro, Bio Ganic All Purpose, and Bio Ocean.

Apply organic mulches such as leaf litter, rough compost, or milled bark chips, around their roots. Never use manure. Pine bark, or pine needles are acidic and especially beneficial. These will break down slowly and feed the plant the natural way. Apply the mulch regularly, but do not make it too thick, and keep it well away from the stems of the plant.  Mulch will also help to suppress weed growth and keep the soil cool.

Leucospermum 'Yellow Rocket' Picture courtesy MadibriLeucospermum 'Yellow Rocket' Picture courtesy MadibriGrowing pincushions in pots:

If you don’t have space, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy these beautiful flowers, because many grow happily in large pots, and all you need is full sun for most of the day.

Pincushions grow well in large containers but it is vital that you use a top-quality soil with excellent drainage, like bark based potting soils, or a specialist protea potting soil. Position the pot in a well-ventilated, sunny position, and ensure that the container has sufficient drainage holes. Cover the bottom with gravel before filling it with soil. Remove the plant from its container and plant without disturbing the root ball. Compact the soil firmly around the plant and mulch with bark chips, keeping them away from the stems, and water well.

Potted specimens will need more frequent watering than those growing in the garden. When you do water, water deeply, as frequent light sprinklings are not beneficial. Also, if you are using drip trays, ensure that the pot is standing on top of a layer of gravel or on ‘pot feet’, and not in a tray filled with water, as this can cause root rot. Potted proteas will benefit from an occasional feeding with organic fertilisers like Seagro, Bio Ganic All Purpose, and Bio Ocean.


Pruning is not necessary unless the bush needs to be shaped, as this plant normally deadheads itself and the new branches then grow up from the position below the old flower head. However, because pincushions can become fairly large shrubs, depending on the species or hybrid grown, producing many spreading side branches which carry the blooms at their tips, to keep your plant neat and healthy you may need to do some basic pruning.

Regularly cutting the flowers for the vase is a way of pruning, but when cutting leave a piece of stem with healthy leaves, about 10 to 15cm long on the plant. Cuts where there are no leaves will simply cause die-back of the remaining portion of the branch. If you use this technique when pruning out the spent flowers as well, you will regularly be pruning your plant anyway.

Pruning to shape the plant is generally done in late spring, directly after flowering. After removing all the spent flowers, remove any weak or unproductive stems from the middle of the plant to allow for more airflow and light to enter the centre of the plant. This will also help to prevent pest and disease infestation. Also remove any side growth growing downwards or lying on the soil.


Leucospermum can be propagated by seed or from cuttings. PlantZAfrica has detailed instruction on how to propagate the various species. Click here to find out more.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

The following can cause pincushions to flower poorly: Low light levels; Pruning too late in summer; Vigorous vegetative growth caused by high nitrogen levels; Too much water; Day length – long, warm days followed by shorter days with low temperatures act as a signal for flower initiation.

Pests are not too much of a problem, but if air flow and circulation are not sufficient, mealy bug and scale may appear. Insect pests can be controlled with either a systemic or full cover spray developed for that particular pest.

Fungal infections can be a problem when temperatures rise above 18°C and the relative humidity is above 75%. These conditions are probably the severest limiting factor as to where pincushions will grow well. Good air circulation is the best preventative measure for fungal problems, but it may also be necessary, depending on weather conditions, to use an organic foliar fungicide as a preventative measure rather than as a curative one.

Pincushions are very sensitive to the fungal disease Phytophthora cinnamomeum. Phytopthora is a soil-borne fungus that affects most members of the protea family. Stems wilt and plants turn brown very quickly. Unfortunately, by the time plants show signs of this disease, it is too late to save the plant, and it is best to remove and destroy them to stop the infection spreading.

Click here for more detailed information on problems, pests and diseases affecting Proteas.