Proteas - the ancient shapeshifters

Proteas thrive in many climatic regions of South Africa, and there are types suitable for gardens large and small, many of which are listed below, so read more to find out how to grow these ancient plants.

Proteas are synonymous with South Africa and are grown the world over for their unique beauty. It’s hard to pinpoint what draws people to these almost rugged looking plants with their unusual flowers.

Perhaps it’s more a feeling they evoke that enchants people, and somehow we recognise that these are very ancient plants, and they certainly are. Dating back approximately 140 million years, proteas are considered to be among the oldest families of flowering plants on the earth.

Proteas occur naturally in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is believed that the protea genus originated on the super-continent called “Gondwana”. When Gondwana eventually split, proteas were spread across different continents and countries including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America. Although South Africa has 361 species and is associated with proteas more than any other country, Australia actually has the largest collection of species, with over 800. Protea is divided into two sub-families: Proteoideae which are represented in South Africa, and Grevilleoideae which are represented in Australia and South America.

Africa has 14 genera of protea which occur only on the continent and nowhere else in the world. South Africa has 361 native species, with 92% occurring in the fynbos of the Cape, and mainly concentrated in a narrow belt of mountainous coastal regions from Clanwilliam to Grahamstown.

Protea 'Susara' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Susara' Picture courtesy Madibri Because they occur mainly in the fire prone vegetation of the Cape where natural fires occur every ten to thirty years, proteas have adapted various strategies to survive fires, the main two being re-seeding and re-sprouting. Fire is essential to the survival these 'Mediterranean' types of vegetation which grow on such impoverished soils, and once the nutrients are used up in the soil, the fires arrive and the ashes return the nutrients to the soil for the next generation of plants – mother nature at her best!

Those proteas which propagate through seed are usually single-stemmed at ground level, and produce copious amounts of seeds during their lifetime, which they often store on the shrubs, and when the fires sweep through and kill the whole plant, the smoke from the fire triggers the seeds to germinate, and miraculously the fynbos is regenerated. 

Re-sprouting proteas are usually multi-stemmed at ground level, and have adapted to fires by growing a thick underground stem known as a “lignotuber” which contains many dormant buds to produce vigorous new growth after the fires go out.

Yet another fascinating fact about proteas is that what people refer to as its flower, is not really a flower, but rather a flower head or inflorescence made up of many individual flowers grouped together on a rounded base or receptacle. What looks like the colourful 'petals' of the flower are actually modified leaves known as floral or involucral bracts, and if you look closely inside the cup of bracts, you will see many long narrow flowers massed together in the centre.

In 1735 Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish-born botanist and the father of taxonomy, named and classified these plants as Proteaceae. The name "Protea" was inspired by Greek mythology and named after Proteus, the first son of the Greek sea god Poseidon. Proteus was known as a shape-shifting visionary, and one who is able to foretell the future, but only to those cunning enough to capture him. He spent his days in isolation as a herdsman of sea creatures, and was said to travel the waves amongst mythical beasts, holding his characteristic trident. The shape-shifter element of the story highlighted for Linnaeus the complexity and vastness of the variety of plants found within the large Proteaceae family, almost as if they were indeed shape-shifters.

In the 1700’s botanists introduced the plants to Europe, and in the late 1700’s the Englishman Joseph Knight tried to grow proteas under artificial conditions. He eventually succeeded, and in 1774, the first species were shown at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He also published a book in 1809 on growing proteas, and by 1810 twenty-one species of protea were growing in Kew Gardens.

Protes 'Niobe' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protes 'Niobe' Picture courtesy Madibri During the 1960’s in South Africa proteas were harvested for the cut flower industry in the wild, until a retired fruit farmer, Frank Batchelor of Stellenbosch, laid the foundations for commercial protea production. As early as the 1940’s and continuing into the 1970’s he selected, hybridised and propagated wild protea species to improve their quality, and so the commercial cultivation of proteas in South Africa began. In 1958 well-known protea specialist Dr Marie Vogts published her book “Proteas, Know Them and Grow Them”, where she highlighted the economic possibilities of proteas as cut-flowers and for landscaping.

The South African Protea Producers and Exporters Association (SAPPEX) came into being in 1965, and SAPPEX and the Protea Producers of South Africa (PPSA) merged in 2014 to form Cape Flora South Africa, to look after the needs of the fynbos and protea industry.

In 1964 the University of Hawaii, became involved in commercial protea production for use in landscaping, and the International Protea Association (IPA) which supports the promotion, research, conservation, and commercial production of proteas, was formed in Melbourne, Australia in 1981. Protea research, and cultivar development for the international cut-flower industry continues in South Africa, Hawaii and also in Israel.

There are many reasons why you should add proteas to your landscape, and one of the most important is they are proudly South African and sought after by collectors the world over. The flowers attract nectar-eating birds, and if space is limited, they also do very well in pots. Don’t be put off by the reputation proteas have of being tricky to grow, if you follow a few simple guidelines they can thrive in your garden, and the secret of growing them successfully is to simply mimic their natural growing conditions.

Proteas for the garden:

Over the years, local and international plant breeders have developed an outstanding variety of hybrid proteas, giving them special names. This is wonderful news but such a plethora of new names can become confusing for gardeners. Many of these will even flower at different times of the year, which is ideal for gardeners who plan to colour their garden throughout the seasons.

Because flowering times may vary slightly from year to year and region to region, bear this in mind when planning your garden. Also, there are just too many gorgeous varieties to list here, so do some of your own research to select the perfect ones for your garden and climate. Your local garden centre will stock those hybrids which are suitable for your region - another good reason to visit an accredited garden centre for the best advice.

A big shout-out for - my go-to website for researching indigenous plants

'King Pink' (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy Madibri'King Pink' (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy MadibriKing Protea, Koningprotea, isiQwane esincinci (Protea cynaroides)

The King Protea was given its name because the enormous pink flower resembles a large crown, and it is also the largest of all protea flowers. It gained the title of South Africa’s National Flower in 1976, and appears on South African birth certificates and passports, as well as on our 5-Rand coin. South Africa’s cricket team, The Proteas, also took its name from the genus.

It has one of the widest distribution ranges, occurring from the Cedarberg in the northwest to Grahamstown in the east, where it can be found growing on all the mountain ranges in this area, except for the dry interior ranges, and at all elevations, from sea level to 1500 meters. The combination of the different climatic conditions, and the large range of localities, has resulted in a large variety of leaf and flower sizes, as well as flower colours and flowering times. The colour of the bracts varies from a creamy white to a deep crimson, but the soft pale pink bracts with a silvery sheen are the most prized. Established plants produce six to ten flower heads in one season, although some exceptional plants can produce up to forty flower heads on a single plant. Generally it flowers anytime from July to October, grows +-1m tall with an equal spread, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

'King Madiba' (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy Madibri  'King Madiba' (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy Madibri 'King Madiba' PBR (Protea cynaroides)

King Madiba is a gorgeous king protea hybrid which loved for its striking dark pink to red flowers anytime from July to October. It grows +-1 to 1.5m tall and up to 1.5m wide, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established. 

'Mandala' (Protea cynaroides)

Mandala bears large red blooms from August to October, grows to a height of +-1m with an equal spread, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established. 

'King White' (Protea cynaroides)

King White, like the king protea, produces large creamy-white flowers from July to October. It grows +-1m tall with an equal spread, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

King Redrex (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy Madibri  King Redrex (Protea cynaroides) Picture courtesy Madibri 'King Pink' (Protea cynaroides)

King Pink is a delightful bright pink and creamy white and grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread. It tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

'King Redrex' (Protea cynaroides)

King Redrex is a gorgeous bright red and grows to +-1.5m with an equal spread. It tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

'Little Prince' PBR (Protea cynaroides)

Little Prince was selected specifically for small gardens because it is a very compact king protea hybrid which grows +-1m tall and 1m wide, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established. It is great in containers and produces red and white flowers from July to October.

Protea' Lady Di' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea' Lady Di' Picture courtesy Madibri  Queen Protea, Bearded Protea, Wolbaardsuikerbos (Protea magnifica)

SA Tree No: 86.1

The queen protea has the second largest flower heads after the king protea, and is one of the most attractive and sought after proteas with gardeners. The massive woolly flower head is cup-shaped, and in nature the colour range of the floral bracts is broad, including cream and greenish-cream, pink, salmon-pink, and rosy-red to deep carmine. The beards are also variable in colour and may be white, purple-black or tawny-brown, with the central tip being black, tawny-brown or even white. Flowering times differ from locality to locality, but is abundant from mid-winter to mid-summer (June to January) and peaking in September. The leaves are variable, but prominently veined with red to yellow midribs. They are hairy when young, becoming leathery when mature and covered with a grey-green waxy coating or ‘bloom’ that is easily rubbed off.

The queen protea is widespread over almost all the major mountain ranges in the southwestern Cape from the Skimmelberg and Koue Bokkeveld to the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, Klein Swartberg, Riviersonderend Mountains and central Langeberg, occurring at altitudes ranging from 1200 to 2700m. In these habitats it is a very variable species, ranging from small erect trees +-3m tall, to low shrubs, commonly found sprawling along rocky areas and on steep slopes where they are reasonably safe from fires.  The shrubs receive rain, mist and snow during the winter months, and hot, dry weather in summer.

In the garden the shrubs generally grow into rounded bushes, ranging from +-1.5 to 2m in height and 2 to 4m in diameter, and there are many good-looking Protea magnifica garden hybrids.

Protea 'Pinita' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Pinita' Picture courtesy Madibri 'Susara' (Protea magnifica x susannae)

 Susara bears delightful creamy-white flowers with salmon-red to pink edges in autumn (March to May). It is well adapted to a wide range of growing conditions, and tolerates light to moderate frosts. And, although it grows quite large, +-2m tall with a spread of 1.5m, it is good in containers.

'Pinita' (Protea magnifica x longifolia)

Pinita has lovely pinkish-red floral bracts which fade to cream at their bases, and a black beard. The large, prominent flower heads are well displayed on a bush that reaches +-2m in height with a similar width. Flowering is mainly from late winter through spring and the shrubs will withstand the occasional frost and temperatures as low as -4°C.

'Lady Di' (Protea magnifica x compacta)  

Lady Di is a beautiful pink hybrid, topped with a white fringe, blooming from early winter to spring (July to October). It grows +-2m tall with a spread of 1.5m, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

Protea 'Carnival' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Carnival' Picture courtesy Madibri Bot River Protea, Duinesuikerbos, Botrivier-protea (Protea compacta)

Protea compacta is a single-stemmed, sparsely branched shrub which grows +-2 to 3.5m tall, and is ideally suited to larger coastal fynbos gardens where, if planted in masse , will provide a pink or white splash of colour for most of the year. Because of its long flowering period spanning autumn to summer, it is popular with florists and cultivated on a massive scale.

It is found in a relatively narrow zone along the southwestern Cape coast and extends from Kleinmond, Houw Hoek, Hermanus, Elim, Napier, Bredasdorp to Struisbaai. Populations mostly occur on the foothills of mountains close to the sea, coastal forelands and sandy flats close to the sea. It seldom grows at high altitudes with virtually all plants found between sea level and 100m. This species is highly social and grows in dense stands of thousands of plants. White forms occur occasionally and are restricted to specific localities.

The ability of the natural species as a cut flower convinced researchers and farmers of its hybridizing potential, the result being Protea compacta as the parent plant to numerous cultivars such as: 'Pink Ice' (P. compacta x P. susannae), 'Pink Duke' (P. compacta x P. eximia), 'Lady Di' (P. compacta x P. magnifica), and 'Carnival' (P. compacta x P. neriifolia ).

'Carnival' (Protea compacta x neriifolia)

Carnival is a lovely salmon-pink protea which blooms from April to June and grows +-2.5m tall and 1.5m wide. It tolerates light to moderate frosts.

Protea 'Sharonette' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Sharonette' Picture courtesy Madibri Broad-leaf Sugarbush, Duchess Protea, Breëblaarsuikerbos (Protea eximia)

SA Tree No: 88.3

The Broad-leaf sugarbush is one of the easier proteas to cultivate as it tolerates quite a wide range of soils. Unlike most proteas it can be grown in gardens with alkaline soils where most mountain proteas would fail. It also tolerates wind and brief, light frosts in Highveld gardens. It is a large upright shrub, +-2 to 5m tall, with a single main trunk and an open, more sparsely branched growth habit. In wild populations the bracts vary from a showy pink to orange-brown, and the long narrow flowers massed in the centre of the flower head are covered in purple-black, velvety hairs, contrasting perfectly with the hairless, greyish-green to purplish-green leaves, which are coated with a whitish 'bloom' that can be rubbed off. Flowering time is mainly from spring to early summer (August to October) but flowers can be found on the bushes from midwinter until midsummer (June until December).

Protea eximia is widespread throughout the mountains of the southern Cape, from the Keeromsberg near Worcester, along the Langeberg, Outeniqua and Tzitzikamma Mountains to Van Stadensberg near Port Elizabeth.  It is found growing in dense stands on sandstone slopes, 200 to 1600m above sea level, and in many different habitats, from dense well-watered fynbos at low altitudes, to sparse, arid fynbos on the high mountains where light frost and snowfalls occur during the winter months.

Protea 'Sylvia' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Sylvia' Picture courtesy Madibri There are many beautiful hybrids of protea eximia and it is often confused with the hybrids 'Sylvia' and 'Cardinal', which are hybrids between itself and Protea susannae. These hybrids have inherited the purple-centred flower head of Protea eximia, but not its hairless foliage.

'Sharonette' PBR (Protea eximea x susanne)

Sharonette is a gorgeous hybrid which is similar to Sylvia, with large, rich-red flowers which can appear all year round. It grows +- 2m tall with a spread of 1.5m and tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

'Sylvia' (Protea eximia x susannae).

Sylvia is a dense shrub +-2m tall and 1.5m wide and is an excellent screening plant which tolerates light to moderate frost once established. It produces its bright rose-red flowers twice a year - from January to March, and again from August to November.

'Cardinal' (Protea eximia x susannae)

Cardinal produces bright pink flowers mainly in summer (November to February). It grows +-1.5m tall with a spread of 1m, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established.

Protea 'Pink Ice' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Pink Ice' Picture courtesy Madibri Stink-leaf Sugarbush, Stinkblaarsuikerbos (Protea susannae)

SA Tree No: 98.1

Protea susannae is one of the easiest proteas to grow. It thrives in a variety of soils from acidic to alkaline soil, as long as they drain well, but is particularly suitable for deep sandy soils. It is a large, robust, upright shrub arising from a single stem and growing +-2 to 3m tall with a spread of 3 to 4m. The flower heads are cup-shaped, with pink-brown involucral bracts that are covered with a sticky brown layer. Flowering time is mainly in autumn and winter (May to July) but flower heads may be found until spring. The leaves have an unpleasant, sulphurous smell when crushed, and the young leaves are covered with minute soft hairs, becoming hairless and leathery as they mature. It tolerates light to moderate frosts once established.

It occurs in the Overberg area from Stanford to Still Bay, including Elim, Bredasdorp and Riversdale, growing on coastal limestone and sand in dense, isolated stands between sea level and 200m. It is common in the Albertinia, Still Bay area.

Protea susannae hybridises freely and is the parent to numerous hybrids such as 'Pink Ice', 'Special Pink Ice', 'Cardinal', 'Sylvia' and 'Susara'. Protea susannae is ideal for growing in sandy areas as a wind-resistant cover.

'Pink Ice' (Protea nerifilia x susanne)

Pink Ice is a very strong grower and has lovely furry pink flowers from February to April and grows +-2.5m tall with a spread of 1.5m. It tolerates short, light frosts when established.

Protea 'Liebencharm' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Liebencharm' Picture courtesy Madibri Laurel-leaf Protea, Louriersuikerbos (Protea laurifolia)

SA Tree No: 90.2 

The laurel-leaf protea has a very wide distribution throughout the inland mountains of the Western Cape, growing at altitudes between 400 and 1200m, mainly on sandstone or quartzite-derived soils or Cape granite, but it will also grow on Bokkeveld shale, which most proteas cannot tolerate. It is also very drought tolerant surviving in very inhospitable places, and is a common sight on the bleak, semi-arid landscapes of the Cedarberg and Koue Bokkeveld.

This beautiful bearded protea produces large, silvery-pink or cream flowers during autumn and winter (May to July), or even from early autumn to early summer (April to November). The beard can be purple-black, white, or mixed white and black. Its growth is variable, and it can reach anything from +-2 to 3m and often becomes a small tree +- 5 to 8m tall. The leaves are covered with minute soft hairs when young but are hairless when mature, and the surface of the leaves are coated with a whitish to blue-green ‘bloom’ that can be rubbed off, giving the entire bush a lovely greyish-green hue. It’s frost hardy and tolerates a wider range of soil types than most proteas.

Protea laurifolia is very similar to Protea neriifolia and is often confused with it, but they can be told apart by their foliage.

'Liebencharm' (Protea magnifica x laurifolia)

Liebencharm is a lovely pink protea with a white and black beard.  It tolerates light to moderate frosts and grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread.

'Marz' (Protea magnifica x laurifilia)

Marz has pinkish-red flowers with a white and black beard and flowers from April to May. It tolerates light to moderate frosts and grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread.

'Niobe' (Protea magnifica x laurifolia)

Niobe has lovely grey-green leaves  and produces green flowers with a black beard from March to May. It tolerates light frosts and grows +- 2.5m tall and 1.5m wide.

Protea 'Limelight' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Limelight' Picture courtesy Madibri Oleander-leaf Protea, Narrow-leaf Protea, Baardsuikerbos, Baardsuikerkan (Protea neriifolia)

SA Tree No: 93.1

The narrow-leaf protea is a very widespread species which grows on the southern coastal mountain ranges from just east of Cape Town and all the way to Port Elizabeth. It can often be spotted growing in large stands, at altitudes from sea-level to 1300m, growing mainly on soils derived from Table Mountain sandstone.

This protea has a wide variation in both flower colour and flowering times, depending on location and altitude. The colourful bracts vary from creamy-green, through silvery-pink to deep carmine-red, and the beards can be purple-black to pure white. Plants growing in the western part of its range flower anytime from late summer to autumn and into winter (February to July), while the plants growing within its eastern range flower from spring to early summer (August to November).

Protea neriifolia has a wider tolerance than most other proteas and can be grown easily in both the summer and winter rainfall regions of South Africa, even withstanding light, but brief frosts. The shrubs are quite fast growing and can reach a height of 3 to 5 metres.

Protea 'Blackbeard' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Blackbeard' Picture courtesy Madibri Protea neriifolia has many beautiful hybrids:

 'Cream Mink' (Protea neriifolia)

Cream Mink is a tall growing variety, +-2m tall with a spread of 1.5m, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established. It produces creamy, lime-green flowers with dark tufts on top from April to June.

'Limelight' (Protea neriifolia)

Limelight is a compact bush +-2m tall and 1.5mwide, and tolerates light to moderate frost once established. It produces delightful lime-green flowers with purple-red tufts on top.

'Blackbeard' (Protea neriifolia)

Blackbeard is tall, growing +-2.5m with a spread of 1.5m. It tolerates light to moderate frost once established, and produces its lovely terracotta-red flowers in January and February.

Long-leaf Sugarbush, Long-leaf Protea, Langblaarsuikerbos (Protea longifolia)Protea 'Liebencherry' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Liebencherry' Picture courtesy Madibri

Protea longifolia grows quickly but varies vastly in size from +-50cm to 1.5m tall, depending on location, with branches which sometimes touch the ground, and spread up to 2m wide. In the wild it is easily recognized when in full bloom in June and July, because of its noticeably long, black-beard on the central peak of the flowers. The flower bracts come in lovely shades of yellow-green, creamy-white and light orange-pink, and contrast perfectly against the curved, grey-green leaves.

It seldom forms dense stands and is sparsely distributed, growing naturally in gravel flats and sandy soils on the lower mountain slopes from Du Toit’s Kloof to Riversonderend and Bredasdorp Mountain, as well as the Elim Flats. According to the Red List of South African Plants, Protea longifolia is assessed as vulnerable, meaning that it is threatened in the wild.

Protea longifolia is a magnificent garden shrub, and is one of the most promiscuous proteas, frequently forming natural hybrids both in cultivation and in nature with neighbouring protea species like: Protea compacta, Protea magnifica, Protea repens, and Protea neriifolia.

Many hybrids like ‘Liebencherry’ (Protea repens x longifolia), and ‘Pinita’ (Protea magnifica x longifolia), are rewarding garden shrubs and loved by floral artists.

'Liebencherry' (Protea longifolia x repens)

Liebencherry is a vigorous plant with bright cherry-red flowers from March to May. It grows +-2.5m tall with a spread of 1.5m and tolerates light to moderate frosts once established.

Protea longifolia is susceptible to Phytophthora cinnamomi, but there are various hybrids that are resistant to phytophthora, like: ‘Pink Ice’, a cross between Protea compacta and Protea susannnae, which is grafted onto Protea longifolia scion.

Protea repens 'White Daddy' Picture courtesy MadibriProtea repens 'White Daddy' Picture courtesy MadibriSugarbush, Honey Protea, Suikerbos, Stroopbos (Protea repens)

SA Tree No: 94.2

Protea repens is an excellent addition to any wildlife-friendly garden as the large amount of nectar produced by the flowers attracts birds, bees and many other insects. This is a sturdy, dense shrub, +-1 to 4m tall, with hairless leaves. It can be found growing from high in the mountains of the Bokkeveld Escarpment, along the South West Cape, to east of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Although it mostly occurs on the flats, coastal forelands, lower and middle mountain slopes, it has been found at altitudes up to 1500 metres, scattered in between other fynbos plants, or in dense stands.

The flowers are fairly large and chalice-shaped, ranging in colour from a creamy-white, to white Protea repens 'Sugar Daddy' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea repens 'Sugar Daddy' Picture courtesy Madibri touched with pink, to deep red varieties. The flowering period varies from winter flowering in the western part of its range to summer flowering in its eastern range.

Protea repens is one of the most adaptable and reliable proteas to cultivate because it will grow in a wide range of soils, from heavy clay to deep white sand, and is tolerant of a large variety of growing conditions. There are variants which tolerate frost and temperatures down to -4°C, as well as those for gardens with nearly subtropical conditions.

Protea repens has many gorgeous varieties:

'White Daddy' (Protea repens variety)

White daddy is a hardy plant which is well adapted to a wide range of growing conditions, tolerating moderate frost and growing +-2.5m tall with an equal spread. Its creamy-white flowers Protes repens' Early Daddy' Picture courtesy MadibriProtes repens' Early Daddy' Picture courtesy Madibriappear from May to July.

'Early Daddy' (Protea repens variety)

Early daddy is a hardy plant which is well adapted to a wide range of growing conditions, tolerating moderate frost and growing +-2.5m tall with an equal spread. Its lovely rosy-red flowers appear from December to March.

'Sugar Daddy' (Protea repens variety)

Sugar daddy is a hardy plant which is well adapted to a wide range of growing conditions, tolerating moderate frost and growing +-2.5m tall with an equal spread. Its lovely crimson-red flowers appear from February to May.

'Red Repens' (Protea repens variety)

Red repens produces fabulous red blooms from December to February. This dense shrub grows +-2m tall and makes an excellent specimen or screening plant.

Protea caffra Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea caffra Picture courtesy Madibri  Common Sugar Bush, Gewone Suikerbos, isiQalaba (Protea caffra)

The common sugar bush is the most widely distributed protea in South Africa, and can be found growing in large colonies on rocky ridges, and in grasslands and woodlands throughout Gauteng, in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Northern Province, Mpumalanga, and the Eastern Cape as far south as the Katberg Mountains. It is tall, growing +-4m with a spread of 3m and tolerates light to moderate frosts once established.

The unusual flower heads (which may be mistaken for individual flowers) can be borne singly or in clusters. They reach up to 80mm in diameter with the outer bracts varying from reddish to pink or cream in colour. Until recently, all attempts at growing it commercially proved impossible, but fortunately they’re now available at select nurseries in Gauteng.

Waterlily Sugarbush, Lippeblomsuikerbos, igwanishe, isiqane, isiqalaba (Protea subvestita)

SA Tree No: 98

Find a beautiful picture of this protea here at

This is a protea from the summer rainfall regions which makes a wonderful large shrub or small tree in the garden, growing +-2 to 5 m tall, with a single trunk. It produces its flower heads in summer and autumn, from December to June, but is most abundant from mid to late summer, January to March. The flower bracts vary in colour from carmine or pink, to orange-pink and creamy-white. The leaves are covered with woolly hairs when immature, becoming hairless when mature. Once established it is moderately hardy to short periods of frost.

The waterlily sugarbush grows on rocky sandstone slopes in the summer rainfall regions from the Drakensberg Escarpment near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, through KwaZulu-Natal, to Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, with another population in the Klein Swarterg. It thrives in montane, highland sourveld and fynbos at altitudes between 1200 to 2300m, were it forms open woodland. It is also seen in infrequently burned areas, often in gullies, scarps, and forest margins.

Protea 'Red Baron' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea 'Red Baron' Picture courtesy Madibri Bredasdorp Protea, Limestone Sugarbush, Bredasdorpsuikerbos (Protea obtusifolia)

SA Tree No: 94

Protea obtusifolia has shiny, richly coloured flower heads which vary from deep carmine to creamy white, with many shades of pink in between. Flowering occurs from autumn until spring (April to September), peaking during midwinter (June-July). It is one of the few proteas that thrive in alkaline or acidic soils, making it one of the most adaptable proteas for gardens. It matures into a large upright, rounded shrub with a stout main trunk +-2 to 4m tall with a spread of up to 5m. The leaves are a rich, dark green and covered in minute soft hairs when young, but hairless and leathery when mature. It tolerates brief bouts of light frost once established, but is best in frost-free gardens.

It occurs along the southern Cape coast from Stanford to Cape Agulhas, Cape Infanta and Still Bay as far as Cape Vacca near the Gouritz River mouth. Populations used to occur as far west as Hermanus and Onrust but they have been wiped out by urban development. It also grows in dense stands on limestone outcrops of the Alexandria Formation, occurring exclusively in limestone or limestone-derived soils, frequently rooted between cracks and crevices in limestone bedrock. Protea obtusifolia withstands salt-laden winds during much of the year, and in parts of its range the plants endure the full blast of the almost continuous onshore winds. Plants growing under these conditions are stunted.

Protea obtusifolia is a beautiful, long-lasting cut flower and it is cultivated for the export market. It is a parent of a few hybrids that are also grown for the export market, like: Protea obtusifolia x compacta 'Red Baron' and Protea magnifica x obtusifolia 'Candida'.

'Red Baron' (Protea bruchelli x obtusifolia)

Redbaron grows 1.5m tall with a spread of 1m and produces its striking bright red-pink flowers from March to April. This very compact plant will tolerate alkaline soils and tolerates light to moderate frosts.

Red Protea, Rooisuikerkan (Protea grandiceps)

SA Tree No: 89.2

This protea produces excellent, long lasting, red flower heads, and with its broad blue-green leaves, it makes a perfect shrub for the fynbos garden. It is a compact, rounded shrub that grows +-2m high and 2 to 3m wide, with a single main trunk. The hairless leaves are blue-green with reddish margins, with a single, very visible primary vein in each leaf. The flower bracts are brick-red and heavily bearded with a thick fringe of hairs. The colour of the hairs of the beard ranges from brown to pure white or maroon, depending on where the species is growing naturally. It begins to flower in spring, and produces flower heads abundantly until mid-summer (December to January). Once established it is moderately hardy to short periods of frost.

Protea grandiceps is widespread from the Cape Peninsula and Hottentots-Holland Range to Riviersonderend, Outeniqua, Winterhoek and Kammanassie Mountains, where it can be found growing on dry to occasionally moist sandstone slopes, and is often found on peaks and steep rocky slopes where it is relatively safe from fires.

See a photograph of this lovely protea at

Protea 'Sheil' Picture courtesy MadibriProtea 'Sheil' Picture courtesy MadibriBurchell's Sugarbush, Blinksuikerbos (Protea burchellii)

Burchell's sugarbush is a medium-sized shrub which grows +-1 to 2m tall with a spread of up to 3m. The branches are produced from a single stem and are covered with lovely long, olive-green leaves with fine black points. In winter, and spring, June to August, cream-coloured to deep carmine flowers appear, making it a delightful addition to any fynbos garden.

Protea burchellii occurs in varied habitats and is not threatened, but is extinct on the Cape Peninsula. It seems to thrive on richer, well-drained soils on lower mountain slopes at altitudes of 100 to 850m, and can be found growing wild in the Hottentots-Holland to Olifants River Mountains, the Cape to Hopefield Flats, Piketberg and the upper Breede River Valley. It also occurs in isolated populations at Witzenbergvlakte.

Protea' Brenda' Picture courtesy Madibri  Protea' Brenda' Picture courtesy Madibri 'Brenda' (Protea compacta x burchelli)

Brenda is a lovely hybrid which produces brilliant red flowers in winter (May to July) and grows +-2.5m tall with a spread of 1.5m. It is tolerant of light to moderate frosts inland.

'Sheila' (Protea magnifica x burchelli)

Sheila produces its red flowers with white fringes in winter (May to July) and is a compact shrub, growing +-1.5m tall with an equal spread.  It tolerates light to moderate frosts when established.

'Lady Yasmin' (Protea burchelii x obtusifolia) (A Future Fynbos® selection)

Lady Yasmin is a lovely new addition with beautiful glossy red flowers in late autumn (April to June). It grows +-1.5m tall with an equal spread. It does not tolerate frost.

Transvaal Sugarbush, Transvaalbergsuikerbos, segwapi (Protea rubropilosa)

SA Tree No: 97

The Transvaal sugarbush is a striking protea with a neat habit, and although it is a slow growing species, and therefore not widely used in horticulture, it definitely deserves a place in the collector's garden because it provides year round interest in the garden. It forms a large shrub or tall tree depending on climatic conditions, growing +-2 to 4m tall. Cultivated plants have a spreading, rounded shape with foliage touching the ground. Wild specimens which are ravaged by a harsh climate become gnarled shrubs only reaching 1m, whereas plants grown in ideal conditions under cultivation can reach up to 8m. Red new leaves appear in the beginning of the growing season, contrasting beautifully with the older, dark green foliage. Individual flower heads appear on the tips of branches in spring and early summer (September to December). First to appear are the rich red-brown, velvety buds with white fluffy tips which continue pushing open the bud until the bracts open up flat to reveal bright pink flowers guaranteed to catch your eye.

This is a summer rainfall species from the Northern Province and Mpumalanga, occurring in an arc along the Drakensberg escarpment from Wolkberg in the north to Lydenberg in the south. It is found on south facing slopes at altitudes of between 1400 to 2300m, and these high altitudes result in frequent mists and more than 1000mm of rain in summer. Protea rubropilosa forms open woodlands growing alongside P. roupelliae, on acidic soils originating from sandstone or quartzite.

See a photograph of this lovely protea at

In the Garden:

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.

Most proteas do not thrive in humid regions, but a couple are more resilient to subtropical climates. Others tolerate light to moderate frosts in Highveld gardens. And, although most do not tolerate alkaline or heavy clay soils, others are very adaptable, with protea repens being one of the most adaptable and reliable protea to cultivate because it will grow in a wide range of soils, from heavy clay to deep white sand, and is also tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. Protea eximia, the broad-leaf sugarbush also tolerates quite a wide range of soils, growing well in gardens with alkaline soils where most mountain proteas fail.

Refer to the list above to find those most suitable for your soil and climate, and remember that your local garden centre will stock those most suited to your specific region.


Proteas are fairly adaptable and will grow in most regions of South Africa if their needs are met. The majority grow naturally in the winter rainfall regions of the Cape Province where the rainfall is high from autumn to spring. And, because they grow on slopes in close proximity to the sea, the plants still receive some humidity and mist during the long, hot and dry summers. When growing these species inland, ensure that they are watered regularly from autumn to spring. Many varieties are hardy to light to moderate frost once established, but need protection when young.

The right soil is most important and most proteas need a slightly acid soil. See the individual plant list above to find those which will grow in clay, and alkaline soils. In the winter-rainfall regions they grow on rocky, very well-drained, nutrient-poor, acidic soil, so if you wish to cultivate these types in the garden it is vital that the soil also has perfect drainage. If your soil is not acidic, add generous quantities of specialist protea potting soil to the planting beds. Most proteas do not do well in very heavy clay soils, so if your soil is less than perfect, try growing them in containers or raised beds.

If your soil is heavy but still drains quite well you can improve it to plant proteas, 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 protea, 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 protea can live for a long time, so it’s best to give it a good start. Once the bed is nicely dug over, 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.

On the mountain slopes where they grow, proteas receive full sun and it is also very windy, so ensure that your plants receive enough sun in the garden, and do not use them in small enclosed gardens or courtyards where it is hot and stuffy, with insufficient air flow.

Although proteas can be planted out at any time, in the winter rainfall regions new plants are best planted out in autumn before the rains arrive, and in the summer rainfall regions it is best to plant in spring or early summer when all danger of frost is over. When purchasing your plants, remember that smaller plants will transplant easier than large ones.

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.

Do not use concentrated fertilisers, and especially those high in phosphates on proteas, as they prefer nutrient poor soils.  Rather apply organic mulches such as bark or wood chips, around their roots. 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.

Proteas 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.

Because they grow naturally in very poor soils which are low phosphates, specimens growing in the garden do not generally need to be fed.  However, like those growing in pots, you can feed them occasionally with organic fertilisers like Seagro, Bio Ganic All Purpose, and Bio Ocean.

Pruning proteas not only keeps them neat and tidy in the garden, but also improves the quality and quantity of flowers. After the first six months to a year, lightly ‘tip prune’ the young plants, starting in spring and continuing until late summer. This will give you a lovely compact bush. After their first flush of flowers, they can be pruned again by cutting the flower stem about 15cm above where it branches out from the main stem. Pruning every year thereafter after flowering will keep your protea in good shape. Always prune out any weak, diseased, or damaged stems, as this encourages the remaining stems to produce healthier, more vigorous growth. Never remove more than 50 percent of the plant’s leaves at one time, and always leave about 15cm of healthy leafy stem on which new shoots can develop.


Proteas can be propagated from seed or cuttings but both means can be tricky, so if you only want a couple for your garden, it will be a lot quicker to pop into your local garden centre to select your favourites.

Only healthy plants which do not show any symptoms of disease or stress are suitable for taking cuttings, which are usually taken from December to the end of April in South Africa.  Only the ends of the shoots are used for cuttings, and to see if the wood is ready, take the end of a young stem, about 20cm, and bend it back towards the main stem - if the ends can touch each other easily without snapping, the wood is still too young and soft to cut; however, if the cutting breaks easily, it is past its best. The trick is to take cuttings which are semi-hard.

Using a razor blade, take a cutting about 7cm long and remove about 50% of all the lower leaves. Dip the cut end lightly into a rooting hormone, which helps the cutting develop strong roots more quickly. Insert the cut end into a container filled with river sand and water until the sand feels moist. Put the container in a propagation case, or cover the top loosely with a plastic bag. Keep in shade, or filtered sun, and water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Protea cuttings should develop roots within 6 to 10 weeks.

The cuttings are then transplanted into growing bags filled with a mixture of coarse sand and peat to grow on. It is good to transplant proteas out into the garden when they are still quite small, so once the plants are established and showing good growth it is time to plant them out.

Although it is possible to propagate protea by seed, it is more difficult than doing so with cuttings, and those grown from seed may show variations of blooms not seen in the parent plant. Germination is difficult, as many protea seeds stay dormant for years, while others only germinate when exposed to smoke and fire. Smoke primer disks are often sold together with protea seeds and contain the same chemicals found in brush fire smoke. Soaking the seeds in these chemicals helps germination.

To sow protea seeds, fill individual small pots with one-half coco peat and one-half coarse sand. Plant only one seed per pot, and plant about 2 to 4cm deep. Moisten the soil, but do not overwater, and keep the soil temperature between 10 to 15° C. Germination takes between one and three months.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown correctly in the garden proteas should be relatively pest and disease free. However, even those growing wild in the Cape Province, are attacked by pests and diseases, and this poses a problem for all gardeners, even for gardeners in the Cape, because they want to spray the pests to protect their plants. However, if only toxic chemicals are used to control these enemies, it is good to remember that these chemicals are not selective and will also kill off many natural predators which help to protect protea species from pests. Indiscriminate spraying in the garden, even if it is with an environmentally friendly product will likely lead to even bigger problems in the future because the natural cycle has been disrupted. Therefore, if you wish to grow proteas always chose environmentally-friendly control methods, but only use them as prescribed and when absolutely necessary.

Damping off diseases result in sudden, large-scale deaths of proteas. The fungus lives on the soil surface and attacks seedlings at ground level, killing cells in the stem and hence the entire plant. Taking care not to damage or disturb the roots and ensuring that the soil has perfect drainage will go a long way in preventing this.

The roots of proteas are very susceptible to fungal attack, and particularly the fungal disease Phytophthora cinnamoni (root rot fungus). This is a soil-borne fungus which results in root decay of both young and adult plants. It is spread in water, and occurs in all rivers throughout South Africa. It proliferates in disturbed soils, but thankfully it cannot spread fast in the acidic soils on which most proteas thrive.

Different species of proteas vary in their susceptibility to Phytophthora. In resistant species the symptoms are stunted growth and branch die back, whereas susceptible species can literally wilt and die overnight. If detected early enough, a severe pruning (removing 50-80% of leaves) may occasionally allow plants to recover.

The growth period, when new leaves and shoots are being formed, is usually the time when fungi attack the plants. Plants subjected to stress due to drought, or on the other extreme, by an excess of water, are more susceptible to disease.

Leaf speck, blotch and spot diseases are caused by fungi which live superficially on the leaves and although they spoil the appearance of the leaves, they seldom require treatment, but can be treated with an appropriate fungicide.

Cankers, lesions on stems and shoots, and leaf blight in protea are due to Colletotrichium, a fungus which also causes dieback in seedlings.

To help keep fungal diseases at bay avoid planting susceptible species or cultivars and sow only sterilised seeds. It is also essential to sterilise all equipment like secateurs with a strong fungicide, before and after using them on proteas. Even the mulch used should be sterilised, and any dead or infected branches should be completely cut out and burnt. Spray or dust infected areas with fungicides.

Scab is caused by an Elsinoe fungus, and the symptoms are similar to citrus scab, showing as corky lesions on the leaves, shoots and flowering branches, and resulting in twisting and distortion of the stem and reduced flowering. Infection usually occurs when wet weather coincides with a growth flush, and is enhanced by overhead irrigation.

Treatment includes avoiding planting susceptible species or cultivars, avoiding overhead watering, and ensuring air circulation is good. Spraying or dusting the plants with a contact or systemic fungicide, will go a long way in preventing scab.

Witches broom occurs on a variety of protea species and is associated with the Eriphyoid mite, Aceria proteae. The symptoms are a fine proliferation of small leaves and stems, often with a redder tint than normal leaves. This condition usually leads to the death of young seedlings, and in older plants, the entire stem will stop flowering and die off slowly.

Treatment includes pruning out and burning all diseased branches, and spraying or dusting the plants and soil around the plants with a systemic pesticide.

If the leaves show signs of yellowing, give the plants a single dose of Wonder Ferrofood granules or any other iron chelate product, using the lowest recommended dose.