Proteas have distinctive flowers with a central boss surrounded by tough often rigid outer petals. These dramatic flowers are ancient plants that link the flora of South Africa with our own native plants.

Millions of years ago Australia and South Africa were joined and part of a much larger southern continent called Gondwana. Over time this supercontinent broke up and the landmasses drifted apart. Their cargoes of plants developed and changed but many retained features of their common ancestry.

Proteas along with the closely related leucadendrons and leucospermums are native to South Africa and date back to Gondwana as do Australia’s waratahs, banksias and grevilleas. Their common ancestry is recognised as they are grouped into a family known as Proteaceae.

Proteas share many of the same growing needs as their Australian relatives. Like the waratahs and other Australian members of the Proteaceae, proteas have roots that are adapted to soils that are low in phosphorus.

Successful growing

Knowing a little of the botany of proteas helps to understand how they grow. They need a well-drained, slightly acid soil. A sandy loam is ideal. These plants are susceptible to root rot but good soil drainage helps avoid root disease problems. Where soil is not well drained grow proteas along with leucadendrons and leucospermums in raised garden beds, mounds or large containers.

Select a garden position in full sun with good air circulation (for example away from fences or walls). Some proteas tolerate light shade, but flowering and growth is better in a sunny situation.

Although proteas are evergreen, most tolerate light frost and some varieties can withstand conditions to minus 6C.

On-going care

Although not heavy feeders, most proteas benefit from a light application of compost or fertiliser in spring. Select a low phosphorus slow-release fertiliser such as a native plant food.

Protea blooms last many weeks with most having their main flowering in spring. As the flowers fade they can be pruned off. This serves to keep the plants bushy and encourage new growth.

Established plants need little watering unless times are dry, however new plantings should be watered regularly until they are established. Take care to water proteas adequately during their first summer in the garden. A good regime for established proteas is a weekly watering when there is no regular rainfall. Containerised plants should be checked daily and watered when dry.

In the garden

Grow proteas and their relatives as feature plants or as part of a mixed shrubbery. Expect plants to form medium shrubs 1-2m high and wide depending on the variety selected. They are also a top choice for cut flowers. In the garden they team well with closely related Australian natives such as banksias, or with other South African plants such as agapanthus, red hot pokers and osteospermum daisies.

Top protea varieties include ‘King Pink’ and ‘King White’ both with huge flowers, ‘Pink Ice’ and ‘Special Pink Ice’ which are among the most reliable of all proteas, and ‘Little Prince’, which is a compact form that’s a good choice for smaller gardens or pots.

Leucadendrons, leucospermums and serrurias (commonly called blushing bride) need the same care and growing conditions as proteas. For top low-care colour it’s hard to beat ‘Safari Sunset’ and ‘Gypsy’, hybrid leucadendrons with red, long-lasting foliage from autumn to winter.