When I first became interested in floral design, proteas were still a novelty. On one occasion, I placed a special order far in advance through a retail florist for an event I was planning. However, they weren’t to be found. So I had to do without. Happily, that has now changed. Now, proteas are generally available year-round on a regular basis.
This widespread availability doesn’t mean they’re cheap. However, you normally will need to buy a limited number in any case. That’s because they’re typically used as a focal point. The proteas are often used in combination with other exotics.
Protea is named for Proteus. He was the Greek god of the sea, and reportedly had the power of prophecy.
As a group, the proteas include at least seven or more species as well as any number of hybrids.
What we think of as a single protea flower is actually many individual blossoms. This compares to a daisy, which features large numbers of tiny blossoms in its center. In the case of the protea, these emerge in a cone-like shape from a base surrounded by ornamental bracts.
Sometimes the bracts will have hairs on their tips. These are called beards.
Two of the best known are the Queen Protea (Protea magnifera) and the king protea (Protea cynaroides). So far as the other species are concerned, they are known by various common names. Protea nerifolia is commonly called pink mink.
King protea (Protea cynaroides) can be up to eight inches wide. They’re typically red or pink.
Duchess or rose spoon protea (Protea eximia) is noted for the fine, white hairs on the dramatic red or pinkish-red bracts.
White mink protea (Protea nerifolia) comes in both white and pink varieties. This is noted for the black hairs on the colorful bracts.
Sugarbush, also known as honey protea (Protea repens) is easily recognized by its multi-flowered stems. The flower heads are somewhat sticky. The very tips of the bracts often have touches of pink or dark red.
The blooms of the individual protea do vary somewhat in appearance. Available in a wide range of colors, they display a wide selection of different forms. For the most part, they tend to be round with dramatically colored bracts and feathery centers. There is considerable variation in the width.
Protea flowers open on long, sturdy, woody stems that tend to be leafy. These plants are really shrubs, and are native to relatively frost-free areas of Africa. In South Africa, there are around 20 different species alone. The kind protea has been chosen as the national flower for South Africa.
In addition to their use as a cut flower, some species of proteas make great dried everlastings. These are generally available year-round. Sometimes these are dyed or sprayed. As an everlasting, the proteas can be used as a mass plant and is often combined with other natural dried materials, such as cones and pods.
What floral designers will appreciate most is the vase life. Fresh protea stems can last for three weeks or so.
When it comes to buy proteas, you will find several related species for sale, some of which bear the common name of protea.
For example, pincushion protea is actually a species of Leucospermum, while some species of Banksias are also sometimes called protea.
Despite all this confusion with common names, all of these make up one big happy family. The Banksias, Leucospermums, and Protea all belong to the same botanical family—Proteaceae.