Perhaps protea sounds familiar. If you know anything about the son of Poseidon, you’ll recognize the name. It was said that Proteus could transform himself at will, adopting many shapes and guises, each wildly different from the next.
The genus Protea is named after him, as some flowers look wildly different to each other, though they are related.
At a Glance: Protea Facts
Like their namesake, these unique plants come in many forms, colors, and sizes.
Also known as sugarbushes, fynbos, or proteas, these interesting plants divide opinions almost as much as pineapple on pizza.
Protea flowers are among the most unusual flowers that we’ve discovered, but they are also a diverse species which is fairly old in itself.
All Protea flowers come from the Proteaceae family, which can be then divided into 75 genera, covering at least 1350 different species of plants.
All of the plants within this family are native to South America, Australia, and South Africa. They are also pollinated by a range of animals, including marsupials, birds, and bats in their native habitats.
This not only makes for a fantastic sight, but also illustrates how integral these plants are to their respective ecosystems.
Protea flowers are instantly recognizable, mostly for the way people ask in admiration, “What the heck is that?”
So, how do you tell if something is a Protea plant?
Protea Plant Traits
Protea plants have very thick, leathery foliage. If you try to bend the leaves, they will snap instead of folding over. They grow directly on the stem of the plant, and grow alternately along the stem.
The stem of a protea plant always grows as either a woody shrub or a tree, and is strong with a compact growth, usually reaching about a meter tall.
The flower head is very interesting. It’s usually bowl or cup-shaped, and tends to be the largest portion of the plant.
Colorful bracts point upward from the flower head, and match the color of the flower itself, and while they look like petals, they border many tiny flowers which make up the whole.
The flowers themselves come in many colors, including red, orange, yellow, pink, white, and cream.
The Proteaceae plant family divides into two species: Proteoideae and Grevilleoideae.
The former is formed of plants which are only found in South Africa, and the latter makes up those plants which come from South America and Australia.
These plants are very resilient, as they have adapted to survive some of the harshest conditions that their native habitats can throw at them.
How to Grow Protea Flowers
Above all, protea flowers need well-draining soil in order to grow properly. You can improve soil drainage by adding sand and grit – though it would be easier to grow proteas in a container, where you can alter this a little easier.
These plants will only need watering sparingly, every two to three weeks, which is one of the reasons why good drainage is so vital. If your plants are immature, you will need to water them a little more often than mature plants.
The soil has to be acidic, and of poor quality. You’ll also need to hold off on the fertilizer, as protea plants are used to very poor conditions, and you may kill them with kindness.
If you have a particularly rocky part of your garden where plants seem to struggle, this will probably be perfect for protea plants to thrive.
Proteas are very hardy plants, and can withstand temperatures from 23-100°F.
They do have a habit of spreading, so it is best to grow protea plants where you can give them plenty of room.
Types of Protea To Grow Yourself
Protea Magnifica x longifolia ‘Possum Magic’
This protea is perfect for smaller spaces, as it has a compact habit. It grows as a thick bush, featuring either golden pink petals or yellow petals, tinged with orange at the edges.
It’s more frost tolerant than most proteas, and can also live in heavier soils, making it the perfect choice for gardens which don’t have as warm a climate as the protea has evolved to survive in.
Banksia menziesii ‘Raspberry Frost’
When this protea flowers, it really comes into its own. The flowers feature silver tips which look like frost, and the whole cone is red, ringed with yellow at its base.
The flower head can grow to a maximum of 4 inches long, and 3 inches wide, and it also makes a great cut or even dried flower.
Leucadendron ‘Red Gym’
If you’d prefer a solid color in your protea flowers, ‘Red Gym’ is a great option. Each petal is bright red, contrasting well against the bright green foliage.
The flower has a white center, and Leucadendron is a perfect protea as it hardly needs any maintenance at all.
Protea laurifolia ‘Rose Mink’
This protea shrub can reach an impressive 10 feet tall, given the right conditions.
The leaves are laurel-shaped, and the huge flower heads appear in winter, providing a pop of pink, tipped with black and white hair.
Protea neriifolia x susannae ‘Special Pink Ice’
One of the most-forgiving proteas when it comes to underwatering, ‘Special Pink Ice’ features dark foliage, and flowers which are seeped in pink.
Protea cynaroides ‘King Protea’
The national flower of South Africa, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s probably the most recognizable protea out there, featuring huge red and yellow flowers, with white bracts.
The flower head looks like a crown, and this is where the name comes from. This type also boasts the biggest flower head within the Protea genus, making it a fantastic plant.
It also makes the perfect cut flower, as it’s been noted to have a long vase life.
In the wild, it has evolved to survive severe wildflowers by growing a thick underground stem, which contains buds which the plant will regrow from in the event of a wildfire.
There are two varieties of the ‘King Protea’ in particular that are worth mentioning:
King Protea White
Featuring nearly all-white petals with a hint of green, this gorgeous flower will stop anyone in their tracks. It also spreads readily, so you’ll need to give it a lot of breathing room.
If you have a rockery, or a bed which is particularly stony and sits in full sun, this is an ideal position.
King Protea Pink
This is a very eye-catching protea, boasting pink petals, which turn paler as these individual florets mature. The foliage is also a nice feature in itself as a golden yellow.
Banksia baxteri ‘Bird’s Nest’
If you’d prefer more green in your garden, Banksia baxteri ‘Bird’s Nest’ is a great example, as both the foliage and the flowers on this particular plant are green. It also makes a great plant to off-set other colors.
Leucospermum ‘Spider Hybrid’
A very eye-catching protea, Leucospermum ‘Spider Hybrid’ has an intriguing flower head, resembling a pincushion with golden-yellow and salmon florets.
The stamens are tinged in red at the edges, and these flowers appear from the end of winter into spring.
It can reach a maximum of 8 feet tall, spreading to around 10 feet in width, so you’ll need to give it plenty of room.
Protea susannae x Magnifica ‘Susara’
If you’d prefer a protea which you could grow in a container, ‘Susara’ is the perfect choice. It produces flowers prolifically from winter through to early spring.
It’s also suitable for soil which has some alkalinity, and the flowers appear in salmon pink and a light red.
Leucospermum cordifolium ‘Pincushion Protea’
Another compact protea, the ‘Pincushion Protea’ is a wonderful plant that is also evergreen, and reaches about 4 feet in height.
They attract a wealth of wildlife, including pollinators, and other insects which harvest nectar from the tips of the flowers.
Banksia ashbyi ‘Banksia Ashby’
Only found naturally in Western Australia, this plant produces unique orange flowers which resemble huge bottle brushes, and the flowers themselves can reach 6 inches long, and 3 inches wide.
In its native habitat, this striking plant flowers either from February to May, or from July until December, and produces fruit.
Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum ‘Skyrocket’
Also referred to as the fireworks protea, this variety produces a fantastic display. The flowers resemble a rocket taking off, leaving a trail of fire behind it, or a shower of golden sparks which sets off nicely against the thick foliage.
This lovely plant is very hardy to fierce temperatures and full sun, all the while putting on a fantastic display in your garden, with huge yellow flowers that grow at the top of the plant.
Protea obtusifolia ‘Limestone Sugarbush’
This particular Protea grows to around 9 feet tall, and produces gorgeous flowers which have pinkish flowers, turning yellow at the bottom of the bloom.
Unfortunately, this particular protea doesn’t have a great tolerance for cold temperatures, so you will need to provide it with some winter protection to stop the cold from damaging the new growth.
Protea lepidocarpodendron ‘Black Beard’
For a truly unusual flower, you can’t go wrong with ‘Black Beard’, which features black petals atop a creamy-white flower head.
The flower head itself is daintier than it sounds, only reaching a comparably petite 2 inches wide.
If you’d prefer your Protea flowers with a little more color, Leucospermum ‘Vanessa’ is a great choice. The blooms come in orange, yellow, white, and dark-pink, usually as a combination.
The bracts that protrude from the flower head curve upward, which makes for a fascinating and unusual display.
This type of Protea spreads very well, so it is advisable to plant it somewhere with plenty of room.
Protea rupens x aristata ‘Venus PBR’
This is a very undemanding protea, so as long as you place it in full sun with well-draining soil, it will produce a plethora of salmon pink flowers which work well with any planting scheme.
Leucospermum laureolum hybrid ‘Burgundy Sunset PBR’
While this is a tender evergreen Protea, it produces the most fantastic display of yellow-green flowers with crimson bracts, which offset the burgundy leaves beautifully.
The bracts themselves mature to a golden yellow, and the plant itself can get up to 2 meters tall.
Leucadendron argenteum ‘Silver Tree’
If you’d prefer a lighter display of color that’s no less dramatic, Leucadendron argenteum ‘Silver Tree’ is a great choice.
The leaves are a silvery gray, and depending on the gender of the plant you get, you’ll see either circular yellow-green male flowers, or silvery female flowers.
Protea cynaroides ‘The Madiba Protea’
A smaller version of the King Protea, but the ‘Madiba Protea’ is no less beautiful. The flowers come in a lovely crimson to pink.
The flower itself is named after Nelson Mandela’s tribe.
Protea Magnifica x pudens ‘Juliet’
This protea is perfect for container gardens. It’s a more compact variety, and produces coppery pink blooms. It’s not fussy about the type of soil, so long as it’s well drained, and in a position of full sunlight.
Banksia speciosa ‘Mint Julep’
This Banksia is perfect for cut flower gardens, producing flowers in shades of white and cream, reaching about 5 inches in height.
These petite blooms are perfect for any flower arrangement, whether you use them fresh, or choose to dry them.
Protea Magnifica ‘The Queen Protea’
One of the most longed-for proteas, the ‘Queen Protea’ is the second-largest flowering protea after the king protea.
The flower head looks almost wooly, and the outer bracts can come in cream, pink, and crimson, and the rest of the flower is available in white, a deep purple, or maroon.
Protea eximia ‘The Duchess Protea’
One of the easiest proteas to grow, this is a robust variety which produces captivating pink flowers with a purple center, contrasting well with the silvery leaves.
Protea neriifolia ‘Cream Mink’
This lovely protea features elongated foliage and cream flowers which have dark tips. It’s also a very hardy species, which thrives in coastal conditions and heavier soil.
Leucospermum ‘High Gold’
The ‘High Gold’ Leucospermum needs full sun and acidic soil which drains freely, and once you get that done, it will reward you with gorgeous rays of yellow flowers on the top of gray-green foliage.
Serruria Florida ‘Blushing Bride’
This is a fairly old protea, and records go back to 1773. The common name comes from the flowers’ resemblance to a bridal dress, with hints of pink. The plant itself can reach a meter tall, and spreads about the same.
Protea neriifolia x laurifolia ‘Niobe’
If you’d like a protea that isn’t very demanding (not that they are, as a rule), ‘Niobe’ is a nice option. It also has the benefit of producing unique lime-green flowers with purple tips, putting on a fabulous display.
Also known as the Bot River protea, this plant grows as a single stem, reaching a maximum height of 3.5 feet tall. The flowers are large, featuring hot-pink bracts around the outside of the flower head, covered in hairs.
Also referred to as the Ladismith sugarbush, while this plant was only discovered in the 1920s, it has become one of the most popular. The flower heads are captivating, appearing in the most stunning crimson-pink.
Protea compacta x Magnifica ‘Lady Di’
One of many protea hybrids, ‘Lady Di’ produces pink flowers with white tips, which appear in the start of winter, all the way through to spring.
Protea laetans ‘Blyde Protea’
This protea produces crimson flowers atop grayish green leaves. It also needs much more water than some of the other proteas on this list, which makes it perfect if you live in an area which gets a lot of downpours.
Protea compacta hybrid ‘Donna’
A very drought-resistant protea, ‘Donna’ works both as a hedge in a border as well as a lovely cut flower, producing white flower heads which have tinges of pink and yellow.
Also known as the forest sugarbush, this protea has a fast-growing habit, making it perfect for those bare spaces in your garden. It also attracts a plethora of wildlife to its creamy-white flowers.
While most proteas require acidic soil, Protea Lanceolata needs alkaline soil. It’s an endangered species in the wild, so make sure you get it from a reputable source.
Telopea speciosissima ‘Waratah’
One of the more compact flower heads you’ll find on this list, ‘Waratah’ produces striking flowers in crimson. The plant is also used as part of traditional medicine.
Protea neriifolia hybrid ‘Frosted Fire’
An evergreen protea, this hybrid produces gorgeous flowers, though it can only tolerate very mild winters. The blooms feature red and orange florets, tinged with white which resembles frost, hence the name.
Protea caffra ‘Common Protea’
There are several subspecies within the common Protea, but most form a solitary flower head, or in clusters of 3 to 4. The flowers usually appear in pale red, pink, and white.
If you’re picturing a protea which will almost certainly fill any space in your garden with ease, this protea is for you, as it has one of the most vigorous growing habits.
The flowers range in color, from white, green, or yellow, with a hint of orange or pink in the outer bracts.
Protea scolymocephala ‘Thistle’
If you don’t have a lot of room, but you’d still like to grow a protea, Protea scolymocephala ‘Thistle’ is the one for you. It has a compact form, and produces white to green-tinged petals.
Protea Roupelliae subspecies hamiltonii
Smaller still, is the Protea Roupelliae, specifically the hamiltonii subspecies, as it is a dwarf protea. In the warmth of summer, these plants produce striking pink and white flowers.
The Protea nitida is the only type which grows large enough to harvest timber. The flowers are a sunshine-yellow, with white hearts.
Protea curvata ‘Serpentine sugarbush’
The serpentine sugarbush is protected in the wild, and the flowers produced are usually pink, turning white at the edges.
The heart of each flower is usually white, though it can also be purple.
Frequently Asked Questions About Protea Plants
Where do Protea Flowers Grow?
As the protea is the national flower of South Africa, some assume that these flowers are only endemic to South Africa.
While it probably isn’t a complete surprise that you can get them in Australia, considering their weird and wonderful appearance, like the majority of Australia’s flora, you can also find them in other parts of the world.
Because the Proteaceae family is so large, these unusual plants are also native to the Southern Hemisphere, though you can find most of them in Australia and South Africa.
Because of their appearance, some people assume that they are tricky to care for. Like any plant, as long as you can mimic their native conditions to some extent, they will thrive.
Most proteas need full sun, well-draining soil, and consistent hot temperatures in order to survive.
Are Protea Flowers Toxic?
All parts of protea plants are toxic. The flowers, nectar, and seeds produced are highly toxic to humans and pets.
It’s a defense mechanism of the plant that when any part of the plant is ingested, it causes pain and irritation.
It’s not recommended growing proteas if you have pets or children – even if they only visit occasionally, as it’s best to eliminate the risk entirely.
What does a Protea Flower Mean?
Protea flowers symbolize change, diversity, and the value in unique traits, thanks to their namesake, Proteus.
They also symbolize resilience, as most proteas grow in places which other plants find the conditions difficult to thrive in.
Tips for Growing Proteas
Protea plants aren’t extremely difficult to grow, but it can be difficult to get them to adapt to the conditions in your garden, especially if they are wildly different from what they are used to.
The first thing you need to make sure is that the soil drains well. If it does need some help, add grit and coarse sand to the soil, which will help moisture drain away from the plant roots.
Most protea plants have evolved to sit under full sunlight all day, so the sunnier the position within your garden, the better your plants will thrive.
You’ll also need to make sure that the place you choose is in a sheltered area, as they cannot abide much water.
They have evolved to withstand long dry spells, so most only need watering every two weeks or so, depending on the weather.
You can also deadhead the flowers, and this will help the plants produce more. Although, if you want to harvest dried flowers, you’re best leaving them on the foliage until the flowers dry.
Proteas are fantastic plants with some of the most diverse flowers out there, except for orchids, of course.
While they aren’t as grown as often as orchids, they are no less beautiful, and their popularity is only increasing.
They are valued for their huge diversity and ornamental qualities that add a wealth of color and interest into any space, and there’s one for every garden, no matter where you live.
They also help attract different pollinators into your garden, which only benefits your garden’s overall appearance and health.