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Can you really grow proteas in Northern California?

Can you really grow proteas in northern California?

The proteas have arrived. In the last few years, these handsome, evergreen flowering shrubs--though still more widely grown in Southern California and Hawaii --have slowly invaded nurseries in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of northern California.

Usually sold in long, narrow plastic containers (to promote taproots) accompanied by pictures of their wildly exotic flowers, they're a tempting purchase. But will these natives of South Africa and Australia really grow and bloom here?

The answer is yes--if you choose the right plant, then follow certain rules to take care of it.

Here are the most reliable choices

The Proteaceae family is a very large one, but the common choices for exotic flowers come from four main genera: Banksia, Leucodendron, Leucospermum, and Protea. Plants range from small shrubs as low as 3 feet high to large trees.

Foliage can be quite distinctive, but proteas are really grown for their flowers, which words can't justly describe. They range from small, green pine cone-looking things to shockingly colorful, fuzzy-furry, unworldly blooms up to a foot across. Most plants bloom for at least two months, a few all year. Flowers are outstanding in fresh or dried bouquets.

What you can grow depends, to a certain extent, on where you live. Some coastal influence is best, but some types are adapted to warmer inland conditions. Exact hardiness is not known for many of these plants, but the hardier ones can take temperatures down to at least 25|.

Banksia. Two of the showiest and most reliable are B. ericifolia, reaching up to 15 feet high with cylindrical orange blooms in fall and winter, and rickrack banksia (B. speciosa), with handsome saw-toothed leaves on plants that grow 10 to 25 feet high. Yellow 5- to 8-inch-long flowers appear from spring to fall.

Leucodendron. Flametip (L. discolor) appears to be one of the best of this genus. It grows 6 to 7 feet high with red-centered light yellow blooms in spring. Near the coast, however, the 30- to 40-foot-high silver tree (L. argenteum), with its shiny silver foliage, can be a real show stopper.

Leucospermum. The most obliging is the pincushion (L. cordifolium). It reaches about 4 to 6 feet high. From late winter to spring, it produces 4-inch yellow to pink-orange blooms shaped like sea urchins.

Protea. Among the most widely adapted and easier-to-grow proteas are some named after a royal family because of their uncommon flowers. These species include king (P. cynaroides), which reaches 3 to 7 feet high and produces large, artichoke-like, pink to red blooms in late winter and spring; duchess (P. eximia), which reaches 6 to 8 feet and bears 4- to 5-inch pink to red blooms on and off all year; and the jester (P. obtusifolia), which grows 8 to 12 feet high and from fall to spring bears 5-inch red or white oval flowers. Two others are pink mink (P. neriifolia), which grows about 6 feet high, with black-trimmed, fuzzy pink 6-inch blooms from late summer to spring; and sugarbush (P. repens), which grows 7 to 10 feet high and blooms in summer or winter, producing rose or white 3-inch flowers.

Now's the time to plant, but drainage must be excellent

November, just before winter rains, is ideal planting time for proteas. Spring has proven less successful at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, where several hundred proteas and protea relatives grow.

Proteas need excellent drainage, or they quickly succumb to root rot. In areas with coastal influence, southwest-facing hillsides with sandy or gravelly acid soil are ideal. In warm inland areas, give plants some afternoon shade. Also, make sure your proteas have room to breathe: they don't like to be crowded.

Before you plant, fill the planting hole with water, let it drain, then fill it again. If the water doesn't drain out again in just a few hours, you may have problems; in this case, plant in raised mounds or containers instead. Wherever you plant, set the protea about an inch higher than it was in its nursery container. This will help prevent it from settling too low.

After planting, apply 3 to 4 inches of organic mulch to keep the soil cool.

Be careful with water and fertilizer

Like other plants that require excellent drainage, proteas can be killed by too much irrigation. Water new plantings about once a week until established. Gradually cut back as they get older. Mature plants can get by on one deep watering a month near the coast; inland, water twice monthly. Keep proteas thirsty, not soggy.

Most proteas need little fertilizer--probably none until they're at least two years old. If you do feed, use a liquid fertilizer low in phosphorous (plants are sensitive to excess amounts), such as fish emulsion; apply it when plants have finished blooming. An occasional application of iron chelates will help green up plants growing in alkaline soils.

Proteas respond well to pruning, and in fact look better if lightly sheared after bloom. Few have serious pest problems.

Photo: Gently slide rootball of new banksia from its sleeve before planting. Welldrained hillsides are ideal locations

Photo: Coral blooms crown a pincushion at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

Photo: Dramatic flower heads characterize proteas. Left to right in this bouquet, they're shell pink king protea, yellow flametip, and yellow-orange pincushion
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 1987
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