By Nita Robertson, AIFD, CFD

Botanical Name: Protea

Common Name: Sugarbush

Family: Proteaceae

Pink Ice Resendiz Brothers
Pink Ice Resendiz Brothers

The many species in the genus Protea are among the most fascinating flowers on the planet. The best-known genus in the Proteaceaefamily, and the one for which it is named, Protea comprises more than 130 species, the majority of which are native to the African continent—primarily the Cape provinces of South Africa (the Cape Floral Region) but also countries in the tropical regions of Africa, which are north of South Africa. It is often—but incorrectly—believed that Protea is native to Australia, which is understandable because the majority of genera in the Proteaceae family, including BanksiaTelopea (waratah) and Grevillea, are native to the Land Down Under. Just not Protea.

To clear up other common misunderstandings, here is a list of the most widely known genera in the Proteaceae family that are widely cultivated as cut flowers and that many people refer to as “proteas.” Again, the genus Protea—which is the focus of this article—is just one member of this family of distinctive blooms; the others are Proteaceae, not Protea.

• Protea (common name: sugarbush—because of the copious amounts of nectar they produce)

• Banksia

• Leucospermum (common name: pincushion)

• Leucadendron (common name: conebush)

• Telopea (common name: waratah)

• Grevillea (the flowers are commonly known as spider flower, and the foliage is commonly known as silky oak)

• Serruria (the S. florida species is commonly known as blushing bride)

• Dryandra

• Hakea (common names: needle bush, pincushion tree)

• Isopogon (common names: conebush, coneflower, conestick, drumstick)

• Persoonia (common names: geebung, snottygobble)

• Conospermum (common name: smokebush)

Grevillea Flowers-Resendiz Brothers

Within the Protea genus, there are myriad intriguing species, with varying flower sizes and foliage form, and spectacular new hybrids are constantly being developed and grown in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. In the U.S., the major growing centers for Protea—and other Proteaceae family members—are San Diego County, in California, and the island of Maui, in Hawaii. 

It exciting to see these flowers trending in both event and retail work, making them more recognized, appreciated and in demand. “The demand for Protea has reached fever pitch because their sturdy stems and distinctive long-lasting blooms make them the perfect cut flowers for clients of all kinds—from bridal and corporate to everyday,” shares Diana Roy, business manager at Resendiz Brothers Protea Growers in Fallbrook, Calif. Are you showcasing these amazing blooms to your customers on a regular basis? They are guaranteed to generate a lot of interest and excitement—and buzz about your shop.

Protea arrangement by Resendiz Brothers
Protea arrangement by Resendiz Brothers

Types (Species) of Protea

King Protea-Resendiz Brothers

It is estimated that there are more than 130 “naturally occurring” species of Protea and dozens more “man-made” hybrid species (crossbreeds). And within each of those species, there numerous varieties (cultivars). Among the species, the most well-known as cut flowers include the following:

• Protea cynaroides
  king Protea, king sugarbush, giant sugarbush

• Protea magnifica
  queen Protea, queen sugarbush, bearded Protea, woolly-headed Protea, giant woolly beard

• Protea compacta
  prince Protea, prince sugarbush, Bot River Protea, Bot River sugarbush
  (popular varieties include ‘Stately’, ‘Pink Cream’ ‘Trish’ and ‘Donna’)

• Protea grandiceps
  princess Protea, princess sugarbush, red sugarbush, peach Protea
  (popular varieties include ‘Amore’ and ‘Pink Lady’)

• Protea eximia (formerly P. latifolia)
  duchess Protea, duchess sugarbush, rose-spoon Protea, rose-spoon sugarbush, broadleaf sugarbush, ray-flowered Protea

• Protea obtusifolia
  jester Protea, jester sugarbush, limestone Protea, limestone sugarbush
  (a popular variety is ‘Holiday Red’)

• Protea repens (formerly P. mellifera)
  common sugarbush, honey flower, honey Protea
  (popular varieties include ‘Ruby Blush’ and ‘Honey Glow’)

• Protea neriifolia
  oleander-leaf sugarbush, narrow-leaf sugarbush 
  (popular varieties include ‘Pink Mink’, ‘Cream Mink’, ‘Green Ice’, ‘Ruby’, ‘Frosted Fire’ and ‘Silver Tips’)

• Protea laurifolia
  gray-leaf sugarbush, laurel-leaf sugarbush
  (varieties include ‘Rose Mink’, ‘Pink Owl’, ‘White Owl’, ‘Royal Crest’ and ‘Peach Sheen’)

• Protea coronata (formerly P. macrocephala and P. incompta)
  apple-green Protea, green sugarbush

• Protea lepidocarpodendron
  black Protea, black-beard sugarbush, black mink

• Protea susannae
  stink-leaf sugarbush

Popular hybrid varieties include the following:

• ‘Pink Ice’ (formerly ‘Silvan Pink’)
  a hybrid of P. susannae and either P. neriifolia or P. compacta)

• ‘Sylvia’ (P. susannae x eximia)

• ‘Susara’ (P. susannae x magnifica)

• ‘Pink Princess’ (P. compacta x magnifica)

• ‘Pink Duke’ (P. compacta x magnifica)

• ‘Red Baron’/’Red Barron’ (P. compacta x obtusifolia)

• ‘May Day’ (P. neriifolia x magnifica)

Tips for Improving Protea Vase Life

By Resendiz Brothers Protea Growers

Resendiz Brothers Protea Arrangement

Contrary to popular belief, Protea is not a tropical flower; it is actually more of a “Mediterranean-grown” flower, and the blooms can be stored in a floral refrigerator at 40 F to 50 F and 75 percent to 85 percent humidity. Here are some tips to improve the vase life of Protea.

• Unpack the flowers immediately upon their arrival in your store.

• Cut up to 1/2 inch off the stem ends, and remove any leaves that would be underwater in a storage container or vase.

• Store flowers in a well-lit floral refrigerator at 40 F to 50 F and 75 percent to 85 percent humidity (Protea prefer to “rest” with the light on)

• Remove a few leaves around the flower heads to better showcase the blooms. 

• Always use a properly proportioned flower nutrient solution in storage and arrangement containers.

• Check water levels frequently; Protea are extremely thirsty flowers.

• Keep Protea out of direct sunlight whenever possible.

• Some Protea species and varieties are prone to leaf blackening, which is due to low-light conditions, water stress (lack of adequate hydration) and/or decaying leaves in storage containers. To prevent leaf blackening, keep Protea in a well-lighted area, always place them into a properly proportioned flower nutrient solution and keep them away from high temperatures and direct sunlight. If the blooms look fresh and healthy to you, simply remove any leaves with black spots.

• With proper care, Protea blooms can from one to three weeks in container arrangements, as long as the containers have a large water reservoir and consumers replenish the flower nutrient solution regularly. Then, the blooms don’t “die”; they dry beautifully. Many Protea species retain their structural design and, to some extent, their color. 

Protea Fun Facts

• Proteaceae is considered to be one of the oldest plant families on Earth. Studies suggest that the genus Protea subsisted on the supercontinent of Gondwana, which existed as early as 510 million years ago and broke up 120 to 180 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, when magma bubbled up and rifted the supercontinent apart. Gondwana comprised land areas that are today known as Antarctica; South America; Africa and Madagascar; the Arabian Peninsula (Arabia); Australasia (Australia and New Zealand); and the Indian subcontinent, including the island country of Sri Lanka.

• Protea is named for the Greek god Proteus, the protector of rivers and seas. Proteus, a son of Poseidon, the Olympian god of the sea, had the ability to change shape and form to avoid capture by his enemy. The name is fitting because Protea come in a multitude of shapes, sizes, colors and textures. 

• Protea cynaroides (king Protea) is South Africa’s national flower.

• The outer ring of petals on Protea cynaroides (king Protea) resembles a crown; hence, its common name.

• In the 1800s, nectar from Protea was used medicinally to calm coughs.

• Protea plants are hardy and can withstand the toughest of weather conditions. For example, dormant buds can survive wildfires, emerging once the fire has gone out and bringing new life.