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annual gardening, annual garden design
PREHISTORIC PROTEA

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

I used to spurn exotic plants, even those with glorious flowers. Looking back, I think the avoidance was probably yet another form of adolescent rebellion. After all, my grandmother was passionate about birds of paradise, and my mother probably bought thousands of poinsettias in her time. It makes sense, in a Freudian way, that I would emerge into adulthood with a preference for more low-key, accessible blooms.

The winters here are milder than the winters in my western New York State hometown, but they seem longer. Now I take my comfort where I can find it, and sometimes I find it among the tropical plants at the local greenhouse, or even in the cut flower display at my supermarket. This is how I became acquainted with protea.

If some horticultural wizard crossed an artichoke with an unopened football mum, the result would look exactly like a protea. The specimens that caught my eye in the market were probably Protea x hybrida. No cultivar name was listed on the tag attached to the cut stems, but the protea I picked looked like ‘Pink Ice’, a popular variety. Various protea species also come in shades of white and darker or lighter pink.

Unlike some of the parvenus that take pride of place in fashionable florists’ shops, protea come from the ancient Proteaceae family. Their ancestors have been around at least 300 million years, making them more than eligible for inclusion in the Social Register or even Burke’s Peerage. The majority of Proteaceae hail from South Africa, though some are native to Australia as well. Nowadays they are grown commercially in the United States as well as other places around the world. Growers in both California and Hawaii supply cut protea to retail outlets all over the country. There is even a California Protea Association with its own website.

Protea have rather complex blossoms. The true flower is a large, somewhat fuzzy, cone-shaped structure. It is surrounded by colorful bracts that mimic the effect of petals. Taken as a whole, the blossoms look as if they should open up gradually into a glorious, rounded flowerhead. They don’t. Like some permanently repressed members of the old WASP ascendancy, they simply refuse to open up, even if they are positioned comfortably and given a lot to drink..

Still, protea are colorful and striking in winter arrangements. The true leaves are attractively elongated, and the flowers stand atop tall, almost bamboo-like stems. To get the most out of the pricey blossoms, snip off the ends before plunging the stems into water, and remove any leaves that will be positioned below the water line. Add ¼ teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of water in the vase, and position the arrangement out of direct sunlight. Change the water every few days for maximum longevity.

Once protea flowers have passed their prime, they can be dried for use in everlasting arrangements. Pluck the stems out of the vase, plop them in a bucket, stow them in an out-of-the-way place, and ignore them for a few weeks. They will dry just fine on their own with no fuss. After Christmas, when the holly is but a desiccated memory, and the poinsettias are at the curb awaiting pick-up, get the protea out of hiding. They will have lost their bright colors, but retained their statuesque charm.

Unless you have a greenhouse large enough to accommodate a good-size shrub, or a vacation retreat in Hawaii, you probably won’t be growing protea at home. Before you lose sleep over this fact, consider that even under the best of circumstances protea takes at least three years to blossom when it’s grown from seed. A lot can happen in three years and you can buy and dry hundreds of cut stems in the same time period. Dried or not, that should be enough protea for anyone.

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