Protea…#Mylittleproblem

Hello my name is Robbie and I am a proteaholic. It’s not really helped by the fact that my boyfriend has P.O.C.D (protea obsessive compulsive disorder) too.
I can’t help it. I just can’t get enough of the proteaceae!
It all started as a child, as these things often do. My grandmother gave me a calendar, which she had received from one of our many relatives down under, of the birds of Australia. The amazing colours of the rosellas and lorikeets were inspiration enough, however, alongside the birds the native flora was also depicted. Especially the bird pollinated Banksias and Grevilleas, they blew my mind! Alas, there wasn’t any chance I would be able to grow them, unless I moved to Australia that is.

Grevillea barklayana

Grevillea barklayana

Fast forward 25 years. I had built a garden full of weird and wacky plants with a fossil record. I already knew that the Proteaceae should be in the garden, but was so resigned to never being able to grow them that I hadn’t even looked for any ‘hardy’ ones.
Then one day I met a strange man and woman at RHS Tatton park flower show. In a similar way to the trader with the magic beans, in Jack and the beanstalk, they were trying to sell me ‘Hardy’ Proteas and Banksias. I, unlike Jack, didn’t bite. I couldn’t quite believe what they were saying. I went away and did quite a lot of research.

It was at this point that Ben discovered that Crug Farm Plants  just down the road from us, sold 2 hardy Proteaceous plants; Lomatia feruginea from South America and Telopea truncata from Tasmania. Ben placed an order and next thing I knew I not only had my first two members of the Proteaceae but also a new job working for plant hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones.

Lomatia ferruginea a protea from South America

Lomatia ferruginea

The ball had started to roll and soon the lure of MORE was just too hard to resist. A friend bought for our birthdays two Leucadendrons (L. leureolum and L. ‘safari sunset’) and guess what… she bought them from the ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ people.
The point had come when, in order to grow these plants successfully, we would have to make some serious decisions. Do we forgo the small border, in the sunniest part of the garden that had been kept for edibles and cut flowers, and turn it into a bed purely for Protea? Yes.

Protea Bed

Protea Bed

We dug down a couple of feet and raised the bed slightly. We also replaced every bit of soil with a mix of flint gravel, horticultural sand and an ericaceous compost. Read more about the construction of the Protea bed here.
We built an open sided structure made of hazel posts. These were coppiced in a woodland on the other side of the lake by which we live. We floated the posts across the lake, towing them behind our kayak. See the video. We added a polycarbonate roof that would keep the rain off during the coldest months but could be removed during the summer. Crazy? Maybe. Worth it? Oh, yes.
From that point on we have been testing as many ‘hardy’ species of proteaceae as we can. They are an eclectic bunch that have vastly varied needs. Some come from damp, cool forests others from dry, scrubby heath. The important factors affecting their cultivation are that they die at even the thought of phosphate and they can’t cope with continuously damp roots.

Grevillea victoriae

Grevillea victoriae

We have been growing them for some time now and have found a few things out along the way. Some species, for example, really do fall into the category ‘hardy’, as long as you are prepared to bow to a few of their needs. Grevillea victoriae, for instance, is tough as old boots and flowers profusely in the deapths of winter.

There are some that positively relish the high humidity and rainfall here in the West. The Lomatias, Gevuina and Telopea really don’t do well without it.

We have also discovered that we really can grow species from more arid areas of the world in our garden. Banksia ericifolia and Protea cynaroides are doing well for us, and with a little care and attention even flowering. Keeping them dry over the winter with good air circulation and not necessarily protecting them from cold, causes them to produce harder wood and so become more frost resistant. Don’t get me wrong after a good hard frost they look awfull.

Protea cynaroides

Protea cynaroides

We also discovered that if you grow species which produce a lignotuber, it doesn’t matter too much if they get hit by the cold. This adaptation to fire also allows them to bounce back from frost damage. We believe we have the furthest north Protea cynaroides flowering outside in the world (according to staff at Kirstenbosch botanic gardens in Cape Town, South Africa).

Banksia ericifolia, a protea relative.

Banksia ericifolia just coming into flower in our garden in North Wales.

And what of the Jack and the beanstalk people? They are in fact Claire and Geoff, brother and sister in law, from Trewidden nursery in deepest, remotest Cornwall.

The Protea people

Team Trewidden

Unfortunately they aren’t open to the public (don’t despair they do mail order). Having been lucky enough to  visit Claire and Geoff recently we found a spotlessly clean set up with some of the best grown plants we have seen. Not scared of something new, Claire has mastered the sometimes difficult propagation of Proteaceae. Having concentrated on South Africa, until recently, she is now revisiting the proteaceae of Australia. Geoff on the other hand keeps things real and makes sure the plants they sell really are ok for UK gardens. We now, with thanks in part to Trewidden, have over 40 different species of proteaceous plants growing for us.

Protea repens

Protea repens – flowering at Trewidden Nursary

Admittedly some just won’t cope with lower than -3C and spend their winter in the greenhouse, but others spent the whole of last winter outside, saw -6C and are flourishing. Let’s see what this winter brings.

Lambertia formosa

Lambertia formosa

Grevillea lanigera

Grevillea lanigera

So, do I really have a problem? Do I really need to start seeing someone for this? I really think the answer is NO. But maybe I am just deluded?