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Gardening: The glorious Protea

The unique flora of the Cape Floral Kingdom is one of our greatest treasures. Help to promote and protect these threatened species by planting them in your garden.

Article by Odette Weedon
Photographs supplied by Amelia Farms

Why Fynbos? Apart from the fact that it is so beautiful and easy to care for, planting fynbos is one way in which gardeners can help to promote and protect the rich and threatened flora of their particular region. Adittionally planting fynbos can help to attract endemic birds and butterflies into your garden, as well as other beautiful insects and mammals that have formed an intrinsic bond with fynbos over the centuries. TYhe richness of fynbos species leaves one completely spoilt for choice in terms of what is available to plant in the garden, but one should be aware that certain species are more suited to specific conditions. Fynbos species occur over a large area from the western to the south-eastern Cape, and within this large area there are different habitat niches that support specific fynbos species. Although the majority of fynbos species are well-adapted to acidic soils and should fare well in most gardens, soil type plays an important role in deciding which species to plant. Coastal gardens for example, usually comprise of neutral to alkaline sand, which will not be suitable for all species. In this case one should rather plant fynbos species that occur naturally in these habitats. Let’s take a lookat one of the main members of the fynbos community: the family Proteaceae.

Proteaceae species in their natural habitats withstand a wide range of temperatures. In summer, temperatures can reach well over 30 C and in some mountain areas, winter temperatures fall to below zero. Tolerance levels differ between species, but the Proteaceae family can tolerate large variations in temperature. Generally, populations of the same species grow in close proximity to each other. This establishes a dense vegetation cover for minimal root disturbances; keeps the soil cool and helps reduce the rate of soil-water evaporation. Soil conditions for Proteaceae species vary from species to species, but theyare most commonly found in very nutrient-poor soils. A soil with more than 30% clay in the top- and sub-soil is not recommended for the planting of Proteaceae species because of likely drainage problems and a high incidence of fungal disease. A well-drained soil is probably the most important requirement for Proteaceae species under cultivation.

Planting

 

At planting, mulching should be considered as it helps to reduce weed growth. This is an important point to remember as Proteaceae species do not like to have their root systems disturbed. Mulching also insulates the soil, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in winter. It keeps the moisture in the soil, helping reduce irrigation. Mulching additionally conditions the soil as it decomposes by adding small amounts of nutrients and organic matter. This layer of mulch should be laid at planting, 5-8 cm thick but kept away from the stem to minimise the risk of fungal diseases. Types of mulch, which can be used include: wood chips, pine bark (well-aged), gravel, crushed rock, black plastic sheeting, newspaper or woven reed mats.

Pruning

 

Young Proteaceae plants should be tip pruned after the first six months to a year after planting, generally in spring to late summer. This encourages a bushier, more compact growth habit. The plants can be pruned again to bearers after the first flowers by cutting the flower stem 10cm above where the stem branches out from the main stem. It is also preferable to cut out any weak stems that have failed to flower, thereby encouraging the remaining stems to produce healthier, more vigorous growth. The same can be said for damaged and cooked stems in both young and established bushes. Pruning of Proteaceae species improve quality and quantity of flowers, helps to reduce disease, extends the life of the plant and creates bushier, more compact plants.

Each bearer should produce two to three flowering stems for the next season. The flowering stems will increase in number as the plant becomes older and larger. As the stem number increases, the length of each stem will decrease and so the removal of a few of the extra shoots will help to increase the stem length. The removal of these shoots is best done early in the growing season, while the shoots are still soft and easy to remove. In order to keep a natural look within the landscape, only cut half the stems back to bearers after flowering (go through the bush and cut every second stem). The remaining stems can be cut back to bearers as soon as new shoots start to appear (on the previously pruned bearers).

Nutrition

 

All member of the Proteaceae family have a very narrow range of optimal concentrations of mineral elements and are extremely sensitiveto excess phosphorus and nitrogen. For these reasons, it is not advisable to apply the following:

  • Bone meal (high P Levels)
  • Mushroom compost (high P levels)
  • Uncomposted poultry or other manure (high N levels)
  • Any fertilizer high in phosphates
  • Any compost with high N and P
  • Any compost with an unknown nutrient composition

Although proteas are very water-wise once established, establishment can take up to 2 years. During this critical 2 year period, the root zone should be kept moist and regular watering is encouraged. Young protea plants should be tip pruned after the first six months to a year after planting, generally in spring to late summer. Pruning of proteas improves the quality and quantity of flowers, helps to reduce disease, extends the life of the plant and creates bushier, more compact plants.

Now that all the basics have been covered, it’s time to get out there and get your hands dirty! There are as many as 360 Proteaceae species found in souther Africa, 330 of these species are found in our Cape Floral Kingdom alone! Apart from the many species available in retail nurseries, there are also many beautiful hybrids that should be added to your collection. The question is now: what are you waiting for?

digital@escapemagazine.co.za

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