Monday, July 02, 2007

Proteas

Protea 'Goodwood Red'

It has been a sad week, marked by the sudden death of Dick Newcombe, the man who gave me my start in commercial horticulture. Dick owned “Gardencraft”, a garden shop that my great uncle had started many years before. I think he got so sick of my haunting his shop each Friday night and each weekend, talking about plants, that he decided he might as well employ me.
My garden knowledge was largely book-based, so it was a bit of a shock to work in a retail shop, and I needed a bit of guidance about some of the more practical aspects of the job. Dick was a good tutor.
His main gardening passion was the Proteaceae, the vast family of southern hemisphere plants, largely based in Australia and South Africa. He and his wife Trish gardened on a ridge just north of Masterton, exposed to both the northwesterly and the southerly winds and with very stony soils. I remember being in the garden once after a bad southerly storm and Dick told me to lick the leaves of some golden elms, which had been scorched in the storm. To my astonishment, the leaves were salty, despite being fifty miles from the sea.
These are conditions that most of the Proteaceae relish in, and I can still recall the wonderful bank of Proteas, Leucadendrons, Leucospermums and Banksias that grew on a high point above the house. Here Dick grew a large range of species and cultivars, bringing the flowers into the shop as each bloomed, and taking orders for the winter season when we had large stocks of these newly fashionable plants for sale.
Dick’s bank was probably the very best place to grow such a range of types, the exposed nature of the site adding rather than detracting to its value. Most species do not like being enclosed and closely planted, seeming to need plenty of air movement. If they are crowded, they grow upwards in a spindly manner, and become much more prone to fungous diseases. As Dick’s shelterbelt above the planting grew, and as the plants matured and grew denser, they did not flourish as well.
They were also in perfect soil conditions, as the soil was very well drained, and had low natural fertility. These plants come from old soils in their natural state, and they need low levels of most elements. Some fertilizers will actually poison them. In most soils no fertilizers are needed. In very poor soils, just a little sulphate of ammonia should suffice.
Many varieties are frost prone, but again, Dick’s site was good, as it was high on a windy site, with a river flowing nearby, and there was plenty of airflow, as well as natural air drainage from the high point. Some species are frost sensitive, so it pays to look around and see what grows well in your own neighbourhood.
Dick grew a large number of true Proteas, including some of the oddities.
Proteas take their name from a classical Greek god who assumed many forms, the name hinting at the many growth types exhibited by these plants, ranging from tree-like shrubs of four metres, down to scrambling and suckering plants that scarcely lift their heads above the soil.
The flower range dramatically as well, from the tiny pendulous bells of P. nana, through to the giant flowers of the King Protea, P. cyanaroides.
Perhaps the one species most gardeners are familiar with is P. neriifolia, the oleander-leaved protea. This is one of the hardiest, coping with five degrees of frost easily, and is also one of the most tolerant as to soil types. In the past, the most common form was one with pink vase-shaped flowers, trimmed with fine black fur, but there are a large number of different forms of this species. “Green Ice” was one of Dick’s favourites, with palest green flowers tipped with white, and he also grew “Limelight”, which is similar, although the flowers were perhaps a shade greener, and the fur is black. “Snowcrest” was another favourite, with pink flowers tipped with white, of course.
Dick also liked some varieties with the most unpronounceable names. One that we always had vases of in the shop was P. scholymocephala, a plant whose flowers were considerable more beautiful than its name. Floral artists used to rave about this one, as it had wide-open flowers of cool green. The shrub does not grow as big as some species – maybe a metre high and similar around – and is relatively hardy.
The equally clumsily named neutrally P. lepidocarpondendron, with whitish flowers tipped with black, was another of Dick’s favourites.
The small flowered P. amplexicaulis was another Dick loved. This is a spreading plant, growing no more than about half a meter, and spreading to perhaps a meter around. The flowers are hidden a little among the foliage, and tend to face downwards, but they are charming little things, with dark petals, once again loved by the florists. This one is ideal for growing along a bank or even in a rock garden.
I think the most dramatic of all the flowers was the bright pink Queen Protea, P. magnifica. Although the flowers are not as large as those of the King Protea, P. cyanaroides, they are more colourful- huge puffy soft pink flowers. The white flowering form “Alba”, is equally as spectacular. These are a little trickier to grow than some species, but they are the most spectacular of all.
Dick’s other great loves among the proteas were the various forms of P. aurea. They are a large shrubs – small trees even- with hundreds of pencil-like buds that open into shuttlecock-like flowers. As the name suggests, the flowers are sometimes yellowish, but they are usually pink or red.
The best form that I have seen is the one named after Dick’s garden – “Goodwood Red.” The thin buds, with unopened petals overlapped, are deep pink, but when the flower bursts open, they are bright deep red. It makes a great garden plant, and is a fitting memorial to a great gardener and protea lover.