Blessed as we are in the Bay Area with a Mediterranean-type climate, we are able to utilize and enjoy plants originating from many different areas of the world. Some of my favorite plants for Bay Area gardens are native to South Africa and Australia, and among these, the Proteaceae family offers a number of species that are beautifully adapted to our particular conditions.
Proteaceae is an ancient plant family which, according to some sources, has been around for over 30 million years. Worldwide there are more than 1500 species with most, but not all of them, occurring in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia alone there are nearly 900 native species.
The name Proteaceae comes from the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his shape at will. This is an appropriate name, given the wide diversity of forms encompassed by the many species that make up the family. The species most commonly found in Bay area gardens belong to the genus Protea, Leucospermum, Leucodendron, Banksia and Grevillea (see my last post for more information on Grevilleas). All are evergreen plants, and all bear colorful and unusual inflorescences, consisting of many small flowers densely packed into a head or spike.
Plants in the Proteaceae family can be small shrubs, ground covers, screen plants or even large trees. They are fast growing, and their foliage can be fine and needle-like, or large and leathery. They are generally very drought resistant and tolerate, or often prefer, poor soil. All Proteaceae are pollinated by birds and mammals.
Protea is both the botanical and English common name of the genus also known as Sugarbush, which is native to coastal South Africa. The flower heads, consisting of tight clusters of tubular flowers surrounded by brightly colored bracts, are borne at branch ends, looking something like very colorful artichokes. Protea make terrific cut flowers, holding their color and shape for weeks.
Leucospermum, also known as Pincushion, are also native to southern Africa, where they occupy a variety of habitats including scrub, forest and mountain slopes. The leaves of this unusual plant are spirally arranged with a serrated margin. Flowers are produced in dense clusters and often resemble exotic sea creatures. These plants produce abundant nectar, attracting insects and birds to the garden.
Leucadendron, also known as Conebush, is native to Southern Africa as well. Leaves are spirally arranged, but the leaves are simple, entire and often colorful, with a distinct silvery tone produced by dense silky hairs. Leucadendrons have separate male and female plants, which is unusual in the Proteaceae family. It’s long bloom time, combined with colorful leaves and bracts make this an excellent choice for dry sunny gardens.
Banksia originates in Australia, where it is found occupying a variety of landscapes and conditions. Heavy producers of nectar, Banksias form a vital part of the food chain in the Australian bush, providing food for birds, bats, rats, possums, bees and a host of insects. Banksias grow as trees or woody shrubs, and there are both erect and prostrate species available to the home gardener. Leaves are usually serrated, and the unique flower spike is formed by an elongated inflorescence consisting of a woody axis covered in tightly-packed pairs of flowers attached at right angles. A single flower spike generally contains hundreds or even thousands of flowers. Most Banksias are yellow, but orange, red and pink also occur.
If you have a garden space that is sunny and dry, you might want to try one of these exotic plants.