By T. Eric Nightingale,. UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Most people are familiar with proteas, the shrubs with exotic blossoms that are often the focal point of a bouquet. Proteas are only one member of a family of beautiful, drought-tolerant plants. Plants in the Proteaceae family are spread across the southern hemisphere in impressive variety.
Proteaceae members exhibit variety in size, growth habit and even flower shape. With so many choices, it is difficult to understand why more Napa Valley gardeners don't use them in landscapes.
My personal favorites are in the Grevillea genus. Their flowers remind me of fuchsia blossoms. They are often small and elongated and usually red, pink or white. Some Grevillea shrubs have long, needle-like leaves, while others are so soft and fluffy they almost look like pale green clouds. One popular species is the hybrid ‘King's Fire'. ‘The four- to five-inch blooms have many inward-curving styles in brilliant red. The contrast of these flowers against the delicate green foliage is stunning.
For larger flowers, consider Leucospermums. Like proteas, these plants are considered “pincushion” flowers because of the long styles that seem to protrude from a fuzzy cushion. These flowers are perfect for bouquets and are a guaranteed showstopper. My top choice is Leucospermum ‘Veldfire'. Its blooms consist of a few dozen yellow spears in a bed of white fluff and red ribbon curls. From a distance they look like torches burning brightly in the sun.
For larger plants, look to the Hakea and Banksia genera. Both range from large shrubs to tree size, while still offering unique flowers. Some Hakea have leaves that are needle-like, with sawtooth edges; others have broad leaves resembling eucalyptus. Some have delicate flowers similar to those of a Grevillea, while others have fluffy blooms that are orb- or cone-shaped.
Banksia have similar foliage but less flower variety. Tall, thick, cylindrical flowers adorn Banksia shrubs and trees. A blooming Banksia is a sight to behold. Its red, yellow or orange flowers never fail to stop me in my tracks.
Before you run out and get one of these wonderful plants, know that they require special care. Proteaceae thrive in full sun and in well-draining, slightly acidic soil. Soil in Napa Valley tends to be slightly acidic so no worries there. The challenge is drainage. Napa Valley soil can hold too much water for drought-tolerant plants.
There are ways to address this problem. You can replace your native garden soil with purchased soil, but that's expensive and labor-intensive. Compost, the soil cure-all, is also an option. If you are patient, a few years of regular compost applications can dramatically improve your soil's drainage. For those who, like me, would like the best result with the least investment, there is a third option: mounding. Topping the native soil with a mound of soil with better drainage will ensure that water does not puddle around the roots and trunk of the plants that live there. This approach is used by many people when planting Proteaceae and is usually successful.
Some species are sensitive to phosphorus and should be fertilized accordingly. It is important to research the needs of specific plants. Protea are also not accustomed to low temperatures. While we typically get only a few freezing nights a year here in Napa Valley, I recommend protecting them with frost cloth on these occasions.
While they can be challenging to grow, Proteaceae offer many rewards. A dry garden is a wonderful thing but can easily become a place of hard surfaces and sharp edges. Proteaceae spice up this landscape with their soft textures and unique, colorful flowers. They are definitely worth the effort.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Healthy Fall and Winter Vegetables” on Saturday, August 18, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Create your own garden-to-table movement by growing veggies that thrive in cooler weather. From familiar lettuces to exotic Asian greens, from carrots to sugar snap peas, choices abound for fall, winter, and early spring dining. This hands-on workshop provides the essential growing tips that will guide you every step of the way, from planning and planting to harvest. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.