Leucadendron. Contributed

Meet the banksias African cousin

THERE'S a group of plants that are really close relatives of our native grevilleas and banksias but are native to South Africa, not Australia. They are all members of the Proteacae family, but they ended up on different continents when Gondwanaland started to break up over 140 million years ago.

Proteas are perhaps the most recognisable members of the family. They are widely grown throughout the world, in gardens and for commercial cut flowers. The King Protea is one of the most popular, with huge white or pink flowers. I love 'Little Prince', which gets a massive flower like the King Protea but only grows to about 1m tall. 'Stately' grows tall, up to 2.5m, and has handsome deep pink flowers through winter.

Leucadendrons gain their colour from brightly coloured bracts that surround a fairly simple flower. These bracts can be brilliant scarlet, rich cream, golden yellow, or deep burgundy, and make a spectacular show, beginning in autumn and continuing into winter 'Gypsy Red' is a gorgeous medium sized shrub with lovely fine, dark red foliage, sometimes with purple tips. 'Red Devil' is a compact plant with bright red foliage in autumn and yellow highlights in winter. It is a lovely addition any garden and can be grown in pots so is perfect for balconies too.

Leucospermums are sometimes known as 'Pincushion protea'. They have masses of small flowers held on a single stem, similar in appearance to the banksias but in more vibrant colours. They grow 1-2.5m tall, and are extremely showy in spring and early summer. They are excellent for low maintenance, low water use gardens. Their compact size makes them suitable for gardens of any size, and also very useful as potted plants.

Members of the Proteacae family are easy to grow, provided you plant them in a full sun position with excellent drainage. They tend to prefer sandy loam, so if your soil is a bit on the clay side, improve it before you plant. Mound it up, digging in compost and gypsum, but no fertiliser. Mulch well to help keep the soil moist, reduce weed growth, and keep the surface roots cool.

They are highly sensitive to phosphorous, so you must only ever use low phosphorous fertiliser such as that specially formulated for Australian native plants. Use a natural mulch to protect the root zone, and don't go digging around down there as they hate root disturbance.

Many varieties will grow happily in a large tub, at least 250mm or larger. They have a relatively wide and deep root structure so choose a pot which has a diameter about equal to the pot height. Make sure you use a premium native plant potting mix.

Your plants will produce more blooms if you prune them after flowering. Remove all flowers when the colour has gone (or before, if you want to enjoy some inside), but leave about 10cm of healthy, leafy stem. Any wayward stems that are curly or lying on the ground should also be removed. If you are pruning a protea, don't remove non-flowering stems as they are next season's flowers. There is some great information on growing and caring for these plants on www.proteaflora.com.au.

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