Protea flowers a rare treat from down under

  • Many plants in the family of Proteas require specific habitats. They do not like hot humid climates and must be grown in well drained soils. They grow best in upland area like Waimea and Volcano on the drier side. (Photo courtesy / Voltaire Moise)

The protea family is primarily found south of the equator in Africa and Australia. It includes macadamia, banksias, grevilleas and stenocarpus. Of all the many floral choices available in the marketplace, none can beat the bizarre yet enhancing beauty of the protea. From the robust, intense-colored sunburst pincushion to the deceiving duchess, that looks more like feathers than a flower, proteas resemble no other flowers in the world.

One of the people responsible for Hawaii proteas was Dr. Philip Parvin, horticulturist with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, who directed the Maui Experiment Station.

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When Parvin first became director in 1968, he was highly impressed with the obvious superior growth of proteas that had been planted at the Kula station three years earlier. As he was familiar with proteas being grown in California, he was inspired to explore the potential of a protea industry in Hawaii.

This industry has indeed developed and continues to grow with partial funding for protea research coming from the Governor’s Agricultural Coordinating Committee, several College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources researchers have been able to solve some of this young industry’s problems and help improve production and handling. Dr. Parvin worked on the management aspects of the crop, such as the selection of superior cultivars, propagation, density spacing, pruning, and plant nutrition.

Dr. I-Pai Wu, a professor of agricultural engineering, developed drip irrigation systems to meet water requirements in the field and to make better use of available water resources. John Cho, Stephen Ferreira, and Norman Nagata, plant pathologists, examined fungicides for the control of root rot, a disease problem in protea production.

Ronald Mau and Arnold Hara, entomologists, helped to solve some of the pest problems, including those that could lead to the rejection of shipments to other areas. Dr. Philip Ito, a Hilo based horticulturist, worked on new types of protea for the world market.

Dr. Robert Paull, a plant physiologist, solved problems arising during shipping and ways to extend protea shelf life. Of course, all these efforts became meaningful because of key protea growers who developed a good marketing system and took research to action.

So you see that the intriguing protea blossoms on display in homes and places of business such as hotels didn’t just happen. They are the result of concerted efforts by Hawaii’s agricultural scientists and growers working together to develop another fine Hawaiian grown product with tremendous potential.

Most proteas require cool climates on the dryer side like Waimea, Volcano, Upland West Hawaii and Maui. They prefer well drained soils. When grown in wet or humid locations, disease and pests become a problem.

Even if you are not interested in growing proteas commercially, you can be certain that these gorgeous and exotic flowers are perfect to enhance your home, garden or a special, long lasting gift. If you receive some as a gift, remember that proteas have another advantage besides their remarkable attractiveness. They can be easily dried and enjoyed for a long time to come. All you have to do is remove the water from the container when the flowers start to lose their freshness and allow the flowers to dry into a permanent arrangement.

Another method is to hang the flowers upside down for about a month, and then use them in a dry flower arrangement. To eliminate the possibility of mold setting in during drying, space the flowers out to allow a good circulation of air. This latter method is especially suited to types that have a tendency to bend over as they lose their freshness.

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If you are not familiar with protea, ask your local florist to show you the various types now being produced, what each is called, and how long they will last. If you’re looking for something special, proteas are worth checking out. Other long lasting floral gifts include dendrobium, cymbidium orchids, anthuriums, birds of paradise, heliconias and other flowering Hawaiian exotics.

For further information on the protea family, contact your local UH College of Tropical Agriculture Extension Service office in Hilo or Kona. Several books are available like Sunset’s Western Garden Book to give you tips on growing these amazing plants.