There are over 130 different species of Protea flowers; among the most common are Ladismith Protea, Giant Wooly Beard, Bot River Protea, and King Protea. All of these are tender perennials native to Africa and Australia. These exotic flowers can be found all over the world, however, as they are used extensively by florists. In their native environment, they bloom on shrubs and small trees and tend to be in the shape of a pincushion. The flowers of these unusual beauties resemble pincushions and come in a wide range of colors and sizes.
Ladismith Protea, or Protea Aristata, produces one of the larger Protea flowers. This species is quite stunning with bright red or pink flower heads that can be several inches across. The foliage of these plants is similar to pine needles and ornamental as well.
Giant Wooly Beard, or Protea Barbigera, is one of the most beautiful variants. Its pale yellow and pink cup-shaped blooms with black centers are are a favorite of many florists. The showy flowers are often added to more dramatic, formal arrangements.
Bot River Protea is one of the largest in this family of exotic flowers. Also known as Protea Compacta, the pink flowers of this shrub are also cup-shaped and bloom throughout the winter. These are also frequently used by florists. The leaves of this Protea will turn black after being cut for a day or two, so they are always removed from the stem before placing in a vase.
King Protea is smaller than most in this family and is often grown in smaller gardens. It has the largest flowers however, which can reach as much as 11 inches (27 cm) in width. They are slightly different in appearance than most Protea flowers, as the center of these pink or red blossoms has a hairy, silvery cone as well as a red stem.
These flowers can be grown from seed in warm climates, although it is not easily done. The Protea seed is prone to fungal infections and must be treated with a fungicide as well as a smoke primer before planting. Seeds can be started in the spring in a soil that is slightly acidic. Even with proper growing conditions, these plants can take as long as three months to germinate. Proteas will not survive in areas where the temperature drops below 50° Fahrenheit (10° Celsius).
Protea plants will grow easily in climates that are similar to their native areas such as Hawaii and California. They will not tolerate excessive moisture or humidity, and many types will only thrive in poor, sandy soil that is lacking in nutrients. There are a few species that thrive in peat bogs and mountainsides, however.
Unlike other species, Protea flowers should never be picked before they are fully open. They should be cut on a cool, dry day to prevent leaf blackening and fungal growth. Adding a tablespoon or two of sugar to a liter of water will increase the vase life of these flowers. The water should be changed every few days as well.