Collector’s Choice: Proteaceae

If I were to choose a botanical version of the most splendid of birds or the most outlandish of animals, I would choose the Proteaceae. It was, after all, the bizarre and colorful banksias of Australia that returned with Sir Joseph Banks to England and prompted further scientific expeditions to the South Pacific. And who has not marveled at the kaleidoscopic, artichokelike, long-lasting flowers of proteas and leucodendrons from South Africa. A staggering array of species, scattered around the Southern Hemisphere, demonstrates this family’s extraordinary range of ornamental expression. Though many are hardy only in mild climates, a surprising number are adaptable to USDA Zones 6b-10. They also make sensational container specimens in colder climates.

It was in Vancouver, British Columbia, that I first became acquainted with Grevillea victoriae—an imposing evergreen shrub to 12 feet, clad with gray-green foliage. What caught my eye, though, was the fact that this plant was in full bloom in the depths of winter. Starting in late November and continuing until mid-spring, dense terminal buds unfurl bright orange, spidery, nectar-rich flowers.

These are highly attractive to hummingbirds. There are several good selections of G. victoriae available, including the larger-flowered ‘Murray Valley Queen and the more spreading ’Marshall’s Seedling’. My garden specimens were subjected to temperatures as low as 18°F this past winter, while in full flower. They didn’t miss a beat.

A more demure species, G. juniperina has bright green, needlelike foliage and bears a steady progression of red or yellow flowers for weeks in late winter. Long considered a wall shrub in England, it benefits from a protected position, full sun, and sharply draining soil. ‘Low Red’ is a good cultivar, with low stems carrying grayish green needles and a handsome display of bright red flowers.

I am particularly fond of G. ‘Mononogolo’, which will cover 20 square feet of sunny, well-drained garden territory while remaining close to the ground. Grevillea ‘Ruby Clusters’, at whose base the former grows in my garden, is a completely different beast. A mounding, rounded shrub to five feet, its dark green plumage is an excellent foil for its display of deep red flowers produced from late spring until autumn. As for all grevilleas, I would recommend impoverished soils for G. ‘Ruby Clusters’.

The so-called hardy macadamia (Gevuina avellana) from Chile, has become better known in North America in recent years because of its sweet nuts. Trials of this species as a commercial nut crop (the true macadamia is also found in the Proteaceae) are under way in Oregon and New Zealand. Ornamentally speaking, this rounded evergreen tree, which can reach 20 feet, has a lot going for it. Its bold, glossy pinnate foliage is very textural; in late summer its white flowers associate well with its clusters of cherry-sized red fruit. Full sun and sharply draining soil allow G. avellana to grow best.

The most dramatic of hardy proteids, the aptly named Chilean fire tree (Embothrium coccineum; shown) has been known to snarl traffic in Seattle when in full bloom. In early spring, this narrow, semideciduous tree lights up in a mind-bending profusion of red-orange. Hummingbirds so covet the flowers that they spend more time defending the territory than actually sipping from them. It is a fast-growing tree, easily putting on 10 feet of growth per year when young. That said, it is inexplicably fickle about which gardens it will grow in—fortunately, my garden seems to be to its liking.

OVERVIEW: the hardiest members of the Proteaceae, a family of tropical and subtropical shrubs and trees ORIGIN: Southern Hemisphere HARDINESS: (of the species discussed) USDA Zones 6b-10; Sunset zones 1-9, 16-24, 26 FOLIAGE: gen

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