Protea flowers are perhaps the most exotic botanical family thriving in a plethora of varieties. With an etymology derived from the word “protean”, the flower holds meanings associated to versatility, adaptation and courage. Where does this intrepid flower name and meaning come from?
Imagine yourself to have the power of prophesizing the future, to bare knowledge of the expansive present and all of history. With such skills at your beckon call, the insistent questioning that would line up at your doorstep would grow tiresome beyond belief.
The Greek Sea God, Proteus, so named because he was the primordial son of Poseidon, had such powers. Fortunately, Proteus could also summon the ability to change forms at will, shape shifting to disguise his in-demand identity as a fortuneteller.
It is from this original shape shifter of the sea that the Protea flower got its name; a life form that blooms under many guises. It’s believed that there are up to 1,500 varieties1 of Protea within its botanical order, Proteales (family: Proteaceae/genus: Protea).
That the Greek God Proteus was also a primordial being of the sea has a certain relevance to the Protea flower as well. The Proteaceae family is known as an ancient flower with evidence of life seen 3 million centuries ago; do the math, that’s 300 million years.
Flowering neighbors were much closer 300 million years ago, as the Earth was dominated by the supercontinent Gondwanaland, or Gondwana. With hundreds of Protea varieties along for the ride, Gondwana made its big break 200 million years ago when its neighboring supercontinent Pangaea began dispersion.
As Gondwana shifted, the Protea plants underwent the phenomena known as Gondwanan distribution. This simply meant that the plants, among other living organisms uniquely flourished on the newly formed continents of South America, South Africa and Australia.
Protea flowers are a special ancestor of Gondwana, known as Antarctic Flora; a phenomenon of bio-geographic distribution. There are varieties of the Proteaceae family growing indigenously in South Africa and Australia, but there is not a certain variety found on both continents.
Hold a Protea flower in your hand and like Proteus, you are beholding living knowledge of the past, present and future. This may all be an overzealous tribute from someone who is a big fan of Protea, yet few can deny how captivating the flowers are. They have a distinctly Protean look and if you’ve seen even just a handful of the varieties there is recognizable brilliance about them.
Though, with such an array of shapes, blooms and color the Protea genus will keep you guessing. The flowers often look tropical and, befitting to the Sea God Proteus; have an almost Aquatic nature about them. This is why Protea is a staple of tropical flower arrangements, or used in floral design to make an exotic statement.
The full supremacy of Proteus is not seen in the cut flower industry, as only about 30 varieties of the 1,500 are commercially grown. Some varieties seen in cut flowers are the Pink Ice Protea (now on special at Mainstreet Flower Market), Juliet Protea, King Pink Protea, Safari Sunset Protea, Minks Protea, Pin Cushion Protea, Cloud Bank Pin Cushion Protea, Andrea Protea, Baby Queen Protea, Niobe Protea, Queen Protea, Rose Spoon Protea, Sugar Protea, and Waratah Protea.2
Most of these Protea varieties are grown commercially in Australia and Hawaii. One defining trait of Protea flowers is that, under perfect care conditions, their vase life can be anywhere from 14 – 21 days. Even when exceeding its vase life, Protea will often maintain their color and form making them an ideal flower for drying.3
To ensure a long life before drying, it’s important to remember that Proteas are thirsty little buggers. Their firm stems and exotic nature make them a frequent choice in floral designs using floral foam, and they will suck that foam dry. Daily watering is probably needed and its best to keep cut flower arrangements with Protea out of direct sunlight.
Proteus, God that he his, would be proud of the pricey tag Protea stems fetch commercially. That’s why the current special on Pink Ice Protea at Mainstreet Flower Market in Parker, CO is such a steal. If you want to make a floral statement conjuring meanings of transformation, versatility, boldness and exoticism, Protea is The key ingredient. Make an ancestral connection to your planet’s history, or just bask in the brilliant colors and textures that Proteas proffer. All at once, Protea is a flower that looks primordial, captures the moment and seems to be an alien traveler from the future. Beauty resonates in every bloom.
1) The number of Protea varieties has been noted at 1,400 – 1,500.
2) See a large selection of Protea plants with images at www.proteaflora.com
3) Care and drying instructions at www. proteas.com