Michele Yockey’s passion for proteas all started five years ago when she attended a talk by a local grower of proteas in Arroyo Grande. She and her husband, Larry, had recently relocated in Bayview Estates after retirement from careers in the Bay Area. Michele was looking for unique landscaping ideas to replace large lawns and eight 15-year old palm trees in the front yard. “I didn’t like looking at elephant legs out of my front windows, “ she said.
After researching proteas and confirming that her climate zone along the coast would support them, she made the decision to fill the beds around new smaller lawns in the front and back yards with many different species of this evergreen, winter-flowering family of plants from Australia and South Africa. She’s thrilled with the result, and excited at the color and exquisite beauty of the blooms and foliage.
She learned that ‘Protea,’ which is really one genus within the family Proteaceae, is now used as the common term for the whole family of Proteaceae, named by a Swedish botanist after legendary Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his shape at will. The reference to Proteus was inspired by the diversity of flower and foliage of the 73 genera and 1,500 species within this plant family.
This variety is evidenced in Michele’s collection, where a December to April color show is created by the large exotic flowers of the King protea, the pincushion blooms of the leucospermum, and several different species of grevillea, with spiraling pink buds that uncurl like tiny birthday-party blowers. Adenanthos “Woolybush” is another genus, featuring silvery, furry foliage and tubular blossoms.
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But it’s the mass of color from the large leucodendrum shrubs throughout the half-acre yard that catches the eye. Out in the open sun with the bay in the background, the leaves of the four to five foot diameter plants shout out in hues of yellow, red, maroon, purple and orange. Michele was careful to space each plant far enough apart to make a bold statement.
Scattered through her ‘Protea demonstration garden’ complete with labels for each plant, she includes other unusual selections from New Zealand as the variegated New Zealand Christmas tree, several shiny coprosma ‘Mirror Plants’ and pittisporum tenuifolium ‘Marjorie Channon’ with small silvery green leaves. “I enjoy a yard that is different, that doesn’t use the same plants as everyone else,” she said.
Since the proteas require little water, she wanted to continue the low-water theme with California native plants. She discovered that ‘Valley Violet’ ceanothus is a good groundcover and the unusual trichostema ‘Woolly Blue Curls’ from the California Coast Ranges is a good conversation piece.
In Michele’s research, she learned that Proteas are grown commercially in very specific coastal areas around the world – Australia, New Zealand, the Cape region of South Africa, Southern California, Hawaii, Israel and Zimbabwe. She said that last year Israel exported 28 million ‘Safari Sunset’ cut flowers. They are widely used in floral arrangements for modern office buildings and hotels, especially in Japan.
Michele is so enthusiastic about proteas that she would like others along the central coast to become acquainted with them. “There are so many reasons to plant them; they attract birds, they don’t need much water or care, they provide winter color, they make long-lasting cut and dried flowers, they are different andwell, just beautiful,” she says.