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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!

Protea, Banksia-Protea sp. , Banksia sp.

4 things you may not know about these Kauai plants

1. What is it? Protea and Banksia are dramatic, brightly colored, truly exotic looking plants part of the Protea family, which also includes the Macadamia. The Protea has about 1600 varieties and most have large show-stopping blooms. There are 4 main members to this family which include the true Protea including the Kings, Queens, and Minks, distinguished by their artichoke-like blossoms and feathery bracts. The second is the Banksia which produces flowers which resemble sturdy bottle brushes. The third is the Leucadendron, which are cultivated primarily for their leaves. Lastly, the Leucospermum, which are also know as Pincushion Protea, which you get immediately when seeing them. This family of plants, like palms, is said to have ancestors dating back more than 100 million years. About 100 varieties are grown in Hawaii. There is wide diversity in these plants’ characteristics, with some being herbs, others being bushes or trees. They can can be deciduous or perennial, grow close to the ground and/or be tall forest trees, with most being perennial, medium or low growing shrubs. The flowers are not in actuality not one big flower but instead are tight clusters of many tiny flowers, held together by colorful bracts, which resemble petals. Some Protea flowers are self pollinating and others are not. A very unusual cone with flat wedge-like seeds follows the flowers. The evolution which has given rise to so many variations in habit and appearance is an example of what is called adaptive radiation meaning the plant adapts and changes its form over many generations based on the environment it’s in. The Protea typically prefers cool temperatures at night, dry air, and well-drained soil and can tolerate poor soil , often prefers it. Most are grown commercially here in the islands, although there are some grown and coveted by garden enthusiasts as well. I have been able to propagate Banksia integrifolia from seed and the bush has grown in our yard for at least 5 years. It has yet to flower but produces beautiful leaves which we use for our basketry and other creations.

2. Where did it come from? The first Protea were discovered in Southern Africa in the 17th century and given the name protea in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, after the Greek god Proteus, Poseidon’s son, who had the ability to change his appearance at will. Banksia was named after botanist Joseph Banks, who traveled with Captain Cook and discovered them while in Australia. The Banksia are also found in South America. Australia has more than 850 different species with more than 330 in South Africa. Currently they are cultivated in more than 20 countries. Hawaii has more than 100 different cultivated varieties. The King Protea is South Africa’s national symbol and appears on passports, birth certificates, and the R5 coin. Besides a cut flower, the honey derived from the flowers was distilled and boiled eventually being used as a cough syrup. The nectar also was said to aid stomach ulcers. Their primary use is as a superior cut flower. They made their way to the islands in the 1960's to the Island of Maui as commercial flowers, where there are now 27 family run farms left. Both the Big Island and Kauai also have a few growers and there is continued research project at the University of Hawaii on Oahu to develop new varieties more tolerant of Hawaii's moist conditions.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

Many of the Banksia leaves are harvested all year-we order most of ours from farms on Maui and harvest leaves from ours, anytime the bush gets too tall. The Protea sp. flowers typically are available from October-May depending on the variety. They typically take most of the warmer months off, whereas, some of the Banksia sp. tend to be in full bloom June-September, although there are exceptions here also. We have previously used the Kings, but prefer Minks, Scarlet ribbon Banksia, Raspberry Frost Banksia, Mint Julep Banksia and Orange Frost. We also use the cones which their size dictates their use on the bigger baskets. All of these are harvested fresh and we air dry them. They store well retaining much of their color

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

We use a green leaf on every basket and pouch. The wide variety of sizes, shapes, and shades of green, add a unique touch of color to each piece. We have used some of the Minks, Kings, and slices of the Banksia on both baskets and pouches in the past. They tend to be more fragile, so we use them sparingly, but have used the bracts or petals, stamen, and seed cones individually as additional decorative elements.

*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.



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