Protea cyanaroides, also known as the king protea, is perhaps the best known of the protea flowers. Often seen as the centerpiece in arrangements of flowers, the king protea is prized for its bold but delicate flower heads. The plant has also become synonymous with things African and is now officially recognized as the national flower of South Africa.
The king protea is a shrub with woody stems bearing large, glossy leaves that are flat and paddle-shaped. The flowers of the plant are, in fact, flower heads, with a collection of flowers and silky fibers in the center. These are surrounded with colorful petal-like leaves called bracts. The color ranges from off-white to deep red, with pinks with a silvery appearance being the most appreciated.
The plant grows relatively slowly. The leaves can draw moisture directly from the air. The flower heads of the plant remain open for weeks time and produces nectar that attracts birds and and insects. Scarab and Protea beetles are the primary pollinators. Fire is an essential part of the continued growth of the plant in the wild, destroying the portion above ground and returning the nutrients it possesses to the soil. The remaining roots will sprout again to form a new plant.
King protea are evergreens. The plant grows to between 4 and 6 feet in height, on average, and can spread just a wide. The flower heads range in size from 6 to 12 inches in diameter. Mature plants can produce up to 10 flower heads per season.
The king protea grows in nutrient-poor, acidic soils in the range of 6.5 pH to do well. The plant prefers full sun and does best in areas where temperatures do not drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Propagation is generally by seeds or cuttings. Because king protea plants are revived through a fire cycle, older cultivated plants should be cut back to the ground occasionally and allowed to regrow from the thick underground stem.
Because the flower heads stay open for long periods of time, king protea make an excellent choice as a cut flower. They also dry well and are frequently used, either fresh or preserved, in floral arrangements. Protea leaves are also used to make tea.