By NORMAN BEZONA
University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
As you read this, Voltaire Moise and I are visiting the home of Proteas in South Africa. We plan to travel up the west coast of Africa and ultimately reach the Canary Islands in late March where the mysterious Dragon Tree, Dracaena draco originated. As we travel up through Namibia, Gambia, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and other exotic locations, I will try to write and send articles on plants, and people, back to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
The vegetation here in South Africa is unlike any place else on earth. Some of these amazing plants may be grown to perfection in Hawaii. The Protea family is one example.
The term Protea is often used to include the whole family of Proteaceae found south of the equator from Africa and Australia. The family includes 75 genera and 1,350 or more species. Some of the plants with which you may be familiar are the Silver Oak Grevillea, and the Australian Macadamia. If you are interested in learning more about the protea industry and growing proteas, contact Ty McDonald, extension agent at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture office in Kainaliu, 322-4884.
Of all the many choices available in the marketplace, none can beat the bizarre yet enhancing beauty of Protea. From the robust, intense-colored sunburst Pincushion to the deceiving Duchess, which looks more like feathers than a flower, proteas resemble no other flowers in the world.
Hawaii is well known for producing gorgeous protea blooms, yet the first commercial plantings were done here a scant 40 years ago. Most commercial proteas are grown on Maui, but they also do well in West Hawaii. Most do well at higher elevations and are grown up to 5000 feet in elevation. Most require good soil drainage.
One of the people responsible for Hawaii proteas is the retired Dr. Philip Parvin, horticulturist with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, who directed the Maui Experiment Station.
When Dr. Parvin first became director in 1968, he was highly impressed with the obvious superior growth of proteas that had been planted at the Kula station a few years earlier. As he was familiar with proteas being grown in California, he was inspired to explore the potential of a protea industry in Hawaii.
This industry has indeed developed and continues to grow. Hawaii’s 1981 wholesale figure for protea sales was well over $300,000. In 1991, sales were almost one and a half million dollars, with acreage and sales increasing every year thereafter. In south Kona, several small farms were doing well, but vog from Kilauea caused serious damage to plants.
With partial funding for protea research coming from the Governor’s Agricultural Coordinating Committee, several College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources researchers have been able to solve some of this young industry’s problems and help improve production and handling. Dr. Parvin worked on the management aspects of the crop, such as the selection of superior cultivars, propagation, density spacing, pruning, and plant nutrition.
Dr. I-Pai Wu, a professor of agricultural engineering, developed drip irrigation systems to meet water requirements in the field and to make better use of available water resources. John Cho, Stephen Ferreira, and Norman Nagata, plant pathologists, examined fungicides for the control of root rot, that is a disease problem in protea production.
Ronald Mau and Arnold Hara, entomologists, worked to solve some of the pest problems, including those that could lead to the rejection of shipments to other areas. Dr. Philip Ito, a Hilo based horticulturist, worked on new types of protea for the world market.
Dr. Robert Paull, a plant physiologist, solved problems arising during shipping and ways to extend Protea shelf life. Of course, all these efforts became meaningful because of key Protea growers who developed a good marketing system and took research to action.
So you see that the intriguing Protea blossoms seen on display in homes and places of business such as hotels didn’t just happen. They are the result of concerted efforts by Hawaii’s agricultural scientists and growers working together to develop another fine Hawaiian grown product with tremendous potential.
Even if you are not interested in growing Proteas commercially, you can be certain that these gorgeous and exotic flowers are perfect to enhance your home, garden or for a special, long lasting gift. If you receive some as a gift, remember that Proteas have another advantage besides their remarkable attractiveness. They can be easily dried and enjoyed for a long time to come. All you have to do is remove the water from the container when the flowers start to lose their freshness and allow the flowers to dry into a permanent arrangement.
Another method is to hang the flowers upside down for about a month, and then use them in a dry flower arrangement. To eliminate the possibility of mold setting in during drying, space the flowers out to allow a good circulation of air. This latter method is especially suited to types that have a tendency to bend over as they lose their freshness.
If you are not familiar with Proteas, ask your local florist to show you the various types now being produced. Learn what each is called, and how long they will last.
If you’re looking for something special, Proteas and their relatives — Banksias, Leucospermum, Leucadendron, Serruia and Stenocarpus — are worth checking out. The most common in the Protea group here are macadamia and Australian Silver Oak, but Stenocarpus sinatus, the Australian Firewheel Tree or Wheel of Fire can occasionally be found in local nurseries and some older gardens. The gorgeous reddish orange inflorescence is formed by five or more branches arranged like the spokes of a wheel radiating from a central stalk. The tree is adapted from sea level to at least 3000 feet elevation, especially in drier areas of the island. It will also grow in wet areas with good soil drainage.