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Protea is King @Johannesburg International Flower Show

Protea is King @Johannesburg International Flower Show

A King Protea. South Africa’s national flower. After an exhausting 16 ½-hour flight to Johannesburg, I was met in the airport with the gift of a fresh bloom.

Refreshed by the South African thoughtfulness of a King Protea “welcome”, I was reminded of the Hawaiian “aloha” tradition of greeting people with orchid leis.

Flowers express our emotions. While 11 official languages are spoken in South Africa - flowers speak all languages.

Are you a fan of protea? I am.

As a speaker and judge for the first Johannesburg International Flower Show, I was excited about working with their native protea.

The freshly-picked blooms had an amazing quality I hadn’t experienced in the US. For the first time I smelled their soft baby-powder, citrusy or honey-like scents that must be lost in transit.

What’s so special about these natural beauties?

South African Protea

A beautiful bloom from a woody shrub, the King Protea is the largest bloom of its genus. Named king because its unique petals resemble a crown. In South African tradition, the flower represents hope and change.

Producing an abundance of nectar, protea are sometimes referred to as sugarbushes though their leaves, bark and seeds are actually poisonous.

Pincushions. Banksia. Waratah. Leucadendron. Fynbos. The list goes on. There are 1,350 species in the Proteaceae plant family. They grow mostly in southern hemisphere dry regions - especially South Africa and Australia.

Fynbos or ‘fine bush’

Fynbos comes from the old Dutch words ‘fine bush’ and refers to the scrubby vegetation of the mountainous South Africa Cape region. About 70% are unique to the region.

These straggly trees and bushes survive harsh wind, sun, nutrient poor soil and little water to produce beautiful flowers every month of the year.

Thick protea stems reach far underground and contain dormant buds that not only can survive the wildfires of the region but need the intense heat to trigger new growth.

Design tip: Cut the woody stem at a sharp 45-degree angle from each side, making a pointed arrow-like point. This sharp stem-end will hold more securely in wet foam.

Mixing the hardy stems with more fragile garden flowers to construct a table runner designed on Midnight floral foam tiles and a coordinating design ring created an interesting vibe.

One competitor used Decorative wire and water tubes as exposed mechanics. These mechanics are considered an element of the freeform botanical couture of the dancer above.

Design tip: Due to the size and weight of some protea stems, applying Floralock – a spray adhesive that is absorbed by the floral foam can offer added security.

Celebrating diversity

In the US, protea are often considered a specialty flower. In South Africa, the beautiful blooms grow wild in the heathlands.

These two winning designs celebrate the diversity of South African flowers and people.

A mesh angel wing frame is filled with classic green floral foam as its water resource. An ombre – the gradual blending of one color hue to another, of fresh South African roses used to represent many cultures blended into one nation.

An insightful display of protea, canes, yarn, and Midnight floral foam restrained in floral mesh (spray-painted red) was used to honor the indomitable spirit of Nelson Mandela – his struggle and his success.

Honoring tribal culture

Trees are an important part of the South African culture and are often used to represent life.

Floral foam blocks, sheets, and cylinder garland were used as the water-source of this interpretative tree. Illustrating the energy of life, the flowers surround and migrate up the tree providing a cool habitat for small creatures.

Design tip: A protea’s leaf blackening may be a result of its carbohydrate use. Using sugar reserves for bloom development may result in dark spots on the leaves. Proper post-harvest flower food care can help prevent leaf blackening.

Blocks of wet floral foam filled a standing wire frame as the background of the tribal blanket. floral foam sheets or tiles could have also been used.

This winning competitor placed in both the diversity and chandelier categories. She used water tubes to suspend her flowers by metallic wire at various highlights in her chandelier.

Design tip: UGLU adhesive dashes help adhere the wire to the tubes or yarn to the gourds.

Oversized pedestal vase

Oasis floral foam was there to help big ideas work in a country where water is precious.

Along with protea, orchids, iris, heather, daisies and carnivorous plants like sundews, the fynbos biome also includes rush-like flowering plants called restios or Cape Reeds.

This over-sized arrangement had a mixture of native materials requiring a water source.

Easel cages (similar to this one) were cable-tied around the center of the metal sphere to hold blocks of wet foam.

A series of rolls - three blocks of floral Foam wrapped in florist netting and cable-tied together, were attached around the bottom and top of the sphere  to hold flowers in place.

Amazing floral chandelier

The fresh flower hanging chandelier were an amazing highlight of the show.

Each contestant was given a space and large hanging form for the base of their design.

Designers used different methods to create their foundations. Most used different widths and versions of floral foam attached by duct tape, florist netting, or cable ties. One designer used a straw foundation.

These gorgeous designs were the result of hours of intense planning and hard work. Only the designer may place flowers. An assistant may hand materials to them.

This breath-taking white chandelier took first place in the competition.

Charming chameleon

Florist netting (or chicken wire) and floral foam were used to shape this charming chameleon. A cylinder garland was used for his hands, feet and prehensile tail.

When covered in gerbera daisies, this cleverly designed creature brought smiles to the faces of passers-by.

How can you bring smiles to your customer's faces? Take good care of their protea.

Protea care & handling

  1. Wash flower buckets with DCD to fight bacteria.
  2. Fill display buckets with 5 – 7 inches of fresh, clean water.
  3. Unpack flower boxes immediately to release ethylene gas.
  4. Remove leaves that will be below the waterline.
  5. Use a sharp knife to cut off at least ½ inch of each stem.
  6. Store in a floral cooler at 36° – 50° F.
  7. Use flower foods to enhance longevity.

There were so many more ideas that I didn’t have space to share. See more 2019 JHFS photos and floral tips on  Sharon McGukin Facebook and Instagram pages or

The 2020 Johannesburg International Flower Show will be held on October 28 – November 1.

Do you love designing with protea? Share your favorite tips in the comments below.

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