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The protea flower (genus: Protea) is one of the oldest flowers on Earth, dating back millions of years. The largest and most popular protea species is king protea (Protea cynaroides), also known as giant protea, king protea and king sugar bush. The flower resembles an artichoke, a fact reflected in its specific scientific name cynaroides, meaning ‘like cynara’ (globe artichoke).

Protea is a bushy evergreen shrub with mid-to-dark green ovate leaves which are thick and leathery. The flowers are massive. These hardy flowers resemble the shape of a water lily, reaching a diameter of 15-30 cm. The flower head consists of long, petal-like, silky-haired, stiff and pointed bracts, which can be in various color, including pink, red, white, yellow, orange, green and purple. In between the crown of bracts, numerous white stamens align towards the center of the flower. The flower stem typically grows up to 90 cm tall. However, the stem of one variety, Protea nitida, can be over five meters tall. The plant is native to South Africa, Southeast Asia, Madagascar and South America.

Protea was named and classified in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and father of modern taxonomy. He gave the proteaceae family its name after the Greek deity Proteus. A primordial god of the seas, Proteus personifies the elusive nature of the ever-changing nature of the sea. Linnaeus saw resonance between this mythical idea of a shape-shifting divinity and the enormous diversity of form within this plant family, which comprises over 1500 species.

Protea Flower Symbolism

Dictionaries define the word ‘protean’ as flexible, adaptable, versatile, diverse and able to change easily and frequently. Protea flowers have all these properties. They come in many colors, hues, textures and shapes. They thrive in extreme geographical and weather conditions. Finally, proteas dominate with their size and sturdiness. That such a flower is named after a god, seems fully befitting.

The god Proteus was known as ‘the old man of the sea.’ A son of Poseidon and Tethys, this water god looked after the sea flocks. Proteus had the gift of changing his form at will. Many heroes tried to catch a hold of him, for he could foretell the future and would always speak the truth. However, Proteus was a skilled shape-shifter, and capturing him was almost impossible.

According to the myth Aristaeus, Apollo’s son, was one of the very few heroes of the antiquity, able to capture Proteus. He managed to achieve this after much effort. The elusive god of the seas kept turning himself into various animals and beasts, before he finally surrendered. At another time, Homer narrates, the sea goddess Eidothea, the daughter of Proteus, agreed to help Menelaus by outwitting her father and capturing him while he was asleep. Taken by surprise, Proteus still managed to assume various forms including that of a snake, lion, panther, boar, a tree and running water. Eventually, he could no longer escape, and he agreed to give Menelaus a prophetic advice.

Proteus’ name comes from the Greek word ‘protos’ which means ‘first’. Proteus was the first son of the Greek god Poseidon, and among the first divine figures mentioned in the Greek mythology. Being first applies to the protea flower, too. In a way, the protea flower is first of its kind. Based on fossil findings, scientists have established that the proteas are among the oldest flowering plants on the planet. Proteas first appeared on the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, nearly 300 million years ago.

What Do the Various Colors of the Protea Flower Mean

The primary symbolic meanings of the protea flower are strength, courage and resilience, since the plant survives in extreme climate conditions. Proteas also symbolize diversity, due to the hundreds of variations in color and shape found within their genus. In South African local traditions, protea flowers often represent change and hope, since the plant gracefully regenerates itself after severe wildfires. Being one of the oldest flowering plant on earth, proteas are also an emblem of longevity. Finally, the flower’s unique appearance is often perceived as a symbol of idiosyncratic beauty, individuality and courage to stay true to oneself.

White Protea Flower Meaning

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The white protea flower represents innocence, integrity of character, purity of intention and honesty. The white flower communicates feelings of trust and sincerity, and allows no duplicity or guile.

An interesting example of a white protea flower is Serruria florida, a popular species from the family Proteaceae. Also known by the name of ‘blushing bride’, this plant has white flowers with a pinkish shade. According to the old tradition of the French Huguenots, gifting a white protea flower to a woman was a symbolic way of proposing her. Any man wearing a white protea flower on his lapel was actually making a public announcement to the town that he was now engaged.

Red Protea Flower Meaning

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The red protea flower is a royal symbol of passion and romance. In its unique shape and extravagance, the red protea is a symbol of courageous expression of love. Red is one of the primary colors of the king protea variety. The hybrid variety called ‘pink ice’ (Proteaceae Protea hybrid) is another popular protea flower with strong hues of red.

Yellow or Orange Protea Flower Meaning

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The yellow protea flower symbolizes honesty, trust and compassion. The orange protea flower stands for joyfulness, delight, cheerfulness and elevated state of being. Both yellow and organge proteas are symbols of spontaneous happiness and love for life.

Some varieties of the Pincushion protea (Leucospermum) have flowers in the shades of yellow and orange. The ‘skyrocket’ or ‘fireworks’ protea (Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum) also has yellow, fire-like flowers.

Green Protea Flower Meaning

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Owing largely to the common symbolism of the green color, the green protea flower is perceived as a symbol of harmony, abundance and good luck. Among the green-colored protea flowers, one of the best known is Protea coronata. It has unusual, apple-green flower head, wrapped inside silvery foliage. Another green-colored protea variety is the ‘bird’s nest’ (Banksia baxteri), which has a lovely lime-green bloom.

Pink Protea Flower Meaning

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The pink protea flower represents the gentle aspects of the first love, of femininity, and of a motherly love.

Purple Protea Flower Meaning

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Purple is the color of royalty and spirituality. Therefore, the purple protea flower is a symbol of grace, mystery, sovereignty and class.

Some Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Protea Flower

  • The protea flowers were introduced to Europe in the 1700s.
  • The protea flowers are also called sugarbushes, since they produce a great amount of nectar.
  • The proteas have developed sclerophylly (a form of adaptation to extreme environmental and climate condition). This property makes the leaves resistant to water loss.
  • Insects (honeybees, scarab beetles, rove beetles), bats, small birds and small marsupial mammals pollinate the protea flowers.
  • In spite of the large size of the protea flower heads, they produce a relatively small amount of seeds. Only up to 30 percent of the flowers generate a seed of sufficient genetic potential to propagate the species.
  • A special tea is made from the leaves of the king protea plant.
  • There are at least 80 varieties of king protea, with variations in the flower color and in the leaf morphology.
  • The stems of some protea species have been used both as firewood and material for making furniture.
  • The African species Protea nitida forms a large, 5 m tall tree. Baboons often climb these trees for a good lookout and to eat the nectar from the flowers. For this reason, this protea species is called ‘bobbejaansuikerbos’ in the local language.
  • The nectar of the protea flower has been long used as a substitute for sugar. Protea’s syrupy nectar is extremely rich in sucrose and tastes like honey.
  • Protea is a highly resilient plant which easily survives wildfires. Its thick underground stem (called lignotuber) contains many buds in dormant state which sprout quickly after the fire is extinguished. Certain chemicals in the smoke also support the process of germination. Furthermore, the wildfires accelerate the drying of the cone and the release of the seeds. This plays a significant role in the propagation of the protea species.
  • The protea plant absorbs all the water it requires from the fog, using the moist which collects on the surface of its leaves.
  • The oldest cultivation of proteas outside their native regions was recorded in the eighteenth century. The Englishman Joseph Knight succeeded in growing proteas under artificial conditions. His first cultivated protea flowers were displayed at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1774. He later documented his work, and by 1810, as many as 21 species were grown in his gardens.
  • In 1976, protea became a national flower of South Africa. As a national emblem, it is featured on coins and several official documents of the country, including the birth certificates and passports. The indigenous protea flower can also be seen on the National Coat of Arms. In an official statement, the government of South Africa has stated that the indigenous protea flower represents the beauty, the aesthetic harmony of all the cultures, and the SA flowering as a nation. ‘The protea symbolises the holistic integration of forces that grow from the Earth, and are nurtured from above,’ is further stated. ‘The most popular colors of Africa have been assigned to the protea – green, gold, red and black.’
  • A few protea varieties have been used in pharmacology as medicine to treat coughs, other respiratory conditions, digestive problems and diarrhea.
  • Over 90 percent of all protea species are only found in the biodiversity hotspot of South Africa, — an area referred to as Cape fynbos, meaning “fine bush” in Afrikaans. This is a narrow coastal belt along the Cape.
  • About 120 of all African protea species are classified as endangered.
  • The beautiful protea flower has been featured in an episode of the 2017 South Korean television series ‘Queen of Mystery’. In the context of this show, proteas are referred to as out-of-the-ordinary, charming and luxurious flowers. The protagonists gift bouquets of protea flowers to convey two messages — gratitude and ‘sending sweet love’.

The Best Time to Gift Someone a Protea Flower

Proteas are popular both as cut flowers, single or in bouquets. They also look impressive in various dried flower arrangements. Proteas are popular in bridal bouquets and wedding decorations, always holding the central position when featured along other flowers. 

Protea flowers are a very popular gift choice for birthdays and special day celebrations — Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, to name but a few.

Proteas are a wonderful felicitation gift on the occasion of job promotions, business achievements, and graduations. Due to the size and uniqueness of this flower, the message is clear: ‘You have made a great achievement!’

Gifting pink or red protea flowers is a great way to express admiration and love in a uniquely stylish, sophisticated and old-fashioned way.

Green proteas, believed to attract money and good fortune, could be a perfect gift to a friend who is joining a new office or starting a new business venture.

As a symbol of longevity, the protea flower is a very thoughtful gift for an elderly person. With its ancient and impressive heritage, this flower honors the wisdom of the age.

Protea is a flower that not only adapts to harsh conditions but manages to turn adversity into an advantage. It symbolizes strength and resilience. It can be gifted to a friend or a family member who is going through a difficult phase in life. In this context, the protea flower becomes a heartfelt expression of understanding, empathy and support. Above all else, proteas represent the idea of diversity. They make an excellent gift to a person who needs encouragement and support for being different and for standing out against conformity. If the protea flowers could speak, then ‘Dare to be yourself’, ‘Dare to be different’, and ‘Your uniqueness is your strength’ would be some of the messages they convey.