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Gardens and Plants
Plant Lust: Leucadendrons


The boldest, most-exotic, biggest-bang-for-the-buck group of drought-loving shrubs we can grow in our area come from the protea family (“Proteaceae“), and one of that family’s best subsets is the South African genus Leucadendron. The drought we’re having brings these glorious plants into sharper focus than ever, because they’re at their peak in our mild, summer-dry, winter-moist climate.

Photo by Rebecca Marshall

Photo by FarOutFlora

ABOVE: We love the hardy and flamboyant horticultural selection ‘Jester’ (AKA ‘Safari Sunshine’), seen in the top three images; it reaches six-feet-tall. The reliable, deep-red Safari Sunshine variety of leucadendron seen in the lower two images can send its upright branches up to 15-feet in a decade or more, though you can prune it to keep it lower. Seasonal bloom cones surround themselves with translucent, glowing bracts on each branch tip. They shimmer and glow like magic wands in the breeze.

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Photo by Rebecca Marshall

Photo by Rebecca Marshall

ABOVE: Tough and low-growing Leucadendron salignum ‘Winter Red’ in the upper photo keeps a good red much of the year that perks up in winter. ‘Summer Red’, in the lower photo, delivers its color, you guessed it, in summer! The parent species of these selections is the most widespread and one of the most adaptable in the leucadendron genus, staying at three-to-five-feet tall.

We just love using leucadendrons in designing gardens! Colorful, evergreen, beautifully structured, fast-growing, they’re easy to mix into designs in containers or in the ground. Follow a few guidelines and they’re no harder to grow than – and can do well with – our native manzanitas. They’re also pretty easy to prune.

They thrive in poor, well-drained soils, which are common in San Francisco (especially on the sandy west side of the city) and coastal California, they love our pesky summer winds, they prefer our mild, Mediterranean climate, and some of them even tolerate immediate coastal conditions. So much to love.

In return, they ask that we refrain from applying fertilizer with phosphorus (if it’s in the soil they gorge on it and poison themselves), and avoid planting them in heavy, rich, summer-moist soil.  Do keep them in sun or part-sun exposure; water sparingly (if at all) during the dry season; and protect them from sharp frosts.

Most of the time there’s no need to apply fertilizer at all. If you ever feel you do need to fertilize, consider instead simply applying a sulfur amendment like iron sulfate or aluminum sulfate; it will make the soil more acidic, which allows leucadendrons to take advantage of the few nutrients they need. If you do fertilize, read the package carefully. Every fertilizer carries a three-number analysis of the nutrient balance – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Make sure that middle number (phosphorus) is 1 or lower.

If you have heavy, rich soil, use them in containers (we love them in containers!), or find the steepest, rockiest spots in the sunshine for them; you can also plant on a mound of well-drained, nutrient-poor soil. There are far too few leucadendrons in our gardens. Let’s get planting!

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