Today's wide range of showy Leucadendrons are the modern ancestors of a prehistoric plant species that crossed the line from foliage to flowering plants.
These broad leafed evergreens, originally native to South Africa, reproduce through male and female seed cones carried on separate plants.
Conifers and cycads, considered to be among the oldest flowering plants on Earth reproduce the same way.
What appear to be flowers are actually modified leaves, called bracts, which have become brightly coloured. This is very similar to what happens in the much more 'modern' adaptation of the beloved Poinsettia.
This leaf colour adaptation probably happened to attract bird and insect pollination of the small, dull, often almost insignificant cones in the "flower" centre. Today these lovely wands of most unusual colour and form attract floral artists and florists by the millions.
Each wand or cane is quite erect and sturdy but is easily worked with in floral arrangements. And the 'flowers' last almost indefinitely and can be quite easily dried or sprayed with paint or floral dye to assume any colour necessary.
The 70 wild species have produced many hybrids and cultivars with much larger more showy bracts. Some closely resemble daisies with waxy petals, some are spidery or willowy in appearance while others look like stars, and many are shaped like giant tulips.
Some resemble Proteas in appearance and they are related. Bract colours include orange, salmon, cream, all shades of yellow, red, port wine, and many interesting variegations. Most are rather shrubby from just over 1m/3+ft to small branching sub-trees to roughly 3+m/10ft and occasionally somewhat taller. Growth tends to sprout from the basal crown and rise upwards with not much significant branching. Bracts appear at the tip of each long shoot.
These are handsome, hardy shrubs suitable for coastal, hillside and cliff plantings, terraces, dry rockeries and larger containers. Because they thrive in hot, dry, sunny spots with excellent ventilation they are a favourite for parking lots and foundation plantings.
These South African natives are very low maintenance shrubs requiring little pruning. When they do start to become a bit leggy or scrappy, it is often best to remove that entire cane right to the ground. Soon new healthy, strong shoots will emerge to replace it. If pruned part way down on an older mature cane often it will not branch as one would expect but just sits there and eventually attracts borer and decay or it sprouts rather insipid and unhealthy weak growth that ultimately results in the cane being removed anyway.
Leucadendrons require little feeding. Adding some very well-aged compost or well-rotted leaf mould at planting or as mulch is often all they need. Avoid lime, animal manures,or anything at all potentially caustic such as nitrates, phosphates and most commercial plant foods. Even in small doses, these can severely burn the foliage or root system and have been known to kill the shrub outright! Just remember that leaf mould, compost and a little blood and bone or bone dust are all they need so that they are not killed with 'kindness'.
Autumn through Late Spring is the best time of year to plant. But in benevolent climates they can be planted at almost any time. This is almost always from container-grown stock. No need to spread or tamper with their root system, they do not particularly want any root interference. And always plant them at the same depth when transplanting into the ground as they were in their container. Deeper planting, especially into moist, rich soils can result in basal or crown rot of the lower trunk.They will tolerate a wide range of soils from very light and sandy, most loamy land and will even grow in clay. But they prefer light and loose land that drains well. They can tolerate significant drought. Although their smooth, leathery, almost plastic-feeling leaves and colourful bracts may singe or mark during prolonged dry spells, the plants bounce back quickly once artificially watered or when rains return.
Young plants benefit from staking in windy sites. Once established, they are remarkably tough and hardy even near the coast. Also when planting, provide some extra water or artificial irrigation in dry positions until they are well established. Leucadendrons can tolerate light frosts and even several degrees of freezing, especially if the plants remain rather dry. But heavy wet soil combined with cold can lead to leaf spot or more significant damage. So be sure to shelter them from prolonged or repeated freezing and in such climates where this is likely to happen make sure they remain in a freely draining position.
In colder climates where significant freezing and wintry extremes might do them in, consider growing Leucadendron in large containers or movable landscape planters that can be brought into a protected cool and very sunny glasshouse or sun-room over the Winter months. They are quite accommodating to this provided they are allowed to remain almost dormant and in a position that will receive maximum ultraviolet light while indoors.
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