There is a little bit of Australia and South Africa alive in the hills of Aromas. On 20 acres of the 65-acre Wild Ridge Organics farm, feathery proteas, delicate leucospermum, varicolored leucadendron and elegant banksia thrive in an unusual microclimate that makes this area one of the few places these plants will grow.
What would ordinarily be considered great conditions for plants to grow are obstacles these varieties have to overcome. The protea family is drought-tolerant, but the roots of the plants are delicate. The fastest way to kill them is to treat them too well.
Anthony Garza, supervisor of horticulture and grounds at the UC-Berkeley Botanical Garden who tends to the protea in their South African and Australasia collections, said they are a challenge to grow.
“We can grow various kinds of protea, but we struggle with longevity with these plants,” Garza said. “You need well-drained soil with low fertility. We can’t use our typical planting mix because they are phosphorus-intolerant—they don’t like clay soils with organic matter. With ours, at some point, their roots reach the heavy soils and they perish.”
However, for Wild Ridge Organics owner Rick McCain, growing difficult plants like those in the protea family has been a lifelong obsession.
“I am just a plant collector, and I have loved them since I was a young boy,” said McCain. “I started collecting cactus and succulents when I was eight years old. So I’ve been growing unusual plants for about 39 years. With protea, I find that temperature is the greatest factor, and they don’t like soggy roots. They need perfect drainage and a lot of patience.”
McCain co-founded Quail Mountain Herbs in Watsonville in 1979 and helped the company to grow to hundreds of acres tended by 150 employees. He sold his interest in 1997 and, with his wife Michelle, decided to try his hand at cultivating hard-to-grow plants for the cut flower market.
“In the beginning, we were selling to the San Francisco wholesale flower market,” he said, “and then they decided not to drive down anymore to pick them up. We didn’t want to make the drive ourselves so we looked for other sources and hooked up with Whole Foods for a while, selling bouquets. There were some issues with them, and we decided not to work with them. Now we work with an individual florist who is our main buyer.”
Ten years ago, Michelle and her then-11-year-old daughter Brianna also began making and selling Christmas wreaths from a wide variety of protea and banksia plants.
“They are all so unique and special,” Michelle said. “I am always surprised and amazed that they are all in the same plant family, but each one is so different from the next one.”
Proteas got their name in 1735 from pioneer botanist Carl Linnaeus. He named them after Proteus, the Greek god of the sea who, like the sea waters, could change his shape at will. Linnaeus adapted the god’s name to reflect the varieties of the plant and the way they changed dramatically over the course of a season.
The oldest plants on the Wild Ridge Organics property in Aromas are a stand of silver trees, leucadendron argenteum, which were planted 22 years ago.
“These are native to South Africa, growing around Table Mountain in Cape Town,” McCain said. “It is a very narrow range for them to grow and they are almost endangered. We were told they were short-lived and we have had some die. But the ones we have are hanging in there and they are magnificent.”
There are 87 species of leucadendrons with many represented at the farm. While the silver trees do not change with the seasons, other varieties do and make colorful additions to arrangements and bouquets.
“People think that they are flowers, but they are really modified leaves that change color with the season,” McCain said. “The flowers are actually really tiny things. But the interesting thing is that they might have four to six color changes during the year, from dull greens to the brightest colors you could imagine. You could almost see them from a jet plane, they are so bright.”
One of the more beautiful protea is the Isopogon formosus, native to Australia. It’s also known as the “drumstick,” with the flowers growing in a spiral fashion to form a spherical head. The Wild Ridge Organics farm grows a wide variety of protea from Australia including adenonothos, agastachys, banksia, conospermum, dryandra, grevillea, macadamia, hakea, isopogon, and stenocarpus.
Banksia plants are also prolific bloomers, producing cylindrical-shaped flower cones. There are 79 known species and the farm has 68 of them, all grown from seed.
“Banksias are composite flowers, and some of the stalks can have up to 3,000 flowers,” McCain said. “They grow in the Western region of Australia and the hummingbirds love them. The yellow form of Banksia praemorsam is quite rare because normally they are a wine red color. It blooms twice a year, in the fall and the late winter, and it puts on a spectacular show.”
The farm also has protea from Chile, including embothrium and lomatia.
Unfortunately, the rigid climate needs of these exotic plants are hastening their extinction.
“Over 50% of these plants in the wild will likely be gone off the face of the earth by 2050,” McCain said. “Between climate change and development, human encroachment, the protea family is being threatened. Other plants might be able to migrate to new areas, but these have such strict requirements as to their microclimate, they can’t just up and move on.”
While Wild Ridge Organics has suffered a few environmental setbacks, including losing its 2007 flower crop to a freeze, the certified organic farm is thriving and has become a haven for local wildlife.
“Because we are organic and because of the way we grow,” Michelle said, “we have so much native wildlife here. There are so many kinds of birds here, and we have bobcats, foxes, weasels, great herons—just a huge variety. It is one of the coolest things about what we are doing here.”