Mike and Bettina Astone from Astone’s Protea began selling their seasonal protea wreaths about seven years ago and the wreaths are in high demand, especially during the Christmas holidays. “Our wreaths contain about $40 worth of material and sell for about $40. They’re an excellent value because they last so long,” Mike explained. Each wreath is unique. In addition, to seasonal wreaths, they also make beautiful mixed flower arrangements and provide wedding floral services.
Protea flowers were named for the Greek god Proteus, who was able to change his form at will. There are over 200 varieties of protea, and the Astones are growing most of them. Mike takes cuttings from established plants several times a year and plants them to increase his production. On days when he’s not delivering flowers to florists or attending the farmers markets, Mike walks about 4-5 miles through the fields cutting flowers and it’s hard work.
Early Days of Astone’s Protea
The couple discovered protea while working at a winery in Santa Barbara County. The owner of the winery was a botanist who shared his botanical library with the young couple. Soon the idea of starting their own protea farm began to take hold and they began searching for the perfect land to start their farm.
“There was nothing growing here at all,” Mike explained recently as he looked out over 25 acres of protea from the patio next to the house he built. “The ground squirrels had eaten everything. The ground was so hard you had to use a pick to break it up.”
In spite of the bleak landscape, Mike and Bettina realized that the land they’d found would be ideal for growing protea, drought resistant flowers native to South Africa and Australia. “Protea require a very specific climate, and this area has almost the exact weather as the part of South Africa where protea are from,” said Mike. “We knew what we were looking for, so when we saw this parcel we went for it.”
The land that Bettina and Mike farm feels wild and secluded yet is very close to Highway 1. A ridge divides the land into two main sections. A private road winds through the trees as it climbs to the top of the ridge where the Astone’s home sits. Terraced gardens cascade down to the fenced section where the protea are planted.
“When we first started, we were growing and selling individual plants that we grew from seed we imported from South Africa,” Mike recalled. “Protea are tough to grow from seed. So when a hard freeze hit in ’89, we switched over to selling cuttings.”
Today, you will find colorful (and long lasting!) arrangements available at the farmers markets, along with seasonal wreaths and potted two-gallon plants for sale.
South African and Australian native plants available as landscape plants, fresh-cut flowers, greens and bouquets with basket arrangements available by order. The more than 150 varieties of South African plants available are all in the protea family, of which the major genera include protea, leucadendron and leucospermum — more commonly known as pincushions. Australian varieties number more than 50 and include banksia, grevillea, adenanthos — also known as woolly bush, phyllica plumosa, kangaroo paw and hakea, which is known for its venous leaves.