Mountains of flowers in Rainbow

Hidden high up in the mountain mists of Rainbow is one of the seven flower farms managed by Protea USA. It’s a unique operation that blends so well into the landscape you would never even see it, if you did not know that it was there.

Purple Pride Waxflower, a native South African flower that thrives in Southern California's Climate. Photograph by Chip Morton

The operation is Lawrence Keller’s brainchild, and for this South African expatiate, it very appropriately,  grows only South African flowers.

Lawrence Keller picking Proteas at a breathtaking pace. Photograph by Chip Morton

Upon first meeting Lawrence, he pulled up into the parking lot of a local restaurant blowing a plastic horn that was about 3 feet long, in the most blaring horrific bleating that only a mountain sheep could love. I liked him instantly!

Lawrence Keller’s organization currently runs seven farms, I have a feeling he took us to see the flagship, and that is such an understatement. Lawrence is also the Chairman of the California Protea Association (CPA) and on the Board of Directors of the San Diego County Farm Bureau Board.

If you dig nature, solitude, wildlife burbling brooks and streams, soaring hawks, helicopters flying below you and vistas in all directions, then you will really fall in love with this flower farm, perched on top of a small mountain.

Just the journey there is through one of the most picturesque twisty and turning roads that I have had the pleasure to drive in Southern California. Sorry, I am not sharing. This road is secluded, and mercifully free of high-performance motorcycles. Let’s keep it that way, as there are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists, and no shoulder, so no margin for error.

Flowers, a manly pursuit?

Before I even shook Lawrence’s hands, he bellowed: “Yes I grow flowers and no I am not Gay, I have a wife and a family.” Good morning to you too!

Leucospermum Flame Giant

We started a tour of the fields and at every new flower Lawrence took cuttings and gave me the Latin name and history. My form of identifications was a little more simple, poky plastic-looking red flower, yellow spiky-thing, purple tiny flowers. Mercifully there was no test at the end.

Leucadendron Discolor

From a distance protea’s look extremely delicate, just like an orchid, however that image is deceiving. Just like the continent of Africa, a protea is a wild and rugged flower. When you touch it, it feels like a cross between a soft plastic and leather, and is remarkably robust.

The Orign of the Protea: 300 million year old fossils indicate that Protea are one of the most ancient plants in the world. The name Protea is derived from the mythological Greek Sea God “Proteus” who had the power to spontaneously change his shape. Appropriately named, there are over 1,500 types of Protea

Leucospermum High Gold

Proteas like a rugged, barren landscape and are extremely drought tolerant, which make them the perfect crop for Southern California.

After tramping all over the mountain side we gathered our bunches of flowers and headed back to Lawrence’s truck. Once there Lawrence assembled massive floral bouquets for everyone to take home as a souvenir. He moves his shears the same way as a veteran Chef moves his knife, at a blinding speed, too fast to watch, without a wasted movement.

Flowers worth more than grapes, sacrilege?

Financially flowers make economic sense, more so than crops such as avocado, citrus or even our beloved grapes.

When asked about the financial aspects of flower growing Lawrence responded with: “You have 1,000 plants per acre, with an average of seven stems each, do the math.”

Great example Lawrence, but I did not study plant wholesale prices in Business School. A little bit of research latter showed the retail price of Proteas at close to $4.00 – $6.00 a stem. Which using simple math would put the wholesale price in the range of $2.00 – $1.30 per stem. So 1,000 plants per acre times an average of 7 stems per plant times $2.00 each, equals $14,000 per acre.

Thats a pretty nice return for a crop that is low maintenance and low water, which is a critical consideration in Southern California. For comparisons sake, very high quality grapes typically yield 1 ½ tons per acre and are resold for about $2,000 – $2,500 locally, compared to $14,000 an acre for flowers, you can see the appeal (700% greater rate of return if you are keeping track).

Off the wall thinking here, what if a vintner was to plant flowers as a cover crop in between rows, bud break coincides with many flowers harvest times, after which they can be mulched under and composted. The benefits of having an extra $5,000 – $10,000 per acre in income, plus healthier soil, must be worth considering…just thinking aloud.

Lawrence Keller hiking with a bunch of Waxflowers. Photograph by Chip Morton

Market Cornered

Protea USA has agreements with leading-edge nurseries from around the world, when a new protea is developed, Protea USA has the US licensing rights. A nice spot to be in.

See: and for more information about these interesting flowers.

Flower thief caught red-handed! Photograph by Chip Morton.

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