03 June 2012 by Julienne du Toit

In praise of proteas

The protea is a flower that is more wood than petal; that recruits ants, mice and even fire to its cause; that grows best in poor acid soils, yet drips with sweet nectar. How appropriate that the king protea is South Africa’s national flower.

Proteas are flowers of substance, cunning and infinite variety. All photos courtesy Chris Marais

I was chatting to a delightful flower-seller in Cape Town’s Adderley Street a while back. I asked her what people buy these days.

'Oh, the men usually ask my help if they’ve done something wrong. So I suggest a dozen roses or so,' she said.

'But there was 1 man who told me he’d been unfaithful to his wife. And then he asked what I’d suggest as an apology. So I suggested a bunch of proteas. Because, you know, they’re really heavy. I hoped the woman would take them and hit him over the head with them!'

One of the bearded sugarbush proteas One of the bearded sugarbush proteas

Apart from the agreeable heft of a protea bloom, there is so much more to admire.

They're 1 of nature’s very 1st and most successful experiments in flowers. Proteas 1st evolved nearly 130-million years ago. Dinosaurs must have snacked on them.

They spread right across the southern super-continent of Gondwana. When Australia and South America finally drifted away from Africa, they carried with them protea castaways. In the case of Australia, especially, they flourished, evolving into at least 800 different species – double those in Africa.

That’s where the name comes from. In the 1750s, Carl Linnaeus christened the genus with the name Proteus, in honour of the Greek god who could see the future, and who shape-shifted constantly to evade those who wanted him to foretell it.

Some botanists sniff that Linnaeus used the broad cover of the name to hide some sloppy classification on his part. Still, when you compare sugarbush proteas to pagoda proteas, or pincushion proteas to spiderhead proteas, you must admit that the naming was serendipitous.

Proteas are smart too. They strike up partnerships with other species.

Proteas are smart too. They strike up partnerships with other species.

On the Agulhas plains at the southernmost tip of Africa, you’ll find the Protea pudens, or the ground protea, with its inconspicuous flowers facing towards the ground. Its Latin name implies that it is modest or bashful, but in fact, the ground protea actively courts mice as pollinators, using its yeasty smell and sweet nectar as a reward. The protea is cunning enough to produce the high-energy food in spring, just when the rodents need it most for their newborn babies.

Pincushion proteas have developed a relationship with ants Pincushion proteas have developed a relationship with ants

Then there’s the even more intricate relationship with certain species of indigenous ants. Pincushion proteas, in particular, produce seeds that experts call ‘antfruits’. The plant freely drops these seeds, covered in a thin layer of nutrition, then seals the deal with an ant-attracting pheromone. The insects take the irresistible fruit to their underground nests and eat the covering. The hard, black seed that remains is too smooth for them to carry back above ground.

The seed waits patiently for the right conditions – usually a fire. If you want to cultivate a protea seed, you might have to boil it first, or expose it to smoke.

The greatest repository of knowledge on these plants lies within the Protea Atlas Project, headed by Tony Rebelo.

From the early 1990s, it harnessed nearly 1 000 keen amateurs to map exactly where each protea species occurred. Some were limited to only 1 square kilometre. Cheeringly, 2 species thought to be extinct were rediscovered.

Even better, the Protea Atlassers identified 8 new species, now rejoicing in such delightful names as the toffeeapple conebush, palmiet river sceptre and the clandestine spiderhead.

If you’re inspired to go protea hunting, look for them in the Table Mountain National Park (especially Cape Point), De Hoop Nature Reserve, Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus and national botanical gardens like the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town or the Harold Porter Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay.

A beautiful place to see proteas – Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus A beautiful place to see proteas – Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus

Category: Attractions

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