The Phyto-Philes - King Protea

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King Protea

Willem says: 'The Phyto-Philes are for plant lovers of every size and shape, colour and flavour. As with my Colours of Wildlife column, I'll be featuring one species per article, illustrated with sketches, paintings, and/or photos. Over time I hope to be showcasing the amazing diversity of weird and wonderful plants that occur in South Africa, while also from time to time looking at the flora of other countries. While featuring many spectacular species, I'll not be neglecting the smaller, more humble kinds that are nevertheless fascinating in their own right.'

King Protea by Willem.

Back to beauty! This is the King Protea, Protea cynaroides, the most magnificent of South Africa's proteas and South Africa's national flower. It is also the emblem of South Africa's national cricket team. It is a relative of the Silver Tree that I featured last time. It is a much different looking plant, though, being a low shrub rather than a tree, most of the time being only about a metre/yard tall. But its flowers are glorious! As in the silver tree, what we call a flower is actually a flowerhead containing many flowers, surrounded by modified leaves called bracts. In the king protea the flowers are densely packed creamy white and hairy, forming a cone structure in the centre of the flowerhead, while the bracts surrounding them are colourful, mostly pinkish red but anything from creamy, almost white, to deep red. The flowerheads reach 30 cm/12" in width, making them the largest among all the Proteas.

This protea occurs in the Southwestern Cape – in terms of provinces, mostly in the Western Cape and in a bit of the Eastern Cape. In terms of eco-regions, it is found in the majority of the Mountain Fynbos, a vegetation type comprised of dense shrubs in a bewildering diversity of species. Over most of the distribution of this species rain falls predominantly in the winter, but in the east rain can be expected year-round. This species prefers moister areas, growing on sandstone slopes. The protea family as a whole is highly characteristic of the fynbos, the most recognizable genera being Protea itself, Leucadendron to which the Silver Tree belongs, and also Leucospermum, the pincushions, and Mimetes, the pagoda bushes. I hope to soon feature the latter two genera as well. The protea family is amazingly diverse in South Africa. Interestingly, another region where it is diverse is Australia, especially in regions with a similar winter-rainfall climate. Also, Australia used to be connected to South Africa in the ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The protea family as a whole therefore might predate the splitting of the continents, meaning it originated perhaps 90 million or more years ago.

Protea itself is a genus with over a hundred known species, over seventy being found in the fynbos. They are very diverse, from tiny shrubs to good-sized trees. The flowerheads, too, display a variety of forms although they are all on inspection clearly identifiable as proteas. The genus name comes from the Greek ocean god Proteus, who could change his shape into any form he chose. This of course relates to the vast variety of forms in the proteas. The species name of the king protea, cynaroides, means 'like Cynarus'. Cynarus is the genus name of the globe artichoke, the flowerhead of which does indeed resemble that of proteas. But it is in a different family, the Daisy family, Asteraceae, which nevertheless, like the proteas, have 'flowers' that are in fact compound flowerheads – but with a structure different from those of the proteas.

The fynbos vegetation type is generally associated with poor soils very low in nutriments. This, rather than the harsh climate with hot, dry summers and wet, cold winters, is what keeps most of the plants small and low. Another feature of the fynbos is fire, which erupts every several years. But proteas and other fynbos species are adapted to all of this. The king protea, like many others, have hard, leathery leaves from which water is lost only slowly, enabling them to survive the long dry seasons. To extract more nutrition from the soils, proteas form a mass of densely branching rootlets that spread at the base of the shrub at the level of the soil surface just below the leaf litter. As for fires, the above-ground portion of the shrubs are killed, but they then re-sprout from buds on the subterranean woodstock. Like many other proteas, the large, nut-like seeds are kept inside the dry, woody flowerheads for many years after fertilisation, only being released by the heat of the fires. They then easily germinate in the nutritious ash left behind, and with the vegetation cover cleared, the little shrubs can grow without competition until big and well established.

The proteas provide food for many animals. Some of the low-growing species bear flowers at ground level that are pollinated by mice! But the king protea and others bearing flowers at the top of the shrubs in the open are adapted to be pollinated by birds. The regular nectar-drinking birds in South Africa are the sunbirds, and species like the Malachite sunbird and the Orange-breasted sunbird will probe protea flowers with their long, curved bills. But one group in particular is associated with proteas – the Sugarbirds, Promeropidae. This family of birds is only found in South Africa, and consists of only two species. The one found with the King Protea is the Cape Sugarbird, Promerops capensis, a very striking bird with a very long tail. The birds push their heads into the centre of the flowerhead, brushing their foreheads and chests with pollen; visiting the next flower, this gets dusted onto the stigmas, and so they get pollinated. Apart from birds, beetles and butterflies also visit the flowers and also contribute towards pollinating them.

These proteas are widely grown, more than 80 garden cultivars having been bred. The flowerheads last long and are therefore very popular in cut flower arrangements. They can be grown from seeds or cuttings. Dipping the cutting in a rooting hormone improves results, while the seeds should be treated with a fungicide. Both should be planted in a well-draining, light medium and kept moist and warm. Once successfully germinated/rooted they should be planted out in a similarly well-draining, slightly acidic soil, in a position with full sun and good air circulation. They can take only light frosts. Remember that in nature they grow in poor soils – they don't like added fertilizer. Instead put down a mulch of leaf litter, pine needles or bark over the spoil surface. Don't disturb the soil around the base of the plant: damage to the rootlets can make them vulnerable to fungal infections. Don't overwater the shrubs. They should be frequently pruned back, not just to simulate the fires of their natural environment, but also to keep them tidy and to stimulate flowering. They are very rewarding once they start to flower, which is typically at the age of five years. The flowering period lasts several months.

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