protea, one of the world's most striking flowers, is a crucial part of South African culture, economy, and politics. The largest (and arguably the most spectacular of the proteas), the king protea, has an important place in the country's coat of arms and on the official currency, as well as acting as the nation's national flower. Today, the understanding and preservation of the protea has become an integral part of understanding and preserving the very nature of the nation of South Africa.
The King Protea
The king protea (Protea cynaroides) is the national flower of South Africa. The king protea was first seriously considered for South Africa's official national floral emblem in 1962, when a commission was set up to study its use as a national emblem. The South African Association of Botanists supported the choice of the spectacular flower, the king protea, however the choice of the flower as the national floral emblem did not officially occur until 1975 (SA Embassy).
The king protea is the largest member of the proteas. King proteas can reach close to two meters in height, and the flower itself can be up to 30 cm across. The king protea (Protea cynaroids) is generally pink or crimson in its outer bracts, which are covered with silky hairs. These hairs surround the central lilac flowers (Royal Botanic Gardens). The King protea shows many variations in both color and shape of leaves. In nature, this plant can even have silvery-pink flower bracts (SA Embassy).
The king protea is widespread, and is found throughout the southwestern and southern areas within both the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. This is inclusive of Cedarberg to east of Grahamstown (SA Embassy). The king protea (Protea cynaroides) is found in the southern parts of the Western Cape, and areas within the Eastern Cape (International Marketing Council of South Africa).
The king protea's specific name cynaroides is derived from 'like cynara' (the globe artichoke). Early collectors often referred to the flower heads of the King protea as artichoke lights, thus as the name (SA Embassy).
The king protea was first introduced to Britain in 1775, but the plants did not survive well or bloom. It was only in 1986 that the king protea was once again encouraged to bloom in Britain (Royal Botanic Gardens).
While the king protea is the most famous of the protea genus, a number of other attractive proteas are common within South Africa. For example, the attractive sugarbush (Protea repens) is pink-red to white, with flower heads of close to 15 cm, much smaller than the king protea. It gets its name from the large amount of nectar produced from the flowers. Early South African colonists used this nectar as a sugar substitute and as a treatment for coughs (Royal Botanic Gardens).
The shape of bracts is important in distinguishing two main groups of proteas. Bearded proteas include P. neriifolia, a plant with red, pink, or white bracts that have black beards on their tips. Spoon-shaped bracts characterize another group of proteas that include the P. susanne (red-brown bracts) and P. obtusifolia (with smooth, red to white bracts) (Royal Botanic Gardens).
Proteas were originally mistaken for thistles in Europe of the seventeenth century due to their superficial resemblance (Royal Botanic Gardens). Linnaeus first named the Proteacae family in 1735. He came up with the name after several specimens were sent to him from the Cape region of South Africa. The name protea is derived from the Greek god Proteus. This Greek god could take many shapes, similar to the popular plant genus' ability to assume several different shapes and colors (University of the Western Cape).
All genera that belong to the Proteacae family have the same basic type of flower, but they differ greatly in form. Of these genera, Protea, Leucospermum, Mimetes, and Leucadendron are the most common. In contrast the genera Diastella, Aulax, Faurea, Spatalla, Paranomus, Sorocephalus, Brabejum, and Surruria are not as abundant (University of the Western Cape). Proteacae only occurs in the southern hemisphere, and includes plants in Australia (Telopea and Banksia, for example), and South America (Chilean fire bush, for example). The Protea genus is found in both South Africa and Australia (Royal Botanic Gardens).
The flowers of the species are often described as magnificent and amazing due to their unusual shapes, eye-catching colors, and large size. Proteas are at their most eye-catching when in flower. The proteas have a vast range of flower colors (International Marketing Council of South Africa). Proteas make up the five largest flowerheads in the word, with the king protea (P. cynaroides) as the largest. The rest of the list is made of Krantz Sugarbush (p. rupicola), Snowball Sugarbush (P. cryophilia), Wagon Tree (P. nitida), and Queen Sugarbush (P. magnifica) (Protea Atlas Project).
Of the protea species, 82 are present in South Africa, and 114 are present in Africa. 69 species are present in Cape Province (Royal Botanic Gardens). Wild proteas in South Africa grow largely on acidic soils that are low in nutrients and free draining. They often grow on mountains characterized by dry windy summers, periods of drought, and winter rainfall. Different species of proteas have specialized to these conditions. Some have small, hairy leaves designed to minimize water loss. Others have stems below ground for drought resistance. Protea with specialized roots increase nutrient uptake in infertile soils. Lignotubers (specialized swellings at the stem base) help to protect protea from fires, as new shoots grow from these areas (Royal Botanic Gardens).
The protea genus can have a wide variety of forms, from bushes to trees. Proteas have simple leather leaves that can take a number of shapes and sized. Flowers are massed in the inflorescence, and surrounded with bracts (petal-like structures) that are commonly mistaken for single flowers (Royal Botanic Gardens).
Songbirds pollinate protea flowers in the wild. These birds visit the flowers for nectar, and then use dry flowers to make nests (Royal Botanic Gardens).
Proteas are successfully cultivated both within South Africa and abroad. As in the wild in South Africa, the plants require well-drained acidic soils. They do not grow below temperatures of 0-2°C, but can be cultivated indoors (Royal Botanic Gardens).
Proteas are widely exported, and make a popular addition to gardens worldwide. For example, many plants cultivated in Southern California, including proteas, originated from South Africa (UCLA).
Proteas are only part of the diverse and spectacular species of flora found in South Africa. The grasslands and scrubs of South Africa are the home to pristine grasslands that contain five major habitat types: fynbos, forest, Karoo, grassland and savannah. Further, these grasslands conform to seven biomes: Nama Karoo, Succulent Karoo, Fynbos, Forest, Thicket, Savanna and Grassland. This diversity results in the appearance of over 10% of the world's flowering plant species in the region. The Cape Floristic Kingdom (named after South Africa's Western Cape) is completely housed within South Africa. The Cape Floristic Kingdom has close to an impressive 8,600 species, more than housed in all of Great Britain (International Marketing Council of South Africa).
South Africa's southwest houses the fynbos. The fynbos is made up of ericas (known as heathers), restios (grass-like plants) and proteas. Ericas are a more delicate plant than the protea. Ericas, proteas, and restios flower at almost all times of the year (International Marketing Council of South Africa).
Proteas, Politics and the Economy
The proteas importance is reinforced through its prominent and important use within South Africa's Coat of Arms. The protea on the arms is in red, gold, black, and green, the most popular African colors. It is an emblem of South Africa's beauty, and the flowering of the protea is believed to symbolize the flowering of the South African Renaissance. The Department of Foreign Affairs notes, "the protea symbolizes the holistic integration of forces that grows from the earth and are nurtured from above." The petals of the protea are in a triangular arrangement said to resemble the crafts of Africa. The protea is centered below the secretary bird, and the flower itself is the center of the bird. The rising sun appears between the wings of the secretary bird, completing the circle of ascendance (Department of Foreign Affairs). South Africa's other floral and fauna emblems are the Yellowwood, the Blue Crane, the Springbok, and the Galjoen (SA Embassy).
The protea's image is widespread throughout South Africa, and has even made a long-standing appearance on official currency. The protea coin series shows a King protea on one side of the coin, where many countries show the face of their monarch. The series first emerged in 1986 as a creation of the South African Mint. The images on the other side of the coin change each year, and have included South African industries like mining, wine, and tourism. In 1988 and prior, three proteas were shown on the coin (Protea Repens, Sugarbush; Surruria Florida, Blushing Bride; Protea Multibraetaeta, Bearded Protea. Coins are available in both gold and silver (South African Mint Company).