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Magnificent Floral Dinosaurs

The ancestors of today's proteas were present hundreds of millions of years ago.

The ancestors of today's proteas were present hundreds of millions of years ago.

The Proteaceae are an ancient family, probably one of the oldest groups of flowering plants. Scientific probes into the early history of plant‑life have shown that the ancestors of today’s proteas were present in Gondwanaland long before it began breaking up 300 million years ago.

Paleontological studies indicate that this family of the southern hemisphere was then already divided into its two sub‑families: Proteoideae and Grevilleoideae. While the Proteoideae are best represented in southern Africa, the other sub‑family is concentrated in Australia and South America, as well as those smaller segments of Gondwanaland which drifted as far north as eastern Asia. No genus is common to both South Africa and Australia, though South America shares more than half its genera with Australia, suggesting that Africa was isolated before the links between the other parts of the supercontinent were broken.

The African species form a closely knit whole. Madagascar, at one time almost certainly part of Africa, retains in its flora important links with the mainland. It is not surprising, therefore, that one species, a member of the genus Faurea, grows there naturally. None of the other African Proteaceae is to be found elsewhere in nature.

The 329 South African species are distributed from the south‑western Cape along the southern and eastern parts of the country to the Limpopo River in the north. Of these, 92 per cent, or just over 300, are restricted to the narrow mountainous coastal belt from Clanwilliam to Grahamstown. Since the Cape folded mountain region is the home of the majority of proteas, it is feasible that the extraordinary diversity of species, as well as their richness and variation, is primarily attributable to the highly dissected topography of the area. For here, where one population may be completely isolated from its neighbour, it has had the chance to develop undisturbed and to react independently to the climatic changes of the past.

The concentration of Proteaceae in the southern and south‑western Cape contributes greatly to the general appearance of the Cape flora. The vegetation covering mountain slopes and flats down to the sea consists of woody shrubs that have the rolled leaves characteristic of any plant‑life subjected to dry hot periods and lack of water in the growing season. The most popular term for such vegetation is macchia, the name given to the communities of plants growing along the Mediterranean coast in the south of France. The chaparral of California, the mulga of Australia, the sclerophyllous scrub of Chile or elsewhere are also usually referred to as macchia.

But because of the abundant, broad‑leaved proteas, the vegetation of the Cape differs so considerably from any other macchia that the South African name ‘fynbos‘, fine bush, is now widely accepted. This term derives from the old Dutch words fijn bosch, used by the settlers to describe the strange plant life so sorely lacking in grass for their cattle. Floristically, the fynbos is uniquely rich in numbers of species and includes a high percentage of endemics. It is also an exceptionally beautiful sight, enhanced by masses of Leucadendron, Mimetes, Protea or Leucospermum, colouring patches of the veld at different times of the year throughout the whole area.

From Grahamstown northwards, fragments of fynbos, including proteas, occur on the high mountains of the eastern escarpment. Where climate and soil are suitable, proteas invade the adjoining grasslands, and in the Eastern Cape and along the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, fair‑sized areas of protea savannah are a remarkable feature of the veld.

NOMENCLATURE

The name Proteaceae derives from Protea, the first of the family’s genera to be named. The suffix ‘aceae’ denotes a plant family.

Protea is the name given in 1735 by Linnaeus, the father of classification and botanical nomenclature. Some plants were sent to him from the Cape and he was evidently so impressed (or confused) by what he saw that he resorted to the name of the Greek god, Proteus, who could at will change his form ‘to those of beasts who will mock your grasp’. One can imagine the Swedish taxonomist, who had never been to the Cape, being confronted by a giant Protea, a male Leucadendron specimen, some other female ones, a Leucospermum conocarpodendron and a wild almond — all with the same basic flower and clearly of the same group, yet so different in form.

Probably because of the strong associations of the protea name, species of all the genera of the South African family are often referred to in common parlance as protea(s), while Protea is reserved for the genus Protea.

This post is really a Proteaceae 101 which serves as an introduction to a new category. In coming months we will be adding a number of posts on propagation and cultivation of Proteaceae, as well as plant profiles on some of the most popular species in this ancient and vast family of plants.