Heritage Day: 10 things you might not know about our magnificent Proteas 

Heritage Day: 10 things you might not know about our magnificent Proteas 

  1. The Greek God

The word Protea is believed to have been derived from the name of the Greek God ‘Proteus,’ who was able to take on many different forms. This is not surprising, given the huge variety of Proteas to be found across South Africa – in every shape and size! (1)

  1. How many species?

The family Proteaceae boasts about 360 species in Southern Africa (2), many of which are confined to the Cape Floral Kingdom.

  1. Our national flower

The King Protea (Protea cynaroides) is the largest of all Proteas, with a flower head size of up to 300mm. It has been honoured as South Africa’s national flower and is a familiar motif across many ‘proudly South African’ assets: birth certificates, passports and our R5 coin (3).

  1. Also known as…

The King Protea is also known as the ‘honeypot’ and the ‘sugarbush’, both of which sound equally delicious!

  1. Our cricket champions

Proteas can wield a bat and field a catch. Our South African national cricket team takes on the name ‘The Proteas’, in honour of our majestic national flower. Despite some controversial negotiations in years past, our rugby team remains ‘The Springboks,’ in honour of our national animal.

  1. Hardy heroes

Proteas are able to thrive in dry, windy conditions due to two important adaptations: thick, leathery leaves which prevent water loss, and a network of thin, clumped roots called proteoids, which allow water and nutrients to be absorbed in the most efficient way (4).

  1. Gondwanaland

Proteas are indigenous to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and have also been found to occur in Central Africa, South and Central America, India, eastern and south eastern Asia (5).  Scientists believe that this is a ‘Southern Hemisphere species’ as it existed many years ago on the Asian super-continent of Gondwana, which later split into the separate Southern Hemisphere continents we know today.

  1. Medicine makers

Proteas are known to have been used for medicinal use by the early Cape Colonies in the 1900’s. The nectar of Protea repens was collected and boiled to make a thick, red syrup called ‘bossiestroop,’ which was used for coughs and chest ailments (6).

  1. A worldwide industry

Overseas demand for Protea flowers began in the 1960’s. Today about 90% of Proteas grown in South Africa are exported; in the 2015 season, this equated to a R380-million a year industry (7).

  1. The climate change conundrum

Proteas are threatened by climate change. As temperatures have increased over the last 30 years, Proteas are moving themselves up hills, away from suburbs to cooler areas with less development. It is estimated that by 2050, nearly all of Cape Town’s Protea species will need to shift their ranges to survive (8).



  1. Protea aristata | Plantz Africa [Internet]. Pza.sanbi.org. 2016 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Protea cynaroides | Plantz Africa [Internet]. Pza.sanbi.org. 2016 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Protea Flowers [Internet]. The Rambling Rose. 2015 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Proteas [Internet]. Science.jrank.org. 2016 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Proteaceae [Internet]. Wikipedia. 2016 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Protea repens [Internet]. Kumbula Indigenous Nursery. 2016 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Blooming good – South Magazine [Internet]. South Magazine. 2015 [cited 12 September 2016]. Available from:


  1. Proteas threatened by climate change – Africa Geographic [Internet]. Africa Geographic. 2014 [cited 12 September 2016].

Available from: http://africageographic.com/blog/proteas-threatened-climate-change/

Kate Black

As the daughter of a wildlife filmmaker, Kate spent her early childhood in the Okavango Delta. Over the years, she has been fortunate to explore many of Southern Africa’s other wild places, contributing to her keen interest in African wildlife conservation. With a career grounded in digital marketing, Kate recently made the decision to work as a freelance communications specialist, with a particular focus on environmental NGOs. An avid trail runner and hiker, she loves the outdoors and the incredible natural diversity that the Western Cape has to offer.

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