#KnowYourFynbos | The private life of proteas

#KnowYourFynbos | The private life of proteas

Proteas are to fynbos what salt and pepper are to the spice rack: the golden children. The dazzling King Protea is our national flower – an iconic symbol of South African heritage – and proteas of all shapes and sizes are celebrated in décor and design, locally and across the world. It seems only fitting to begin our fynbos ‘voyage of discovery’ with this regal beauty.

While my aim is to keep things simple, it’s worth pointing out that although we tend to use the word Protea quite loosely, it actually has two meanings: on the one hand it refers to the genus Protea which is the iconic group of plants known well for their large, obconic (inverted cone-shape) flower-heads i.e. the King and Queen Protea, and other similar species. On the other hand, it refers to the much broader Protea family Proteaceae, which is made up of 80 different genera, including the genus Protea described above, as well as Leucadendrons (cone-bushes), Leucospermums (pincushions) and plenty of other genera.1

In this week’s snapshot, we’re looking at the genus Protea. Known as the sugar-bush, or suikerbossie in Afrikaans, there are about 112 species found in Africa, with about 89 species recorded in southern Africa.2 To compile a blanket description is tricky, but there are a few useful traits to know and look out for:

How to identify a Protea:
  • Flower-head: The Protea flower-head can be described as cup-like, goblet-like or bowl-like in shape. It is proportionately very large (relative to most other fynbos flora), with colourful, finger-like bracts that point upwards ‘clasping’ its sides.3 The colour of these bracts ranges from cream to various shades of crimson. A new and fascinating learning for me was that these bracts are not petals (which they are commonly mistaken for), they are actually modified leaves. These leaves encase what is in fact many flowers, grouped together to form the one large flower-head.


  • Leaves: Protea leaves are leathery and hard. If bent, they will snap, rather than folding over elastically.4 They can either be round or pointed, and are sessile (meaning that they are attached directly to the stem, with no stalk.) They are arranged alternately on the stem and often point away from the stem at an acute angle. As for their colour, this varies from species to species, and can be anywhere on the spectrum from dark green to bluish-green, yellow-green to grey-green.5


  • Stem: All proteas exist as woody shrubs or trees (never herbaceous plants). Their stems are generally strong and relatively short (around 1m), with colour varying from yellow-green (when they are young) to dark brown (when they are mature). Their wood is identifiable by long medullary rays which make it look ‘silky’.6

 For a visual snapshot of some of these traits, have a look at the list of native Southern African protea species here. Then if you’d really like to get serious, get your hands on Tony Rebelo’s ‘A Field Guide to the Proteas of Southern Africa’, currently one of the most comprehensive publications on protea identification.


What you might not know about the Protea:
  • What we commonly mistake as the Protea “flower” is actually the flower-head. Numerous tiny flowers grouped together make up the composite flower-head that we see as the ‘flower’.7
  • The Protea gets its name from the Greek God Proteus, who could change form at will.8
  • In local tradition, the Protea flower is thought to represent change and hope.9
  • 92% of proteas are found in the Cape Floristic Region, with the exception of a few species such as Protea Kilimanjaro, found in the Mount Kenya National Park.10
  • Proteas are an extremely popular horticultural specimen, and are cultivated in over 20 countries.11



  1. Proteaceae (protea family) [Internet]. Biodiversityexplorer.org. 2017 [cited 26 May 2017]. Available from: http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/plants/proteaceae/
  2. Protea (sugarbushes) [Internet]. Biodiversityexplorer.org. 2017 [cited 26 May 2017]. Available from: http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/plants/proteaceae/protea.htm

3, 5. Proteas: Production Guideline. 1st ed. Pretoria: Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; 2014.

4, 6. Rebelo T. Protea Flowers versus Protea Flowerheads [Internet]. Proteaatlas.org.za. 2017 [cited 26 May 2017]. Available from: http://www.proteaatlas.org.za/flowerh.htm

7, 9, 10, 11. Protea [Internet]. En.wikipedia.org. 2017 [cited 26 May 2017]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protea

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

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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