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Proteas – South Africa's shape-shifting national flower

The King Protea heads a family of around 2,000 astonishingly varied proteas

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Protea Flower
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The King Protea (Protea cynaroides) is the national flower of South Africa. It is only one of around 2000 species of the Protea family, an astonishingly diverse array of plants, also known as sugarbushes. They can range from ground-creeping shrubs to trees 35m tall, but all have leathery leaves and thistle-like flowers from tiny red blooms to great furry pink and black globes. Botanist Carl Linnaeus named the family in 1735 after the Greek god, Proteus, known for his ability to change his appearance at will.

The global family

Although they are closely linked to South Africa, proteas do grow wild outside the country - there is one species found on Mt Kenya and another in Madagascar. Those in Africa all belong to the Proteoideae branch of the family. There are 14 genera and over 330 species in South Africa and 92 percent are within the fynbos belt of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

There is another related branch, the Grevilleoideae, commonly found in South-West Australia with small colonies in eastern Asia and South America that date back over 300 million years to the era before the breakup of the super-continent, Gondwanaland.

Working with proteas

The colonies in the Cape and South-West Australia have proved particularly interesting to botanists. Two of the world's five defined bio-diversity hotspots, these areas - and the proteas in particular - are evolving new species at a rate about three times faster than normal. A study led by London's Kew Gardens is attempting to understand why. South African Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens have been involved in a major project to map the geographical spread of proteas across South Africa.

These days, there are also proteas in parks and gardens around the globe and proteas are being grown and propagated commercially by organizations such as the International Protea Association. To grow your own, you can order them from Fine Bush People. But there is still nothing to beat seeing them in the wild on Table Mountain or in the Cedarbergs.

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