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Environmentalism chapter 15 - Protea


In 2012 I read an article that Sir David Attenbourgh had documented on, followed by a short video that he himself and various botanists had narrated explaining the critical conditions of which our cynaroides where at or better named as the “Protea” family one of the most beautiful sub-tropical plants in the world that’s thrived for on the earth for some three hundred million years and has been left relatively untouched until climate change hit us.

The Protea compromises some eighty genuses with a total of sixteen hundred known species that we are aware of to date, this does not though include species that have been cross breed and haven’t been registered with organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society, or the Protea Society of South Africa where it thrives and mainly originates from.

A genus “explained” in botanical terminology is a low-level taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms, which is an example of definition by genus and differentia. Genera and higher taxonomic levels such as families are used in biodiversity studies, particularly in fossil studies since species cannot always be confidently identified and genera and families typically have longer stratigraphic ranges than species.

The term derives from “Latin” meaning “descent, family, type, gender”, cognate with Greek: γένος – genos, “race, stock, kin”  whereas a “species” a species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

While in many cases this definition is adequate, the difficulty of defining species is known as the species problem. Differing measures are often used, such as similarity of DNA, morphology or ecological niche. Presence of specific locally adapted traits may further subdivide species into “infraspecific taxa” such as subspecies (and in botany other taxa are used, such as varieties, subvarieties, and formae).

Species hypothesized to have the same ancestors are placed in one genus, based on similarities. The similarity of species is judged based on comparison of physical attributes, especially their DNA sequences, where available.

All species are given a two-part name, a “binomial name”. The first part of a binomial name is the generic name, the genus of the species. The second part is either called the specific name (a term used only in zoology) or the specific epithet (the term used in botany, which can also be used in zoology). For example, Boa constrictor is one of four species of the Boa genus. The first part of the name is capitalized, and the second part has a lower case. The binomial name is written in italics.

The Protea is under great threat and vast awareness of this stunning species of botanical plant now needs to be pushed more aware before we lose one off if not the second oldest living organism on the planet to date. Protea is both the generically and common identification for the plant that is better known to amateur gardener’s as the sugarbushes. They have some of the most spectacular flowers and fleshy cactus like foliage that attract an array of insects from bees, thrips, to butterflies and humming nectar birds.


Professor Carl Linnaeus was the first botanist to locate the Protea family of which he named it after the Greek god Proteus, Professor Linnaeus is the Swedish botanist that invented the botanical bionomical naming system that now helps us to identify many animals and plants to their exact generic make up and species. The genus of Protea was discovered by Professor Linnaeus in 1735 although it had lived on the earth way before Linnaeus had discovered it some millions of years that other botanists and botanical archaeologists had discovered through fossil finds.

The Proteaceae family to which Proteas belong is an ancient one. Its ancestors grew in Gondwana, 300 million years ago. Proteaceae is divided into two subfamilies the Proteoideae, best represented in southern Africa, and the Grevilleoideae, concentrated in Australia and South America and the other smaller segments of Gondwana that are now part of eastern Asia. Africa shares only one genus with Madagascar, whereas South America and Australia share many common genera this indicates they separated from Africa before they separated from each other.

The Protea attracted the eyes of Botanists in the seventh century when exploration teams set out to identify many species of mammalians, aquatic and reptilian species to horticultural species at the Cape of Good Hope where they “thrive” to certain a degree at this geographical location. http://goo.gl/maps/08ott  Proteas where then introduced to the European Union in the Eighteenth century of which they were relatively accepted as an expensive decorative plant used in dress making and mainly Milliners which really didn’t catch on to the male “hatters”.

Most Proteas apart from a handful of species are located in South Africa within the Limpopo region, other species although only three in many small numbers are located next to and within the Mount Kenya National Park at this geographical location point, http://goo.gl/maps/Qt4q1

During and after apartheid in South Africa the Springbok and Protea was treated as a national emblem that many people respected both species, keeping to the Protea’s history this plant after apartheid was declared like a weed all over Africa with many people growing the national emblem in their gardens thus keeping lush, green and extravagant species blooming and thriving.

History and climate is changing though and we could now be looking at a massive global wipe-out of the Proteaceae family that are millions of years old, although there some as listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature only five species of Protea so far of which one is “now extinct” Partula protea, Protea comptonii “near threatened” Protea curvata, “vulnerable” Protea laetans, “vulnerable” Protea lanceolata, “vulnerable” these species compromise many hundreds of now reducing living organisms of the same family that are in grave danger and it seems as each one to two years pass there is another species added to the list raising great concerns with environmentalists and botanists alike.

The Protea cryophila (snow protea) pictured below is also under threat which is listed as near threatened one of a cherished handful of beautiful flowered plants that live in a form of protective captivity out of reach from the earths destructive environment and man and woman that are to blame for this magnificent botanical species now coming under great threat of near extinction.

Protea cryophila close-up_CCarling (Main)

Protea cryophila is a Near Threatened shrub, which is notoriously hard to find in flower or producing seed. It survives a wide range of weather conditions, from extremely hot and dry in the summer, to freezing cold and covered by snow for weeks in the winter. When flowers do appear, they take a full year to open, and individual plants seldom bear more than three or four flowers, despite reaching up to 70 years of age. The specific epithet cryophila means ‘lover of cold’.

The snow Protea is restricted to the Cederberg Wilderness area of South Africa. It grows mainly in the small snow belt of around 25 km in length, and between 1,750 and 1,900 m above sea level, in the Cederberg Mountains. It is confined to two of the highest peaks, and grows in sandstone soils on rocky ledges and scree slopes.

A prostrate shrub forming dense, tufted clumps, the snow protea grows to 0.5 m tall and 1-3 m wide. It has a single main stem and creeping branches. The leathery leaves are 300-500 mm long, 50-70 mm wide, folded lengthwise and are clustered at the tips of branches. The striking flower head is 130-160 mm in diameter. The basal bracts are pointed and reddish-brown. The involucral bracts (leaf-like structures around the edge of the flower head) are pointed, with a white, woolly-haired outer surface and a carmine inner surface. The centre of the flower head, containing the mass of individual flowers, is creamy white to pink. Flowering occurs from January to April and yet we could see it banished from earth very soon.

Its threat –

Adult plants do not re-sprout, and are killed by fire, which is a major cause of the decline of “this species” not others. Global warming is now also a serious threat, as the Snow Belt is receding rapidly every year and the snow Protea cannot keep pace. The snow Protea rarely flowers in the late autumn and winter, as it depends on the snow as a cue and in recent years the snowfall has been minimal and sadly that is in just a short paragraph what all species of the Proteaceae family now face.

Cultivation of this species at lower altitudes have proven unsuccessful as it is a winter flowering shrub, by moving it to lower but more or less the same environmental living conditions regrettably all attempts to now try and save the species are failing. We all need your help to keep this species alive.

Although much funding and support is being flooded into preserve these stunning species we are sadly losing them at an alarming rate. The International Protea Foundation has achieved some very positive results in the last thirty years that has created more budding species however as each one is created the problem is “keeping them alive and spreading the seeds” then of course retaining the million year old species which is proving very difficult to many botanists and environmentalists of which Sir David Attenbourgh I do remember quoted “man is a parasite to the earth” and “unless the earth’s population doesn’t start decreasing then we will lose many species of plant and animal life”.

Protea destruction and threats;

  1. Climate change that is creating drought, flooding, sudden high and low’s
  2. Increased warmer winters that are effecting the near threatened “winter Protea”
  3. Pollution both acidic rain and debris
  4. Habitual destruction, Cape of good hope has seen many species lost due to urbanization
  5. Land fires that would normally generate fresh seed have come to soon thus wiping out habituated areas to whole plant species.
  6. Flooding
  7. European species are facing decline now from as pollinators are in danger mainly bees from CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder)
  8. Smuggling – although unheard of the flowers can sell for approximately $100 “each” on the market and many people are now taking the flowers to even digging the entire plant up and then profiteering for these species which unfortunately sees a massive decline in their species.
  9. Lack of reproductive plants means that the seed banks are also extinct in the four populations where plants have not been recorded.
  10. Over cattle grazing
  11. Brush cutting
  12. Chemical pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and general pollution
  13. Shoddy road side maintenance/lack of environmental supervision that has seen whole species wiped out
  14.  Invasion of a fungal pathogen plus pests and diseases
  15. Fire to increase germination has been systematically started to soon either accidently to intentionally
  16. Human misunderstanding for instance this example that almost saw the P.oderata listed on the CITES appendix as of a misunderstanding of what CITES actually is and (undertakes) by the South African Management Authorities SAMA. The listed the plant which is “threatened” failing to provide to CITES the real reasons as to WHY it should have been listed that almost saw the plant wiped out die to human negligence and lack of education to understating. CITES quotes “that the species is dependent on the conservation of its habitat, and if anything (active trade should be encouraged) and not banned that would have been most certainly this plants death fall. Had CITES not of remove the species despite it being near threatened then we would of lost another.

Recent highlighted documentaries stated;

Proteas were chosen as the species to be studied for several reasons, according to Tony Rebelo, a researcher with the NBI who initiated and coordinated the PAP project. The flowers are charismatic and fairly easy to identify. More important, the distribution of Protea species is strongly correlated with that of other major plant groups in the region, which makes them good indicators of diversity patterns.

Of the roughly 370 Protea species found in South Africa, 350 occur in the Cape floristic kingdom. More than 120 species are currently listed as endangered or threatened by the Red Data Book, an internationally sponsored list of endangered and threatened species.

Fire plays a vital part in the fynbos ecosystem and is essential in the distribution and germination of the plants’ seeds. The king Protea (Protea cynaroides) releases its seed only when the heat of a fire opens the plant. The seeds fall to the ground and germinate when it rains. The seeds of the pincushion Protea (Leucospermum tottum) are buried in the ground by ants, and germinate only when mature plants have been killed by fire.

Spreading the Conservation Ethic

Researchers at NBI, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Connecticut in the U.S. collaborated to use the PAP data to develop a “climate envelope” for each species. They identified necessary factors like soil moisture content and temperature parameters in which each thrives. The data enabled the researchers to project what the impact of a variety of climate-change scenarios might be.

Under the most extreme climate-change scenario, one-third of all fynbos protea species could lose their range completely by the year 2050. Only 5 per cent would be likely to retain more than two-thirds of their range. These findings are now being extrapolated to other fynbos species.

The information has also proved helpful in devising conservation strategies. The findings contributed to the Cape Action Plan for the Environment, a systematic conservation plan for the entire Cape floristic region. They are also benefitting efforts to identify and protect species on local mountain ranges as well as remaining fragments of natural vegetation on the Cape Flats, a sprawling, built-up area consisting mainly of low-cost housing.

The PAP data have also proved exceedingly helpful in compiling a new fynbos map. The approximately 250,000 records on about 60,000 localities provided far more detail than has been possible to draw from satellite data, which tends to be distorted by alien vegetation.

The information will also be used to update the World Conservation Union’s Red Data List, Rebelo says. The list is called the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plants and animals.

But perhaps the most important impact of the study was the community involvement. A follow-up survey of volunteers shows that the participants, their immediate families, and their friends gained a better understanding of the fynbos and became more aware of the conservation ethic.

In 2005 it was stated;

A recent study of hundreds of species of Proteas that live only near Cape Town, South Africa, estimates that the plants’ abundance will decrease by more than 60 per cent by 2050. Some Proteas will become extinct. Some already have.

When summer comes to Cape Town, Proteas bloom in riotous colour. On steep, rocky slopes strewn with lichen-covered chunks of granite, the flame-red and magenta-pink flowers dot the hillsides. They attract hordes of tourists and provide jobs for thousands of South Africans who gather Proteas for the worldwide cut-flower industry.

With their vase-shaped bracts surrounding pencil-thin flowers, “proteas look like sea anemones,” said Cheryl Andrews of Orlando, who uses Proteas in the floral displays she designs for large hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott. “Proteas are named for the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his form at will. Indeed, there’s a Protea in any unusual shape you can imagine.”

In the Washington area, “buyers attracted to exotic or tropical arrangements love South African Proteas,” said Neil Bassin, owner of Buckingham Florist in Arlington. “But these beautiful flowers might not be around much longer.”

Proteas such as the king Protea, which measures 12 inches across and is the national flower of South Africa, are under enemy fire. In a region where average temperatures have significantly warmed over the past 30 years and suburbs are sprawling up hillsides, Cape Town’s most unusual flowers are besieged, said scientist Lee Hannah of Conservation International.

“In response, Proteas are moving uphill themselves, to cooler spots with less development,” said Hannah, who published results of a study of the effects of climate and land-use change on South Africa’s Proteas in the March issue of the journal BioScience. Some Proteas are already extinct, said Hannah and Guy Midgley, a scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town.

Many species have such a tiny range that plowing a field or building a single house can wipe out the world population.

Hannah recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the impacts of climate change and land use on biodiversity. “I brought cut Proteas with me to the hearing,” he said. “It might have been one of the last glimpses of these flowers.”

More than half of the world’s several hundred Protea species are threatened, Hannah said. Most live in South Africa, but there are several in Australia, and some have been transplanted to Hawaii’s steep-sided volcanic slopes. South Africa has designated 35 Proteas as “endangered with extinction” and 46 as “vulnerable to extinction.” Another 76 are listed as “rare.”

Proteas are the keystone species of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but, biologists say, richest of Earth’s six plant kingdoms. The Cape Floral Kingdom, Hannah said, “is the size of a postage stamp, comparatively speaking. But it has the highest plant biodiversity anywhere on the planet Earth. About 8,000 plant species, three-quarters of which live nowhere else in the world, are found there, in what’s called the fynbos ecosystem.”

The report then explained;

Leathery-leaved fynbos plants cover the mountains, valleys and coastal plains near South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. “Amazingly, Proteas thrive in the nutrient-poor soils and high winds there,” Hannah said.

In the continental United States, the sole place similar to the Cape Town fynbos ecosystem is near Fallbrook, Calif., north of San Diego. There, several Protea growers are coaxing South African Protea species into bloom. “It’s much cooler here than elsewhere in the region,” said Danielle Kendall, co-owner of Kendall Farms, which grows Proteas on treeless hills resembling those of South Africa. “We have a similar soil type to that of the Proteas’ homeland and constant stiff ocean breezes.”

One farmer in Fallbrook shuttles back and forth from California to Cape Town, tending Proteas in both hemispheres.

For a short summer season, large evergreen Protea shrubs are laden with flowers that, many visitors to South Africa say, might have come from a faraway galaxy. In fact, Proteas came not from another place, but another time. They are remnants of the distant past, when Africa, Australia, India, South America and Antarctica existed as one landmass, called Gondwana.

Through the process of plate tectonics, Gondwana began to break apart about 130 million years ago. By 65 million years ago, about the time dinosaurs became extinct, the continents had divided into positions resembling their present-day configuration. Proteas once thrived on Gondwana; today members of the Protea family live oceans apart.

The last of Earth’s Proteas grow in places known as hot spots, Hannah said. “Hot spots are regions with high numbers of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, and that have had more than 70 per cent of their natural habitat destroyed. The last thing this species-rich, high-habitat-loss areas need is another threat, but that’s what climate change presents.”

As Earth’s climate warms, species will try to keep pace, moving to their preferred temperature ranges. Protea seeds are carried on the wind to new locations. Those that become rooted in cooler areas will survive.

“Climate change affects plants and animals,” Hannah said, “when they can’t move far enough to escape global warming.” Of 300 species of Proteas near Cape Town, the ranges of nearly all will have to shift by 2050, he said.

Conservation plans that allow species to relocate are an answer, Hannah believes. “It’s something of a new idea, as most of our conservation efforts currently focus on parks, which are fixed in place. However, when a species starts to move, we need a ‘park’ not only where the species is today, but where it will be in the future. We also need protected ‘connectors’ that will allow it to get from point A to point B.”

South African biologists involved in the Protea Atlas Project, an effort to collect information on Cape Town’s Proteas, are providing insights into how climate and land-use change will affect fynbos species, Midgley said.

Tony Rebelo, a biologist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, said Proteas were chosen as the best species for the project because they are easy to recognize and their distribution is similar to that of other major plant groups in the fynbos.

According to Rebelo, the Greek god Proteus could predict the future. However, Proteus did not willingly part with the information.

“He simply changed his shape and escaped,” Rebelo said. “So we must grasp Proteus tightly this time and make sure that no more of our Proteas become extinct.”

Sherry Moretti, a floral designer at Bellagio, a hotel-casino in Las Vegas, agrees. “I wanted something breathtakingly gorgeous for Bellagio’s opening a few years ago,” she said. “On that special evening, Proteas lined the entrance, bedecked the foyer, and graced every table.

“I can’t imagine an earth without Proteas. They welcome you through the portal, and into another world.”

If you would like to learn more on how you can help the preserve your countries botanical species to even getting your children involved with simple 1-2-3 step horticulture please email myself

Dr J C Dimetri or Dr J Willimson or you can join our online botanical group which you would need to email our administrators a request asking to be added to the group on Facebook of which anyone can join.

For more information please email us at;


Phone our main office at +004401603613367

Or Skype me the CEO at Joseph.Dimetri for an informal chat;

If you would like our team to visit your school, college, or university please contact us at the above address.

Thank you


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