Proteas – South Africa’s Natural Treasures

Proteas are likely the most readily recognized of South Africa’s indigenous flora, with the magnificent King Protea (Protea cynaroides) being the country’s national flower. There are around 80 genera of the Proteacae family, with up to 1,600 species spread across the southern hemisphere in paleographical region of Gondwana – Southern Africa, Australia and South America. The Protea Atlas Project at the South African National Biodiversity Institute at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town records the geographical location of proteas with the aim of encouraging public awareness of botany and enjoyment of the veld, and thereby engendering principles of conservation.

About 80 percent of Southern Africa’s plants are endemic to the region, with up to 14 percent (3,435 species) being in danger of extinction and therefore listed in the IUCN Red Book for plants. The Protea Atlas Project was established to encourage the general public to document, understand and conserve the flora of southern Africa. The project includes all indigenous flora, but focuses on proteas, notable for their incredible diversity and being representative of other plants in the non-arid regions of southern Africa.

The name Protea is taken from the Greek god Proteus, the keeper of Poseidon’s seals, who had the ability to take on any shape he desired. The many shapes, sizes and colors of both the flowers and foliage of proteas were likened to the many disguises of Proteus when named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1735. The ancestry of the Proteaceae family is believed to date back 300 million years, before Gondwana split into modern day Africa, Australia and South America.

Proteas in the wild in South Africa are generally found south of the Limpopo River, with up to 92 percent of the species found only in the Cape Floral Region, a diverse landscape between Grahamstown and Clanwilliam. Proteas make popular garden plants, and with the wide variety available it is possible to find a protea to suit virtually any climate. With the growing awareness to conserve South Africa’s natural heritage, many garden centres have sections dedicated to indigenous plants best suited to the area, making it easy to support local conservation efforts. The Protea Atlas Project offers a wealth of information on these beautiful South African treasures.