King Protea-  A South African beauty

This article originally appeared in the Hortus Magazine of December 2016

door Fred Triep  

The king protea is the national flower of South Africa and the largest in the Proteaceae family.
He loves
the sun. Who knows if he will settle ever in the increasingly softer becoming Dutch or English climate.

naar de Nederlandstalige pagina
(to the original Dutch version)

Suikerbossie, 'k wil jou hÍ,                 (Afrikaans)
Suikerbossie, 'k zal jou krijg,
Suikerbossie, 'k wil jou hÍ,
Wat sal jou mamma daarvan sÍ?

Suikerbossie, i want you,                    (English)
i will get you,
i want you,
What will tell your mum
of it ?

It is no wonder that sugar bossie was a nickname for cute girls, as in this love song by Fred Michel of 1930: King protea (Protea cynaroides) or giant protea is one of the most beautiful flowering plants from South Africa. It is the national flower of the country. The genus Protea forms with yet 67 other genera the family Proteaceae. Linnaeus named this genus in 1735 after the Greek god Proteus, a god who could change his shape. The plants from this genus have also a wide variety of forms.
The plants of the Proteaceae family are woody shrubs or trees. It is a family of about 1250 species, that are found almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere. That indicates that the family originated in the continent Gondwana, which 160 million years ago slowly fell apart in Africa, India, Madagascar, South America, Australia and Antarctica. There are two subfamilies. The subfamily Proteoideae occurs mainly in Africa and the other subfamily Grevilleoideae is concentrated in Australia and South America.

De verspreiding van Proteaceae over de wereld

 The distibution of the family Proteaceae over the world (source:

The genus Protea, Sugarbush or Suikerbos called in South Africa, has 101 officially known species. Most species occur mainly in Africa, especially in South Africa. And of those species in South Africa more than ninety percent of them  occur in an area around the Cape of Good Hope. The king protea occur in a small area around Cape Town, in the so-called "fynbos". This is a species-rich vegetation of heather plants (Ericaceae), Restionaceae, species from the genus Pelargonium and bulbs (many Iridaceae such as gladioli), where fire occurs frequently in the dry season. Protea species also form part of this vegetation type.
Protea cynaroides plant 1 Protea cynaroides plant 2 Click on the thumbnails if you want to see the large picture.

Far Left:The king protea (P. cynaroides) in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Kaapstad
Left:The king protea (P. cynaroides) in de subtropical part of three-climate greenhouse of the Hortus in Amsterdam
Right:The flowering king protea (P.cynaroides) in the "overtuin" of the Hortus (April 2016)

Photos: Fred Triep

Protea cynaroides plant 3

Birds, insects, rodents or the wind

The Protea inflorescence consists of many four-piece flowers, which stand at a woody flower soil and are surrounded by a colored involucre. There is no distinction between sepals and petals like with most flowering plants. What we call a "flower" is actually therefore a compound inflorescence. The construction of the flower resembles that of the Asteraceae (dandelion, daisy, sunflower), where the 'flower' also consists of several small flowers on one flower soil. However, there is no kinship relation between the family Proteaceae and Asteraceae.

Bloem Protea cynaroides 1 Click on the thumbnails if you want to see the large picture.

Top Left and Right: The flower of a king protea (P. cynaroides) in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Kaapstad

Bottom Left: The flower of a king protea (P. cynaroides) in a greenhouse of the VU Hortus (now Hortus Zuidas)

Bottom Right: The faded flower of the king protea (P.cynaroides) in the "overtuin" of the Hortus (april 2016)

Photos : Fred Triep

Bloem Protea cynaroidesm 2
Bloem Protea cynaroides 3 Bloem Prote cynaroides 4

The flowers of the individual petals are fused with each other at the bottom, but have free lips at the ends, on which the stamens are attached to the inside. The stigma of the ovaries of the flowers protrude from the flower and has such a shape that pollinating animals have to touch them. In the first instance the stamens give their pollen to the stigma's when they are fertile. Because the female parts are only two days later fertile, in the meantime pollinators can transfer pollen to other flowers. If there are any pollinators, then there can be yet self-pollination.

Protea kinds of flowers are pollinated by birds, insects, rodents or the wind. In a number of species, including at the koninsgprotea, self-pollination can occur. Probably the king protea is mainly pollinated by birds, among others: the Cape sugar bird (Promerops cafer). This bird has a pointed beak, which he may well collect the nectar that has been produced by the flowers of sugar bushes. Also sunbirds can by sucking the nectar pollinate the flowers. The metallic green Protea beetle (Trichostetha fascicularis) pollinates the flowers because he eat the pollen.

Sugarbird Click on the thumbnails if you want to see the large picture.

Left: The Cape sugar bird (Promerops cafer) sucks nectar from Protea flowers in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town.

Right: The king protea has shiny leathery leaves, which can withstand the summer heat of the Cape Province

Photos : Fred Triep

Bladeren van de Protea cynaroides

King protea in west Europe?

King protea bushes can grow to two meters high. The flower heads may be conical shaped to scale shaped. The involucre may be hairless or with fine silky hair. The colors of the flowers can vary from soft silvery purple to yellow, orange and red. Within its distribution area the king protea is very variable: the leathery leaves vary from large and around to small and narrow. The individual flowers can be wide open or tunnel-shaped. There are eighty distinct varieties of this particular Protea species. The dimensions of the leaves and the flowers, in general, shrink from west to east.

The Proteas from South Africa grow in nutrient-poor soil and have irregular rainfall. They have adapted to this situation by forming a network of long sideways growing roots just under the soil when much precipitation has fallen. Therefore these plants need hardly be fertilized. Even after a field fire the king protea can let grow underground roots quickly. Therefore, this shrub can be pruned vigorously. Because some forms of this species can endure up to six degrees of frost, he would with mild winters in the future also be able to thrive in the Netherlands
or the United Kingdom.

Large, striking flowers

The king protea bears large showy flowers that do well as cut flowers in bouquets. The flowers are long lasting. The culture of these beautiful flowers is done in various areas of the world where a Mediterranean climate prevails, as in Western Australia, South Africa, Israel, the Canary Islands and in the coastal areas of the states of California and Oregon in the United States.
Although Protea species usually bloom in the spring, the king protea can bloom all year round.
The flowering period of the different varieties appears to be genetically determined, so when moving the plants from their original habitat to elsewhere there occurs no shift in the flowering period. The flowering period is dependent on the habitat of the original habitat
The king protea is located in the Hortus since years in the subtropical part of the Three Climates greenhouse of the Hortus, among other South African plants. As you enter the greenhouse and walk into the small path forward, you see to the right of the path two plants of this species. In this subtropical greenhouse he has not flourished for years. Probably it is there still not bright enough. Gardener Roel have bloom him in the sunlit greenhouse on the "Overtuin", the breeding place of the Hortus. Hopefully it will succeed even in the future in the subtropical greenhouse.


Koningsprotea- Wikipedia

Proteas- Wikipedia

Protea Atlas Project

Lewis J. Matthews
The Protea Book- A Guide to cultibated Proteaceae
Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2002

Tony Rebello
A field guide tot he Proteas of Southern Africa
Sasol,, december 2001

Trichostetha fascicularis- Wikipedia


This page was newly created on Friday, January 7th, 2017.

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