Proclaimed as South Africa's national flower in 1976, the king protea (Protea cynaroides) is a flowering bush as beautiful and unique as the country itself. Found exclusively in the Cape Floristic Region, the king protea belongs to the Protea genus, which is in turn part of the Proteaceae family - a group that includes around 1,350 different species.
The king protea has the largest flower head of its genus, and is prized for its artichoke-like blooms.
Growing up to 300mm in diameter, these breathtaking flowers vary in color from creamy white to pale pink or deep crimson. The plant itself grows to between 0.35 meters and 2 meters in height, and has a thick stem that reaches far underground. This stem contains multiple dormant buds, allowing the king protea to survive the wildfires that often rage across its natural habitat. Once the fires burn out, the dormant buds emerge in a riot of color - so that the species has become synonymous with rebirth.
The Symbolism of the King Protea
The king protea is one of South Africa's most recognizable symbols, alongside the leaping springbok and the country's rainbow-colored flag. According to the South African government, the flower is "an emblem of the beauty of our land, and the flowering of our potential as a nation in pursuit of the African Renaissance". It appears on the South African coat of arms, alongside a slew of other symbols.
These include two figures from a famous Khoisan rock painting, a secretary bird and two crossed traditional weapons.
The South African cricket team is fondly nicknamed "the Proteas", and the flower appears on the sport's official crest. Although the rugby team is named after the springbok, not the protea, the jerseys for both sports feature a king protea emblazoned in the South African colors of gold and green.
The Protea Genus
Sometimes referred to as sugarbushes, the members of the Protea genus range from ground-creeping shrubs to 35-meter-tall trees. All of them have leathery leaves and thistle-like flowers (although the latter vary greatly in appearance). Some species grow tiny red blooms, while others have great pink and black globes. Others resemble spiky orange pincushions. In light of this incredible diversity, 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus named the Protea genus after the Greek god Proteus, who was able to change his appearance at will.
The Distribution of the Proteaceae Family
92% of protea species are endemic to the Cape Floristic Region, an area in southern and southwest South Africa recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unprecedented botanic diversity. Almost all proteas grow south of the Limpopo River - except for one, which grows on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
It is thought that the ancestors of the Proteaceae family first appeared millions of years ago, when the landmasses of the southern hemisphere were still united as the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana. When the continent split up, the family divided into two sub-families - the Proteoideae branch, which are now endemic to southern Africa (including the king protea), and the Grevilleoideae branch.
The latter species are found mostly in Southwest Australia, with small colonies in eastern Asia and South America.
The colonies in the Cape Floristic Region and the floristic province of Southwest Australia have proved particularly interesting to botanists. These areas represent two of the world's most prolific biodiversity hotspots. According to a study led by British biologists, the rate of evolution is three times faster here than normal, with new protea species appearing all the time and resulting in an astounding diversity of plantlife. In South Africa, scientists at Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Gardens are involved in a major project to map the geographical spread of proteas across South Africa.
Where to Find Them?
Today, proteas are cultivated in more than 20 different countries.
They are grown and propagated commercially by organizations including the International Protea Association, and have been introduced to parks and gardens around the globe. Those that want to try their hand at growing their own can order protea seeds from companies like Fine Bush People. However, there is still nothing quite like seeing South Africa's national flower growing wild on Table Mountain or in the Cedarberg.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on July 18th 2017.