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Proteas: The Most Beautiful and Abundant Flowers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s Independence Day here in the United States, and in celebration, today I bring you a short post about some flowers that grow nowhere in the wild in America — but beautifully resemble certain patriotic displays that are currently banned nearly everywhere here in Colorado due to extreme fire danger. In desperation, many out here are resorting to water balloons, pistols, and other artillery-class hydraulic equipment supplied by that storied American institution, Nerf. But we all know it’s just not the same. Westerners, this will have to do instead.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ve probably never heard of these flowers, because, like the family of strange conifers I covered last time, they are part of the Antarctic Flora, the plants that formerly dwelt in the supercontinent Gondwana before it split into Africa, India, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. Their descendents are still found scattered about these landmasses — and generally only on these landmasses — to this day.

The plants I’m describing belong to the large plant family called the Proteaceae. The family got this name for the same reason the film Proteus — about the remarkable sea creatures called radiolarians which I reviewed this year — got its name: a stunning diversity of form. In general, you might say the members of the Protea Family tend to have large and showy inflorescences, or dense clusters of flowers borne in a head. They can be quite spectacular. Here’s one I spotted in a botanic garden growing as a small tree or large bush:

Those flower clusters are five or six inches high.

Here’s a closeup of one of those flower heads. Half the flowers have opened (at top), half are still immature.

Banksias are native to the bush and tropics all around Australia, though they don’t live in the desert.

The wild Banksias I saw had a wonderful Doctor Seuss lollipops-growing-on-trees quality to them. Here’s some growing in the bush of South Australia:

While Down Under, I was delighted to bump into another famous member of the Protea Family, which I found offered abundantly in a farmer’s market I visited. These are, in fact, actual members of the genus Protea.

Here’s a closeup:

Proteas in the wild are actually found only in Africa and chiefly in South Africa.

You really don’t see much of these north of the Equator, even in cultivation. But in Australia, they’ve been imported, pampered, and loved.

There are many other members of the Protea family, including the genus Macadamia, a tree native to Queensland in Australia and source of the eponymous — and delicious — nut. But it’s a holiday, so I’ll leave it to you to explore further if you so desire.

Finally, I leave you with a member of the Proteas that seems particularly patriotic today, even though the entire genus, Leucospermum*, is native to [cough] Zimbabwe. Ah well — Happy Fourth!

Not made in China -- or blowed up in America. The African protea Leucospermum sp. Creative Commons brewbooks. Click image for link and license.

*Notice the family resemblance to the Banksias? Leucospermum and Banksia are close relatives!

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Not 'Tarded 3:52 pm 07/4/2012

    “Proteas: The Most Beautiful and Abundant Flowers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”

    Why would you think you hold “special” knowledge about a genus of plant that no one else has? How arrogant! The whole tone of this article is offensive…

    Almost any true gardener knows of these beauties, and lots people in the UK keep them in their gardens. I even have a few friends in CA and FL that grow them here at home. Heck – several Chelsea show gardens have featured them over the last couple of years.

    Not heard of, indeed…

    Just because you might not have heard of a plant before writing the article, don’t assume the rest of us didn’t – because you know that they say about folks who assume…

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  2. 2. morsej001 4:29 pm 07/4/2012

    Proteas grow nowhere in America, you say? I guess it depends on what you mean by “America,” but proteas are grown commercially in the American (but not North American) state of Hawaii.

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  3. 3. Not 'Tarded 4:56 pm 07/4/2012

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  4. 4. SeaGypsy 5:17 pm 07/4/2012

    Lighten up. I’ll bet many non-gardeners haven’t heard of them. Why do we all have to be so critical of each other?

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  5. 5. psibbald 6:08 pm 07/4/2012

    Take it easy guys; she did write ‘probably’ and ‘don’t see much’. Not sure how the blog is arrogant, certainly not in comparison to the responses it elicited.

    I have to admit though Jennifer, I’m a bit miffed that the waratah didn’t rate a mention. IMHO the most attractive of the Proteaceae and, incidentally, the floral emblem of New South Wales.

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  6. 6. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 6:19 pm 07/4/2012

    I had heard of Proteas before, which was why I was excited to finally see them in person in Australia. I’d never seen them growing before in North America in anyone’s garden, or in the botanic garden I used to work in or at the nursery I worked in for a summer — and certainly not in the wild. I’ll rephrase the first paragraph to make it clear that it’s just the wild they don’t grow in in general in North America. I wrote the post title because I assumed most of my readers (and most non-plant people in general!) probably hadn’t heard of Proteas. Perhaps that assumption was wrong. I’m really sorry that you found the article offensive; it certainly was not written in that spirit.

    Thanks so much for all the comments, guys.

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  7. 7. JabulaZa 2:57 am 07/5/2012

    Good article, Just one correction on the article. Leucospermum sp. is mainly indigenous to the Fynbos biome of the South Africa, with a few species also growing as far north as Zimbabwe. There also are a few Protea sp. Native in Zimbabwe.

    I must admit the Waratah do have a very bright and beautiful flower. Another beautiful proteaceae member is the Blushing bride (Serruria florida) from South Africa.

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  8. 8. singing flea 4:10 am 07/5/2012

    The Big Island of Hawaii has quite a few commercial protea farms. The plants do well in the cool dry air and grow well right out of the lava rock. As a result there is actually quite a few bushes growing wild in the huge subdivision of Ocean View in the southern part of the Big Island. Although not indigenous to Hawaii, they can and do propagate on their own. The VOG here creates acid rain that is hard on the protea, but they are hardy enough to survive the demands of Pele.

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  9. 9. John Morts 4:44 am 07/5/2012

    How about visiting South Africa in August/September. If you can be so enthusiastic about a few Oz flowers you will blown out of your mind by our spring!

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  10. 10. DKirkwood 7:16 am 07/5/2012

    Just to confirm what JabulaZa says – although three Leucospermum spp. occur in the elsewhere in South Africa, the other 47 spp. are confined to the fynbos of the Western Cape, and not a single one occurs in Zimbabwe.

    Some nice online resources for readers interested in Proteas or the other mindblowing flora and fauna of the W Cape:
    (original Protea Atlas project, now out of date but an interesting resource as the first comprehensive atlas/survey of an entire plant group for the region)
    (nature records/observations from public)
    (various databases and resources from the South African National Biodiversity Inst. (SANBI))
    (this is the most accessible species descriptions database hosted at SANBI)

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  11. 11. DKirkwood 7:49 am 07/5/2012

    Oop, my apologies, L. saxosum does occur on the Chimanimani Mtns of Zimbabwe., but the vast majority are way down south in the Cape winter rainfall region of South Africa.

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  12. 12. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 4:09 pm 07/5/2012

    Regarding the Waratah — I didn’t know about it prior to now — but it is quite beautiful! I think I personally still prefer Leucospermum though. Thanks for the clarification regarding the habitat of wild Leucospermum. Much appreciated!

    As for Proteas escaped into the wild in Hawaii — not surprising. Just about every other bird, plant, mammal and insect that can do that has jumped on the “escape in Hawaii” bandwagon. And having visited the Big Island — I can’t say I blame them. : )

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  13. 13. kdimoff 8:35 pm 07/7/2012

    um, wow, the protea fanclub is a fierce one! don’t mess! i guess i was just all proud of myself for recognizing them from my local new seasons market floral department, i wasn’t offended that you thought we “wouldn’t know them” :)

    ps. $7.50/bunch is a pretty sweet deal :)

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  14. 14. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 11:33 am 07/9/2012

    They’re Australian dollars, but agreed it’s still a good deal!

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  15. 15. floworld 8:24 am 09/12/2012

    You have taken me to a very different world with this article. I was really not aware that such flowers exist on our planet. Even being a florist and owning an online flower store @ i never came across such flowers and in curiosity of knowing new things in flower world i came across this article.

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  16. 16. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 11:32 am 09/12/2012

    I’m so glad to hear it! Your experience is definitely why I started this blog. Thanks for sharing it with me.

    Link to this

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