The Artful Amoeba

The Artful Amoeba

A Blog About the Weird Wonderfulness of Life on Earth

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


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!

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

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