The Protea Genus

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Named after Proteus, the Greek god who could change his form at will, the variance of forms within this genus is impressive. Protea is the type genus of its family, Protaceae.

Other members of the family include waratahs, grevilleas and banksias. Like those genera, protea are often pollinated by birds, small marsupials and invertebrates. Unlike those genera which originate in Australia, the proteas are from southern Africa.

The flower heads are a popular "native” flower, especially in wedding bouquets.

Description

A compound flower called a capitulum or head on the terminal tip of a branch contains many small flowers, with petal-like bracts (modified leaves) providing the unique visual appeal. Each pollinated flower becomes a small fruit and seed with a wing.

Protea sp . showing leaves, fresh inflorescences and dry inflorescences, possibly with fruits and seeds within.    Image source

Protea sp. showing leaves, fresh inflorescences and dry inflorescences, possibly with fruits and seeds within. Image source

Dried mature infructescence of  Protea madiensis  with fruits and seeds.    Image source

Dried mature infructescence of Protea madiensis with fruits and seeds. Image source

Flowers, Fruits & Leaves

Tepals: Generally 4 tepals (sometimes said to be 4 petals and 0 sepals).

Reproductive: Generally one stamen and one pistil per flower.

Fruit: Fruits are dehiscent, or not, and are drupe-like or a follicle. 

Seeds: One or more seeds per fruit are sometimes winged or having a tail.

Leaves: Leaves may be tough and leathery to retain more moisture in dry areas, are generally without a strong aroma, and usually alternate (sometimes opposite or whorled) making a spiral down the branch.

Noteworthy Types

The king protea P. cynaroides is a glorious capitulum and is the national flower of South Africa.

The king protea  Protea cynaroides  inflorescence with a crown of bracts (modified leaves).    Image source

The king protea Protea cynaroides inflorescence with a crown of bracts (modified leaves). Image source

An older king protea  Protea cynaroides  preparing to go to seed.    Image source

An older king protea Protea cynaroides preparing to go to seed. Image source

Feathery proteas such as P. neriifolia and P. mundii have striking bracts with a furry, feather-like margin.

A feathery  Protea sp . believed to be  P. lepidocarpodendron x neriifolia .    Image source

A feathery Protea sp. believed to be P. lepidocarpodendron x neriifolia. Image source

Conclusion

These plants are beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. But if you’re in Australia and considering planting one of these, why not instead plant one of their native relatives such as grevillea or warratah, or even an unrelated callistemon or eucalypt, which might be more beneficial for native wildlife.

If you haven’t already read my articles on plant identification and scientific names, I recommend reading those to get a broader picture of the topic. Alternatively, you can browse some of my other plant families, subfamilies and genera below.

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