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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE PROTEA FAMILY IN SOUTHERN AFRICA (article first published : 2001-09-10)

In The Protea Family in Southern Africa, Colin Paterson-Jones has produced a highly informative and interesting book on the fascinating protea family, botanically known as the Proteaceae. Describing the protea family as “one of the subcontinent’s most charismatic groups of plants”, he states that primitive representatives of the Proteaceae were evident very soon after flowering plants first appeared on earth about 125 million years ago. Recent research apparently suggests that the Proteaceae is close to the base of the evolutionary tree of flowering plants.

It is not clear why, in 1735, renowned 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave the name Protea to a small number of plants of which he had never seen living examples. Colin Paterson-Jones suggests a reference to Proteus, the god of Ancient Greek mythology, who could change his form at will. If so, a suitable choice as botanical exploration through the centuries has shown the extraordinary diversity of the protea.

Protea appearances vary quite dramatically and flowerheads can range from 120mm in diameter at coastal level to 300mm in mountainous regions. Taken in the main by the author, the photographs are superb - capturing the tiny star-like flowers of the Carnarvonia araliifolia and the wispy light Sorocephalus tenuifolius as well as the blazing reds and oranges of Leucospermum oleifolium or the delicate pointed petals of Serruria florida.

There are delightful images such as a Namaqua rock mouse foraging for nectar with Protea humiflora or a juvenile lesser double collared sunbird resting on Leucospermum cordifolium, looking for all the world as if it is sitting on a nest. Landscape shots pick up brightly coloured proteas on coastal and inland dunes; the snow protea nestling on a mountainside, or the resilient Leucadendron salignum near the Cape or Good Hope. An image of the silver tree gives the impression that you could almost touch the miniscule dense silky hairs on the leaves.

The book proves that while proteas are mainly found in the Cape area, they exist widely around the rest of Southern Africa. A particular species can be found close to Durban and others abound through the rest of KZN. There is also the strange phenomenon of the rare Protea nubigena. This is a single group of plants which grows nowhere else in the world other than on Policeman’s Helmet ridge in the Drakensberg, an area mainly shaded and frozen during winters.

It is alarming to note that the protea family is fast disappearing because of the breakdown of environment. The natural habitat is being destroyed to make way for human settlement.

Apart from interesting anyone who loves fauna and flora, The Protea is a perfect gift for visitors to South Africa as it depicts South Africa’s national flower. It is published by Struik and edited by Peter Joyce and his assistant Giséle Raad. There is an acknowledgement to the contribution in developing the concept for the book by Dr John Rourke of the National Botanical institute’s Compton Herbarium in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town. The book retails at R119.95.




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