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Bearded Proteas In Bloom!

Around this time of year, a breath-taking spectacle of nature unfolds on Gondwana as our winter-flowering Bearded Proteas burst into bloom. This magnificent event draws our endemic fynbos birds, elephants, and a plethora of insect life to our protea forested areas. Among the diverse fynbos winter species in bloom, you’ll also find the elegant Oleander-leafed Protea and the vibrant Green Bearded Protea gracing our Reserve.

Oleander-leafed Protea, Protea neriifolia

Protea neriifolia, a widely distributed species, thrives across a broad range of altitudes, spanning from sea-level to 1300 meters, along the southern coastal mountain ranges from just east of Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. Flourishing primarily in nutrient poor soils derived from Table Mountain Sandstone, it often forms extensive stands in its habitat.

At Gondwana, these majestic Proteas adorn the landscape, lining Kwena Main Road and our revered Protea Forest, currently ablaze with vibrant blooms. Recognizable by the striking dark purple to white “beard” hair-like edges of the internal bracts, its colours span a spectrum from carmine pink to creamy white, sometimes even displaying both variations on a single bush.

During this season, the large flower cups brim with sweet nectar, especially in the mornings. It’s a sight to behold as elephants delicately tear off each giant flower head, relishing the rich nectar packed with energy and vital nutrients. These flower heads serve as a storehouse of nourishment for the plant. Amidst this floral abundance, Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds flourish during the winter months, thriving on the nectar from the luscious blooms.

Protea neriifolia belongs to the ancient plant family Proteaceae, which diverged into two subfamilies long before the fragmentation of the Gondwanaland continent around 140 million years ago. The genus Protea earned its name from the Greek god Proteus, renowned for his shape-shifting abilities, owing to the remarkable diversity in the size, habit, colour, and shape of its flowers. The leaves of Protea neriifolia typically resemble those of the oleander (Nerium oleander), exhibiting bright or dark green hues. Hence, the species name “neriifolia,” meaning ‘with leaves resembling those of the oleander.’

The “flowers” of Protea neriifolia are actually flower heads surrounded by large, colourful bracts, with a collection of flowers at their centre. They are pollinated by scarab beetles, protea beetles, and various other insects, as well as birds, attracted by both the nectar and the visiting insects.

Protea neriifolia thrives in fire-prone vegetation, where natural fires occur every ten to thirty years. The nutrient poor soils in which it grows, gradually becomes depleted by the plants over time and must be replenished to sustain future generations, which is where the fires play an important role. Protea neriifolia has evolved to survive fires by storing its seeds safely in old seedheads. These seeds will only be released when the plant dies or is consumed by fire, ensuring succession.

According to pza.sanbi.org, Protea neriifolia has a rich history, being first discovered in 1597 and illustrated in 1605. It holds the honour of being the first protea ever mentioned in botanical literature.

Green Sugarbush, Protea coronata

Protea coronata boasts vibrant apple-green blooms, nestled amidst its silvery foliage. Belonging to the esteemed lineage of bearded proteas, it distinguishes itself with a dense fringe of elongated hairs on its floral bracts. Among the hallmark traits of these proteas are the inward curvature of the floral bracts and the upright nature of the bearded perianth segments, erect even as the blooms unfurl. Unlike its counterparts, this species thrives in clay-rich soils and favours ample rainfall. Its name, “coronata,” derived from the Latin “corona,” which means crown, reflecting the regal projection of its flower tips beyond the bracts, forming a white woolly crown on top of each floral head.

Protea coronata attracts an array of visitors, including the Cape sugarbird, sunbirds, and a myriad of insects such as the protea beetle. While the birds indulge in the sweet nectar, the insects seek both nectar and pollen. However, it’s only the sugarbird and the protea beetle that serve as the diligent pollinators. The nectar, a coveted reward, resides at the flower base, prompting the sugarbird to delve amidst the clustered blooms. As it manoeuvres for sustenance, pollen adheres to its head, unwittingly facilitating cross-pollination. Subsequently, the sugarbird flits away, unwittingly transferring pollen to another blossom while replenishing its nectar supply. Meanwhile, the protea beetles, robust in size, traverse the flower head, inadvertently collecting and dispersing pollen in their bristly journey.

Sunbirds, unlike the sugarbirds and protea beetles, don’t participate in pollination; they employ a clever tactic, skirting around the process by inserting their beaks directly into the sides of flower heads, thus sidestepping contact with pollen. Within the protea flower heads, a bustling ecosystem thrives, teeming with various insects. A simple glance inside or a gentle tap on the side reveals their presence, as some tumble out. While a portion of these insects may prove to be pests, causing harm to the flower or consuming its seeds, the majority are drawn to the pollen or engage in predatory behaviour, serving as potential prey for sugarbirds and sunbirds, enriching their diets in the process.

Did You Know?

The Proteaceae is an ancient family. Its ancestors grew in Gondwanaland 300 million years ago. The family is divided into two subfamilies, the Proteidae, best represented in southern Africa, and the Grevilleoideae, concentrated in Australia and South America and the other smaller segments of Gondwanaland that are now part of eastern Asia.

Having roots dating back to the era of dinosaurs, the Proteaceae family stands as a testament to resilience, encompassing approximately 1600 species across 77 genera. Primarily a resident of southern hemisphere nations, it finds its stronghold in regions such as Australia, boasting 45 genera, and Africa, with 14 genera. The southwestern Cape alone hosts a staggering 330 recorded species of this botanical family. Beyond these continents, Proteaceae makes appearances in various corners of the globe, including Central and South America, islands scattered east of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Madagascar, southeast Asia, and the verdant landscapes of New Zealand.

Waboom, Protea nitida

Protea nitida stands as a distinguished figure in the fynbos realm, celebrated for its enduring legacy and captivating aesthetics. Unlike its counterparts, it assumes the stature of a towering tree, a unique trait within the Protea genus, offering valuable timber. Typically characterized by its gnarled form and deliberate growth, it reaches heights of around 5 meters, sporting a white-grey bark and a trunk diameter of up to 400 millimetres. However, under optimal conditions, it flourishes to remarkable heights of 10 meters with a trunk diameter of 1 meter. Throughout the year, its large greenish-white flower heads grace the landscape, reaching their peak display from autumn to early spring, spanning from May to August.

Despite its current designation as Least Concern (LC), Protea nitida has weathered a tumultuous past marred by widespread exploitation. Historically, thousands of trees fell victim to overharvesting, their bark stripped for tannin extraction and their wood extensively utilized for charcoal production.

The epithet “nitida,” derived from Latin, meaning ‘shining,’ purportedly alludes to the luminous quality of its leaves, a fitting tribute to this illustrious species.

Protea nitida boasts an array of common names deeply intertwined with its historical significance and multifaceted uses. “Bobbejaansuikerbos,” originating from Afrikaans, reflects the plant’s association with baboons, who frequented its branches to savour the sweet nectar of its flowers or utilized its lofty heights as vantage points for vigilant surveillance. Another moniker, “brandhout,” resonates with its role as a source of firewood, essential for warmth and sustenance.

Beyond its arboreal attributes, Protea nitida’s wood found favour in the creation of ornamental furniture, while its bark, rich in tannins, served as a valuable resource for leather tanning and traditional remedies. A concoction brewed from the bark offered relief from ailments like diarrhoea, while the leaves, when boiled with rusted iron and sugar candy, yielded a lustrous blue-black ink, ideal for writing and dyeing.

In modern times, however, the primary role of P. nitida has shifted, now cherished primarily as a prized addition to garden landscapes, a living testament to its rich history and enduring allure.

“Waboom or Wagon tree”

The name “waboom” carries echoes of a bygone era when its wood found utility in crafting wagon wheel rims and brake blocks, a testament to its durability and versatility. Remarkably, “waboom” predates its scientific nomenclature, with records dating back to 1720, attesting to its enduring legacy.

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