This sturdy, dense shrub produces fairly large flowers ranging
in colour from cream to deep red either during summer or during
winter, depending on the variant grown. It is an excellent addition
to any "wild-life" garden as the large amount of nectar
produced by the flowers attracts birds, bees and other insects.
The plants are tolerant to a large variety of growing conditions
but will show frost damage at temperatures below -4 degrees Celsius.
amazing variety in plant size, habit, flower size and colour of
the genus Protea was the reason it was named after the Greek
god Proteus, who could change his shape at will. The species name
of 'repens', meaning 'creeping' is misleading as Protea repens
is an upright, much branched shrub, which normally grows to a height
of 2.5 metres but can reach a height of 4.5 m. The name is based
on descriptions and illustrations by Boerhaave (1720), which show
a very short stem, from which the botanist Linnaeus assumed that
it had a creeping habit, hence the name 'repens'. The botanist Thunberg
later named the same plant Protea mellifera, referring to
the sweet nectar produced by the flowers. However, this much more
suitable name had to make way for the earlier name, so this upright
shrub is now called Protea repens.
Protea repens was grown under glass in the Royal Collections
at Kew in 1774 and flowered around 1780, the first protea ever to
have been flowered in cultivation away from the Cape. It was also
the first protea to have been grown outside in gardens in Australia,
New Zealand and California from about 1890. Protea repens was
the National Flower of South Africa up to 1976 and has inspired
songs such as "Suikerbos ek wil jou he", which was composed
on Lion's Head near Cape Town.
repens has been exploited for centuries, as a source of firewood
as well as for the nectar produced by the flowers and more recently
by the cut flower industry. The abundantly produced nectar was collected
in the past to be boiled into a sugary syrup, the so-called 'bossiestroop',
an essential component of 19th century medicine chests in the Cape.
The cut flower industry utilises the variation in flowering time
and flower colour and has produced many beautiful hybrids or varieties,
such as 'Guerna', 'Liebencherry', 'Sneyd', 'Sugar Daddy' and 'Venus'.
These plants and the cut flowers they produce can be found in nurseries
in New Zealand, Australia, Israel and of course South Africa.
repens occurs in the Southern part of South Africa and grows
from high in the mountains of the Bokkeveld Escarpment along the
South West Cape to East of Grahamstown in the Eastern part of the
Cape. Although it mostly occurs on the flats, coastal forelands,
lower and middle mountain slopes, it has been found at altitudes
up to 1500 metres and can be found scattered in between the other
fynbos plants or in dense stands. Its conservation status is almost
ubiquitous. The flowering period varies from winter flowering in
the Western part of the range to summer flowering in the Eastern
part. The flower colour also varies, from a creamy white to white
touched with pink, to the deep red varieties used by the cut flower
The "flowers" of Protea repens are actually flower
heads with a collection of flowers in the centre, surrounded by
large colourful bracts. The shape of the flowers is very distinctive,
chalice-shaped, and forms an inverted, brown "ice-cream cone"
seedhead. The flowers are pollinated by Scarab Beetles and Protea
Beetles and many other insects, as well as by birds. The birds are
attracted by the nectar as well as by the insects visiting the flowers.
The development from opening flower to complete closed flower takes
from six to eight weeks and the seed develops over the next seven
The flowers are semi-serotinous, some opening after
seven months and dispersing the seeds and others staying on the
plants for a number of years. Only about 20% of the flowers actually
develop into viable seeds. The seeds in the seedheads are damaged
by the larvae of many different insects, after two years less than
16% of the seed is undamaged.
Growing Protea repens
Protea repens is one of the easiest, most adaptable and
reliable proteas in cultivation. It is tolerant of a wide range
of soils, from heavy clay to deep white sand. With careful selection,
suitable variants can be chosen for cultivation in areas, which
experience winter frosts as well as for gardens with nearly subtropical
Protea repens can be propagated from seed or from cuttings.
Good colour forms, hybrids and cultivars have to be propagated from
cuttings.Cuttings are made from semi-hardwood, 6-10 cm long, of
the current season's growth. The cuttings are dipped for about four
seconds in a rooting hormone solution and placed in a growing house
with bottom heat (25ºC) and intermittent mist. The rooted cuttings
are potted up when the roots are well developed and planted out
in the late autumn in South Africa, or in spring in colder areas.
slender nut-like seeds have to be treated during storage with a
systemic fungicide with the active ingredient of metalaxyl (Apron)
and sown from the middle of March, when the day temperature starts
to drop. The seed is sown in open seedbeds, in a light, well drained
soil and covered with a layer of sand (about 1 cm or 1 1/2 times
the size of the seed). The bed is then covered with a grid to protect
it against attacks from birds and rodents. The seed will germinate
three to four weeks after sowing.
The plants are generally about four or five years old from seed
before they flower. On older plants the side shoots tend to be quite
short, so to encourage the development of new shoots and long stems,
the stems bearing old flower heads should be cut back the new growth.
Protea repens has quite hard, leathery leaves, which protect
it against most insect attacks and not much damage is visible to
the leaves, except from leave borers. Like all other proteas, the
most harmful and destructive diseases are fungal. Most losses occur
during the summer months when a virulent root fungus (Phytophthora
camphora) can attack the plants. Control through the use of
fungicides in the garden is difficult and expensive. By the time
the plant shows distress, it is normally too late to arrest the
problem. The best methods of control are cultural, i.e. water plants
early in the morning; keep soil surface cool by mulching; remove
diseased plants immediately; do not overwater in summer and prune
and remove diseased material.
Protea repens occurs in fire prone vegetation, where natural
fires occur every ten to thirty years. This 'Mediterranean' type
of vegetation grows in soils with very low amounts of nutrients.
These nutrients are used up by the plants during their lifetime
and need to be returned to the soil to provide the food for a new
generation of plants. Protea repens is adapted to survive the fires
by producing seeds throughout its lifetime, some of the seeds being
distributed and stored in the soil, others being stored in the old
seedheads, which will only be stimulated to open and release the
seeds when the plant dies or is killed by fire. These natural fires
occur mainly in late summer or autumn and are followed by the first
winter rains, which provide the moisture the young seedlings need
to grow to a size at which they can survive the long, hot summer.
- Coetzee,JH and Giliomee, JH. 1987 Seed predation and survival
in the infructescences of Protea repens (Proteaceae). South
African Journal of Botany 53(1)61-64.
- Jordan, P. G. 1949. Aantekeninge oor die voortplanting en brandperiodes
van Protea mellifera Thunb. Journal of South African botany 15(4)
- Matthews, L. 1993. Protea Growers Handbook. Durban: Trade Winds
- Rebelo, T and Paterson- Jones, C. 2001. Sasol Proteas: a field
guide to the proteas of Southern Africa. Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press.
- Rebelo, T and Jardine, C. 2000. Fieldguide to the proteas of
the Cape Peninsula. Cape Town: NBI Protea Atlas Project.
- Rourke, J.P.1980. The Proteas of Southern Africa by J.P. Rourke.
Cape Town: Purnell.
- Vogts, M. 1982 South Africa's Proteaceae: know them and grow
them. Cape Town: Struik..
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden