Protea repens (L.) L

Family: Proteaceae
Common Names: Common Sugarbush, Suikerbos.

Protea repens

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.

Protea repens, centre at Kirstenbosch.The 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.

Protea repensProtea 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.

White Protea repensProtea 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 industry.

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 months.

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.

Young bush of P. repens


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 conditions.

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.

Protea repensThe 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.

References

  • 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) 121-125.
  • Matthews, L. 1993. Protea Growers Handbook. Durban: Trade Winds Press..
  • 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..

H.G. Jamieson.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden
June 2002


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