protea

The national flower of South Africa is a protea, more specifically the soup-bowl size king protea, Protea cynaroides(meaning red protea, although you sometimes see a yellow one) There are 92 species in the genus Protea. If there was a national floral type it would be the Cape’s fynbos (or heath-like) vegetation, wherein the proteas mostly grow.

The fynbos or, more technically speaking, Cape Florisitc Region, is the only vegetation type on earth that has been awarded World Heritage Site status due to its overwhelming number of flowering plants. To give an example of just one genus, the ericas or heaths: the United Kingdom has 12 species, whereas the Cape has around 465. Table Mountain National Park, just 80 km or 50 mi long, has about as many species of flowering plants as the entire United Kingdom.

Coming back to the proteas, they are both a genus (group) and a family totalling about 321 or 322 at last count. They were named by the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus, professor of botany at Uppsala University in Sweden and considered to be the father of modern ecology. He divided the protea family into the 13 genera and took the family name from Proteus, a Greek god of the sea who could change form at will.

Although the fynbos region covers around just 0.01 percent of the earth’s surface, it is recognised as one of only six floral kingdoms. By comparison the Boreal Kingdom covers virtually all of the northern hemisphere above the Tropic of Cancer – nearly half of the total land surface. Writing to its Dutch Governor Rijk Tulbagh, Linnaeus expressed his regret at never having had the chance to visit the Cape, “that heaven on earth”. Living here it certainly feels like there could be no better place.