Named after Proteus, the Greek god who could change his form at will, the variance of forms within this genus is impressive. Protea is the type genus of its family, Protaceae.
Other members of the family include waratahs, grevilleas and banksias. Like those genera, protea are often pollinated by birds, small marsupials and invertebrates. Unlike those genera which originate in Australia, the proteas are from southern Africa.
The flower heads are a popular “native” flower, especially in wedding bouquets.
A compound flower called a capitulum or head on the terminal tip of a branch contains many small flowers, with petal-like bracts (modified leaves) providing the unique visual appeal. Each pollinated flower becomes a small fruit and seed with a wing.
Flowers, Fruits & Leaves
Tepals: Generally 4 tepals (sometimes said to be 4 petals and 0 sepals).
Reproductive: Generally one stamen and one pistil per flower.
Fruit: Fruits are dehiscent, or not, and are drupe-like or a follicle.
Seeds: One or more seeds per fruit are sometimes winged or having a tail.
Leaves: Leaves may be tough and leathery to retain more moisture in dry areas, are generally without a strong aroma, and usually alternate (sometimes opposite or whorled) making a spiral down the branch.
The king protea P. cynaroides is a glorious capitulum and is the national flower of South Africa.
Feathery proteas such as P. neriifolia and P. mundii have striking bracts with a furry, feather-like margin.
These plants are beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. But if you’re in Australia and considering planting one of these, why not instead plant one of their native relatives such as grevillea or warratah, or even an unrelated callistemon or eucalypt, which might be more beneficial for native wildlife.
If you haven’t already read my articles on plant identification and scientific names, I recommend reading those to get a broader picture of the topic. Alternatively, you can browse some of my other plant families, subfamilies and genera below.