Protea Identification

First steps in learning to identify plants in the family Proteaceae

It is important to have at your disposal a book from which has not just pictures of the plant but diagnostic features as well. A very good guide is the book “Sasol Proteas A field guide to the Proteas of Southern Africa” by Dr. Tony Rebelo, which is available at most bookshops.
To identify Proteas :

  • Make certain that the plant you have is in fact a protea.
    • A protea flower should have :
      • one female part ( ovary, stigma, style, and pollen presenter)
      • four male parts ( perianth segment, anther and awn)
      • sometimes 2 or more segments can be fused
    • Note : A protea flowerhead consists of many small flowers ( up to 100 or more)
  • Correctly identify the genus, ie. is it a Sugarbush, pincushion, conebush etc.
  • The genus may be divided into smaller groupings, ie. the sugarbushes could belong to the bearded, snow, mountain, king etc. These groupings make it easier to narrow down the species with pretty rough diagnostics.
  • Finally, identify your plant using the specific diagnostics to determine the species.

Parts of a protea flower

Parts of a protea flower
Parts of a protea flower

NOTE : This is one protea flower ! Up to a couple of hundred of these flowers make up one “flowerhead”. This particular flower is from a pincushion and the involucral bract is small and at the base of the “flowerhead”.

Parts of the King Protea flowerhead
Parts of the King Protea flowerhead

Parts of the King Protea flowerhead. On the right : Involucral bract – the colourful part we see enclosing all the flowers ( the “Flowerhead”). Centre: One flower showing 1 free male part and 3 fused male parts ( perianth segment).

Identifying the king protea : Protea Cynaroides

Protea Cynaroides
Protea Cynaroides
  1. We have established the plant is a protea, each flower has :
    1. 1 x female part
    2. 4 x male parts
  2. It’s genus is Protea :
    1. Flowerhead terminal
    2. Involucral bracts large and colourful ( red, pink)
  3. Its grouping is King :
    1. Leaves borne on long stalks
    2. Flowerhead large
  4. The species is Cynaroides :
    1. Stems arising from underground rootstock
    2. Leaves round, ovate or elliptic 120 – 200 mm long
    3. Leaves 20 – 130 mm wide – leathery, hairless
    4. Flowerhead 120 – 300 mm across
    5. Involucral bracts ( the colourful parts) lanceolate ovate 20 – 40 mm long, 7 – 25 mm wide.
    6. Perianth 70 – 100 mm long, yellow, white awns
    7. Style 80 – 95 mm long, curved inwards.

Acknowledgment : Dr Tony Rebelo : A field guide to Proteas of Southern Africa