From a distance, the fynbos in springtime lights up with golden splashes as though the sun is shining through gaps in the cloud. These bright yellow patches are created by conebush proteas, Leucadendron. In the Klein River Mountains, the most common species is Leucadendron xanthoconus. “Xanthoconus” means yellow cone and it is the cone-like inflorescences that colour the veld en masse at this time of the year. This group of conebushes are commonly referred to as Sunshine Conebushes for obvious reasons.
Leucadendron xanthoconus, like other conebushes, has both male and female plants. The female bush produces the true cone, which is kept on the plant for several years. These serotinous cones hold the seeds secure should a fire pass through. They then release the seed after a fire onto the bare ground ready to germinate during the next winter rains. The male bushes are showier. The central cone is yellow from the protruding stamens, but the cone fades quickly and drops off. It is the floral leaves, which surround the flowerheads, whether male or female, that give the sunshine colour to the hillside. In spring these leaves become a fresh yellowish green.
Leucadendron are one of the harder groups of the protea family, Proteaceae, to identify to species. Leucadendron xanthoconus is a rather unspecialised and variable member of the genus. It is best recognised from other similar species by a combination of characters. Firstly, the plants are killed by fire. This means that they do not resprout and produce just a single main stem. The narrow leaves (up to 6mm across) have fine silky hairs pressed closely to the surface, which makes them shiny in the right light. The shape of the leaves is slightly curved and they have a small point at the end. This has given it one of its common names: Sickle-leaf Conebush. Finally, if you have a mature cone, then the cone scales are broad and shallowly indented in the middle and the seeds are a flattened triangle with a broad to narrow wing. There are a number of other species of Leucadendron at Phillipskop with yellow heads at this time of year but the majority of them have broader leaves (over 8mm across). These include Leucadendron microcephalum, Leucadendron gandogeri and Leucadendron laureolum. On the other hand, Leucadendron salignum has narrow leaves like Leucadendron xanthoconus but resprouts, with several stems from the base of the plant.
Leucadendron xanthoconus is very common and widespread in the South-western Cape. It can be found on the Cape Fold Mountains from Cape Peninsula to Bredasdorp, with outliers on Potberg at De Hoop. It is an easy plant to grow from seed and is colourful in spring. But there are probably more interesting conebushes to grow in the garden for Leucadendron xanthoconus really achieves its full glory by its extensive displays on the fynbos covered hillsides in spring. Take a walk up the Saddle Hiking Trail to enjoy them at their best at Phillipskop.