Last of the King’s Sceptres

One of the rarest members of the Protea Family at Phillipskop is Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus. The rather long and tortuous name refers to the patronage of King Gustav III of Sweden. The species, was originally described by Anders Sparrman as a Protea in 1777 and beautifully illustrated at the same time. King Gustav was a great patron of the science in Sweden and the name was given in honour of how the scientists flourished under his rule or sceptre. The species was later transferred to the genus Paranomus by Robert Salisbury, a name that reflects it is quite anomalous when compared to Protea.

Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus (Proteaceae) on the slopes of the Klein River Mountains
Isolated plant of Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus on the slopes of the Klein River Mountains

The most striking and anomalous characteristic of Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus is the shape of the leaves, which come in two very distinct different forms on the same plant. The lowest leaves are finely and deeply dissected. They are reminiscent of many species of Serruria, another Cape genus of Proteaceae. On the other hand, the upper leaves just below the flowerheads are broad and flat, getting broader and shorter as they get closer to the flowerhead and more like some Protea leaves. The flowerheads themselves are short spikes of smaller creamy clusters of flowers, with strongly reflexed petals. They are scented but not particularly pleasantly.

Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus leaves
Young plant of Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus showing the two different types of leaves
Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus (Proteaceae) flowerhead
Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus flowerhead

Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus is found scattered through the south-western Cape mountains, from Villiersdorp in the north to Bredasdorp in the south. Although widespread, it is never common wherever it grows. This is the case at Phillipskop too. On the whole reserve there are only five plants. It occurs as isolated shrubs on the steep southern slopes in loose rocky soil. In the five years we have been here, 2019 is the first year it has been mature enough to flower. Most of the fynbos at Phillipskop burned in the fire that swept the Klein River Mountains in 2012. The plants of Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus have therefore taken seven years to attain flowering size.

Species that are slow to reach flowering size, such as Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus, are critical to understanding the conservation of fynbos. The small population size of this species at Phillipskop suggests a past fire regime that was too short (although the species is never found abundantly anywhere and is classified as Near Threatened). As it takes around seven years before the first flowering, the species is unlikely to have had time to build up a sufficient seed bank to regenerate following each fire, leading to a dwindling population. Indeed, had there been another fire at Phillipskop before it flowered this year, it is likely that Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus would have been lost to the reserve completely. Even so, it will need a few more years of flowering to build up a seed bank before the next fire. This is one fynbos species that clearly benefits from a gap of at least 10 years between fires. However, even if we get a further three flowering years before the next fire comes through, we cannot be guaranteed another generation of plants. With so few plants currently, it is possible that successful pollination of the flowers will be reduced below a level that sufficient viable seed is produced. This is one plant that we fear could be lost to Phillipskop in future years despite our best efforts to conserve it.

Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus (Proteaceae) habit
Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus habit

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