The King Protea, Protea cynaroides, needs no introduction. It is a very worthy holder of the title of South Africa’s National Flower. The flowerheads can be up to 30cm in diameter. No other member of the genus Protea has flowers that come close to that size. Its fame has also spread around the world thanks to its excellent keeping quality in a vase as a cut-flower and as a garden plant in suitable climates. Fortunately, for those wanting to view the King Protea in its natural state, the species is not particularly rare and quite widespread across the Cape. The species grows on the wetter slopes of the Cape mountains from the Cape Peninsula, as far east as Grahamstown. While across its range it grows in a wide variety of habitats, from sea-level to high mountain peaks, there is definitely a preference for S-facing reliably humid but well-drained slopes on Table Mountain Sandstone.
Protea cynaroides is an extremely variable species across its range. Attempts have been made in the past to describe some of these local races as varieties, but there is too much overlap for these to be useful. At Phillipskop, we get two distinct variants, which are separated both in flower colour, flowering time and habitat. During the winter months of May and June, the mid-slopes of Phillipskop showcase a beautiful pure white form. While there are several pure white garden cultivars such as ‘Arctic Ice’, there is nothing unnatural about this population. The plants are found on the south-western slopes of Phillipskop between 200 and 400m. They are most easily spotted by taking the Saddle Path to the summit. The plants are not vigorous and usually only a single flower each season is produced, though it would be interesting to see how they would respond if given a bit more love and care in cultivation.
The heat of summer, January to March, sees the other variant of Protea cynaroides flower at Phillipskop. This is a much more typical variant with red bracts. However, it is mainly restricted to the highest ridge above 500m, where it catches the summer cloud brought in by the south-easter. This presumably keeps the humidity around the plants high enough to ensure flowering. It is clear with these two variants that they are unlikely to cross-pollinate, predominantly due to their non-overlapping flowering times, and so the populations stay to some degree distinct. It is possible to see from this how given time (albeit a very long time) and further genetic drift (but without external gene flow), the two variants could differentiate enough to be classified as distinct species.
Vegetatively the two variants are indistinguishable. Protea cynaroides has very distinctive leaves for the genus Protea. The leaves are spoon-shaped, with a long narrow petiole expanding into a broadly elliptic blade. This makes plants of Protea cynaroides easy to recognise even when there are no flowerheads. The plants are also resprouters. That means that they will grow back from their thickened rootstock after a fire. Some of the plants of Protea cynaroides can therefore be quite old even though are often only a metre or so high and wide, having survived more than one fire cycle. The plants at Phillipskop are relatively small but on wetter slopes of the Langeberg, Outeniqua and Tsitstikamma ranges, they can reach 2m in height and across. Unfortunately, the plants are susceptible to disease and it is not unusual to find a dead plant. Each flowerhead produces many seeds each year, so regeneration is not a problem and the species is not considered threatened in any way.