The True Sugarbush or Suikerbossie, Protea repens, is so well-known that it barely needs any introduction. After the King Protea, Protea cynaroides, it is probably the most familiar of the proteas. It got its common name from the quantity of nectar that the flowers produce. So much in fact that in the early days of Dutch occupation of the Cape, the nectar was collected and reduced into a syrup, bossiestroop. Cape sugarbirds are also very familiar with Protea repens nectar and are often seen to be chasing one another from one bush to the next. It is quite easy to try this nectar for yourself. Just find a fresh flower and dip your finger down to the base. It should be covered in a watery liquid but deliciously sweet. (Warning: while perfectly safe to eat, do check the flower first for bees, which don’t like fat fingers competing with them for the nectar.)
The most familiar form of Protea repens has whitish bracts edged with pink, but flowers with entirely white bracts are also common. In fact, populations often contain varying numbers of white and pink-flowered bushes. Here at Phillipskop, white-flowered bushes predominate (over 90%) with just a scattering of pink-flowered bushes. The distribution of these white and pink-flowered bushes formed part of a study by the University of Connecticut. It showed that in Protea repens there was a trend for more white-flowered bushes at lower altitudes and in the west of its range. Members of the public were also asked to contribute to the study through the online social media identification site iSpot: http://www.ispotnature.org/communities/southern-africa/ProteaColour
Behind the name
The scientific name Protea repens is a very unfortunate (“repens” means creeping). For a long time the species was known by the name Protea mellifera, which means honey-bearing, reflecting its value as a nectar rich plant. Unfortunately, Linnaeus not knowing the live plants, based his description on two different illustrations by Boerhaave. One was of Protea repens but the other was a dwarf creeping species. He based his name on the latter illustration, but the description on the former. When this older (and therefore the correct) name was discovered, the more apposite name Protea mellifera could have been conserved. Unfortunately, this was never done and now everyone has come to accept Protea repens as the correct name for the True Sugarbush. It is a good reminder though that any name does not have to be an accurate description of the object that it names. It is merely a label to enable consistent standardised communication.