We are all familiar with the large showy flowers of proteas; some like the King Proteas are as large as dinner plates. But there are a range of proteas that are more discrete in their flowering, keeping their flowers tucked away at the base of their stems. These are the ground proteas and we have a couple of different species of them here at Phillipskop. One of the commonest on the lower slopes is Protea scabra, the Sandpaper Ground Sugarbush. Both the scientific name and the common name reflect the roughness of the leaves to the touch.
Protea scabra flowers in August through to September. Although it is common on the lower slopes of Phillipskop, one might not realise it. Even in full bloom, it is hard to spot the small brownish bowls tucked at the base of stiff long and narrow leaves. A network of stems is formed underground and only the closely packed rosettes of leaves and flowers appear above the soil. For most of the year, one might even mistake the dense clumps of leaves as a sedge or similar grass-like plant. But in late winter, the buds start to appear in the middle of the rosettes, eventually opening out into the typical shape of a protea flower.
Ground proteas like Protea scabra are adapted in this way partly to survive fire. The bulk of the plant is below ground level and so when a fire sweeps through it is protected. The plant is then able to resprout. Indeed, the species flower most profusely in the years just after a fire. The other reason for having the flowers down at ground level is that they are usually mouse (or small mammal) pollinated. The dull colour of the flowers indicates that it is not trying to attract birds or day-flying insects (both of which respond to visual stimuli). Instead of colour, the flowers have developed a rather musky scent. You have to get really low down to appreciate this, a nose to the ground position. Once you get there, you realise that the odour is clearly more attractive to mice than humans and you end up wondering why you got yourself into such an undignified position in the first place.
But you don't have to just take our word for it that the flowers attract mice. Have a look at this short video that we recorded with our trail camera: https://youtu.be/kr9QLlM0Aj0. Over a period of 4 days, we repeatedly got evidence of the Four-striped Field Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio) visiting the flowers. And If you are interested in reading a more scientific investigation on the pollination of these ground proteas you can look at the following thesis on “The reproductive biology of four geoflorous Protea species (Proteaceae)”