Holding Heads Up High

Members of the Protea family are some of the most photogenic plants in the fynbos. However, Serruria elongata is one species that proves an exception. It is not that it is an unattractive plant. It is just that it is extremely hard to get a good photo that captures its characters well. The reason for this is summed up by its Latin epithet “elongata” and consequently too its common name: Long-stalk Spiderhead. The inflorescence stalk is elongated so that it rises high above the leaves. The leaves are all clustered at the base of the stem and usually hidden by the surrounding fynbos. So you can take a photo of the flowerheads but not the leaves or the rosette of leaves but not the flowerhead.

Serruria elongata (Proteaceae)
A plant of Serruria elongata with the flowerheads held well above the leaves
Serruria elongata (Proteaceae)
A newly opening inflorescence of Serruria elongata
Serruria elongata (Proteaceae)
An inflorescence of Serruria elongata in mid-flowering with tight buds below and old spent flowerheads above

However, there is another feature of Serruria elongata that makes it particularly hard to take an attractive photo and this is due to the way that the inflorescence develops. The main inflorescence axis produces between 5 and 25 globular headlets of flowers. (Each headlet has somewhere in the region of 20 actual flowers.) These headlets are produced on branches that spread in different directions some distance from one another. The problem is that the order that these headlets mature and the flowers open is known as “basipetal”. Basipetal means that flowering progresses from the top downwards (*see footnote). So the first headlets open at the top, then gradually flowering moves down the inflorescence axis to the lower headlets. If this happened quickly the display could look attractive. Unfortunately, in Serruria elongata by the time the next headlet reaches flowering stage the one above has started to “go over”. At any time therefore, there are only a few headlets in flower, with rather non-descript buds below and faded greyish old flowerheads above.

Serruria elongata is a localised species of the south-western Cape mountains, from Cape Agulhas to the Riviersonderend Mountains, but it is not found on the Cape Peninsula. Its favoured habitat is dry stony well-drained slopes in full sun. Sometimes it can become common, with patches of hundreds of plants scattered through the fynbos, but the display is muted due to the diffuse nature of the inflorescence. The inforescence can vary considerably in height. Some plants in exposed conditions becoming quite compact, while others can be truly elongated to almost a metre in height. There are no similar species in the Klein River Mountains with which it could be confused, even when it is just in leaf. All other species of Serruria in the area have flowers with leaves right up to the base and often over-topped by them.

Serruria elongata (Proteaceae) flowerhead
Serruria elongata flowerhead looks rather like a very diffuse pincushion protea
Serruria elongata (Proteaceae) in front of Phillipskop
Serruria elongata in habitat on the ridge above Phillipskop

*For those who are interested, the opposite of basipetal is acropetal, where flowers open from the bottom upwards. A common example of this is seen in the flowers of an Aloe, where the lowermost flowers open first and the next buds to open are above them.

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