Protea compacta


Family : Proteaceae
Common names : Bot River protea, Bot River sugarbush, Compacta ( Eng. ); duinesuikerbos, suikerkan, Botrivier-protea (Afr.)

Protea compacta

The Bot River sugarbush is ideally suited to the larger coastal fynbos gardens where, if planted en masse , it will provide a pink or white splash of colour for most of the year.

Protea compacta is a single-stemmed, lanky and sparsely branched shrub which grows up to 2.0-3.5 m tall. The leaves curve upwards and are ovate to lanceolate to heart-shaped at the base. They are normally 50-130 x 20-55 mm. The stemless leaves clasp the branches and overlap upwards. The young leaves are soft and hairy as opposed to hairless and leathery when mature.

P. compactaThe oblong-obconic inflorescence is 90-120 x 70-100 mm, with outer pink involucral bracts which are fringed with hairs. These broad velvety bracts usually curve inwardly close to the top half to enclose the central mass of pink flowers. The surface is softly puberulous with pubescence rubbing of to form glabrous patches and hairy margins. The outer series of the bracts are normally tightly imbricate, ovate and acute, becoming ovate-oblong to obtuse. Bracts are 10-20 x 10-15 mm. The straight perianth is prominently ridged and is 60-80 mm long. The tube is 15 mm long. Anthers are joined directly to the base of the perianth limb and pollen is shed onto the top part of the style (just before the flowers open). The tip of the style is modified to form a pollen presenter and allows for the pollen to be effectively transferred.

Distribution and habitat
The Bot River protea is found on a relatively narrow zone along the southwestern Cape coast and extends from Kleinmond, Houw Hoek, Hermanus, Elim, Napier, Bredasdorp to Struisbaai. Populations mostly occur on the foothills of mountains close to the sea, coastal forelands and sandy flats close to the sea. It seldom grows at high altitudes with virtually all plants found between sea level and 100 m. This species is highly social and grows in dense stands of thousands of plants. White forms or mutants occur occasionally and are restricted to specific localities.

GRowing in dense stands

Conservation status
Protea compacta is classified as NEAR THREATENED.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Protea is the largest, widespread and most known genus in the Proteaceae family. The name was given in 1735 by Linnaeus and is derived from Proteus who was a Greek god who apparently could change his appearance and shape at will. French botanist, Jussieu, later used the same name to form the family name Proteaceae. The species name compacta refers to the leaf-arrangement which is closely joined or pressed together. In dried specimens the leaves can be seen as closely pressed to the stems.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s this protea was overlooked by numerous botanists and plant collectors who visited South Africa. Only on his second visit to the Cape during 1789, did Francis Masson collect seeds and herbarium specimens. This was just outside Houw Hoek, which is near Bot River. Masson's collection was introduced to the Royal Botanic Garden , Kew with the first plants flowering in the early 1790s. This attracted the attention of Franz Bauer who was one of the greatest botanical artists of his generation. His water colour paintings of Protea compacta show an open flower head and enlarged dissections of the floral parts. This lanky shrub was never popular in European collections because it needs a reasonable space in which to grow.

The Proteaceae family is one of the oldest groups of flowering plants. Historic records show that the ancestor of the proteas was present before the breaking up of Gondwanaland about 300 million years ago. By then the family was already divided into the two subfamilies: Grevilleoideae and Proteoideae. This family, with its 61 genera and approximately 1 500 species, is mostly confined to South Africa and Australia. Other species are found in South America, tropical Africa, Malaya , New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Southern Africa is home to 13 genera. With the exception of Protea and Faurea , the 11 other genera occur in South Africa only. In South Africa there are more than 300 species which occur mostly from the southwestern, eastern, and southern parts of the country and up north as far the Limpopo River. The narrow mountainous coastal belt from Clanwilliam to Grahamstown is home to 92% of all species.

These diverse landscapes, from coastal areas, sandy flats to the Cape Fold Mountains are believed to have helped with the isolation of populations which in turn led to the development of separate species. The result being the exceptionally rich diversity of species of the Cape Flora.

Growing the fynbos

The first plant of southern Africa ever to be described was a member of the Protea genus, P. neriifolia was discovered in 1597 and only described in 1810. Another species, P. cynaroides , known as the king protea the world over, has the honour of being South Africa 's national flower.

The Bot River sugarbush is serotinous which allows the plant to store seeds on the plant for years. When the bush gets killed during a fire, the seeds normally survive and ensure the successful reproduction of the species. The serotiny phenomenon is an adaptation by certain genera within Proteaceae of the Cape Floral Kingdom to deal with the need to store nutrient-rich seeds safely in the nutrient-poor soils of this fire-prone vegetation. Serotinous fruit are flat, soft-shelled nutlets and often hairy or winged. After a ripening period of about seven months, fruits are retained in the seed heads on the plant. The seed heads only release the fruit when the water supply to them stops, i.e. the bush is killed. 

Uses and cultural aspects
Protea compacta plays a significant role in the South African cut flower industry. With a flowering period spanning autumn to summer, it is popular with florists and at roadside stalls. For this reason this well known protea is cultivated on an extensive scale. This is done by broadcasting the seed over newly ploughed land to form dense stands.

The ability of the natural species as a cut flower convinced researchers and farmers of its hybridizing potential, the result being Protea compacta as the parent plant to numerous cultivars such as Pink Ice ( P. compacta x P. susannae), Pink Duke ( P. compacta x P. eximia ), Lady Di ( P. compacta x P. magnifica ), and Carnival ( P. compacta x P. neriifolia ).

Growing Protea compacta

Protea compacta thrives in coastal and low altitude mountain gardens. It grows in acidic, well-drained, sandy soil in full sun. This shrub is a rapid and vigorous grower that may even flower in its second year. Flowers should normally be expected only from the fifth year if grown from seed.

For the best effect plant in groups of 3-5 plants; in a relatively large garden, this number could even be increased. The natural lanky growth habit favours group planting. Plants mutually support each other as can be seen in the dense stands of Bot River protea in its natural habitat.

This species develops long slender branches that become top heavy and eventually the plant falls sideways. This can be overcome by pinching back the young plants and the regular cutting of the long-stemmed flowers. In the event of old, woody shrubs, the stems bearing the old flower heads should be cut back to create a better shape and encourage the development of new shoots and longer stems.

For optimum flowering results and a better display, this short-lived and quick-growing shrub should ideally be replaced every 8-10 years.

If one is to take a more organic approach to gardening and to try to emulate growing conditions in its natural habitat, it would be beneficial if one considers growing it with other plants that grow with it in the wild. Advantages may include a more simple garden maintenance plan and possible symbioses that will create stronger plants. Some plants that grow with this species and which make attractive garden subjects are Protea repens, P. lepidocarpodendron, P. coronata, Erica ericoides, E. viscaria subsp. longifolia, E. pinea, Restio dispar, Gnidia squarrosa, Berzelia lanuginosa, Aulax umbellata, Passerina corymbosa, Leucadendron tinctum, L. xanthoconus, L. salignum, Brunia albiflora, B. noduliflora and Phaenocoma prolifera.

As proteas in general like air circulation, it is advisable not to crowd them amongst other shrubs. This may result in spindly and unsightly plants which will be more prone to fungal diseases, which can be very destructive. During summer a root fungus, Phytophthora , can cause great losses when it attacks the plant. The effect of this disease can be reduced by applying cultural control methods such as the immediate removal of diseased plants, mulching of the soil surfaces, watering plants in the morning, cutting out diseased material and no over-watering of plants during summer. An excess of moisture encourages tall growth and plants tend to fall when these conditions persist. This species is subject to certain leaf diseases which cause the blackening of young foliage. This can be controlled by using copper or systemic fungicides.

Propagate the shrub vegetatively by taking 60-100 mm long semi-hardwood cuttings using the current season's growth. Remove the leaves of the basal third of the cutting, dip in a rooting hormone and place in a well-drained medium (coarse river sand or a 1:1 mixture of bark and polystyrene). Cuttings root best in a growing house with intermittent mist and bottom heat of 25C .

Sow seeds in well-drained soil during autumn, then cover them with a fine layer of sand and keep moist. Germination occurs readily within 30-40 days. It is advisable to treat the seeds with a fungicide during storage or prior to sowing as it improves germination and subsequently the number of seedlings.

References and further reading

  • Eliovson, S. 1970. Proteas for pleasure. How to grow and identify them. Howard Timmens, Cape Town.
  • Matthews, L. 1993. The p rotea growers handbook. Colorcraft, Hong Kong.
  • Rebelo, A. (Tony). 2001. Proteas. A field guide to the proteas of southern Africa , edn 2. Fernwood Press, Cape Town.
  • Rourke, J.P. 1982. The p roteas of southern Africa , edn 2. Centaur Publishers, Johannesburg.
  • Vogts, M. 1982. South Africa 's Proteaceae. Know them and grow them. Struik, Cape Town.


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