Protea subvestita N.E.Br.
Common names: waterlily sugarbush (Eng.); lippeblomsuikerbos (Afr); igwanishe, isiqane (isiXhosa); isiqalaba (isiZulu)
SA Tree No: 98
This is a protea from the summer rainfall region that makes a wonderful large shrub or small tree in the garden; it produces its flowerheads in summer and autumn, and they vary in colour from carmine or pink or orange-pink to creamy white.
Protea subvestita is an upright, bushy, evergreen shrub or small tree that grows 2–5 m high, with a single trunk of about 300 mm in diameter. It has grey hairs on the stems, but they are hairless when mature. The leaves are covered with shaggy to woolly hairs when immature, becoming hairless when mature. The leaves are elliptic to lanceolate, about 50–110 mm long and 15–35 mm wide, curved upwards and tapering at the base. Plants that grow at higher altitudes, specifically above the snow line, have leaves that remain hairy for long periods (Tony Rebelo 2001).
Protea subvestita produces oblong flower heads which are 55–70 mm long and 30–40 mm in diameter. It flowers in summer, from December to June, and produces them more abundantly in mid to late summer, from January to March. There is some variation in the colour and hairiness of its flower heads. The colour of the involucral bracts may be carmine or creamy white or pink, with white silky hairs or hairless. The inner series of involucral bracts are oblong and loosely overlapping, about 35–40 mm long and 8–12 mm wide, that loosely overlap, with the tips bending downwards and outwards. The outer series of involucral bracts are ovate and tightly overlapping, 10–25 mm long and 7–10 mm wide, with the tip pointed up.
Male and female elements are carried in the same flowers; the female consist of the stigma and pollen presenter, style and ovary, and the male consists of stamens and anthers. Protea subvestita flower produces a pink style of 55–60 mm long, with tip bending outwards when open and positioned inside the cup of involucral bracts. The pollen presenter is linear to thread-like and is exposed at the tip of the style. The styles are longer than the involucral bracts and can be easily seen when the flowers open.
The fruits are serotinous (retained on the plant for years) and they take at least 7 months to ripen. In the wild, the fruits remain on the plant for years until the plant dies or a fire occurs or if insects consume the seedhead stalk and the water supply to the seedhead stops. When harvesting seeds of the waterlily sugarbush, allow them to remain on the mother plant for at least a year until maturity to obtain the optimum germination.
According to the Red List of South African Plants, checked on 1 August 2016, Protea subvestita is assessed as Least Concern (LC) meaning that it is not threatened. It occurs at over 50 locations and is not severely fragmented. It is found growing, most commonly in colonies forming open woodland, rarely in dense thickets. Its population trend is decreasing due to over-harvesting of wood for firewood and for carving and curios, and too frequent fire in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. The fire kills the plants, and if the next fire occurs before the young plants have produced seeds for the next generation, as Protea subvestita seedlings require 5 years to establish flowering, the population could be exterminated.
Distribution and habitat
Protea subvestita grows on rocky sandstone slopes in the summer rainfall region from the Drakensberg Escarpment near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, through KwaZulu-Natal, to Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, and another population in the Klein Swarterg. It was known to occur in Lesotho, although recent surveys have not found any populations. Protea subvestita grows in montane, highland sourveld and fynbos at 1 200–2 300 m altitude, were it forms open woodland. (Tony Rebelo 2001). It is also seen in infrequently burned areas, often in gullies, scarps and forest margins.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Protea was named by Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, after Proteus the mythological Greek god who could see into the future and always spoke the truth. However, to be able to extract a prophecy, one had to grasp him while he changed into numerous animate or inanimate forms. The species name subvestita is derived from Greek and means ‘partially clothed or dressed’ referring to the leaf hairs.
The Proteaceae is a family of one magnificent flowering plant after another. It comprises of more than 1 700 species and 80 genera. Most of about 800 species and 45 genera are native to Australia. Africa has about 400 species of which 352 species occur in South Africa, mainly in the winter rainfall area of the southwestern Cape. Other species occur in Central and South America, islands east of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Madagascar, Southeast Asia, New Guinea and New Zealand.
Most proteas are pollinated by nectar-feeding birds and mostly the visitors are sunbirds and sugarbirds. Protea subvestita produces unscented pink to white flower heads that attract the birds by their colour, as birds do not rely on smell. Protea beetles (Trichostetha fascicularis) and other Scarabaeidae are also important pollinators of protea flowers. Sugarbirds are dependent on proteas, pagodas and pincushions for food.
Protea subvestita is killed by fire and will not resprout. Its adaptation to survive fire is to release masses of seeds after the fire, known as ‘reseeding’. Proteas are serotinous; they retain their seeds in seedheads on the plant for a number of years. When the plant dies or is killed by fire the retained seedheads open to release the seeds, which fall or are blown from the plant. The seeds lie on the ground and become available as food for rodents and birds, until they germinate after the winter rain. The seeds of Protea subvestita are covered in long hairs that aid dispersal by wind, help anchor the seed to the soil and channel moisture towards the seed
The leaves of proteas are sclerophyllous, i.e. hard, woody and leathery. Their function is to limit the loss of water and prevent the leaves from wilting when water is scarce, during the dry season, so that the leaves can continue with photosynthesis. Sclerophyllous leaves are also expensive for the plant to produce and slow down photosynthesis.
The proteoid roots of proteas, which form a dense mat not far from the soil surface and have a surface area fifteen times that of non-proteoid roots, absorb the tiny amounts of nutrients available from the very nutrient-poor soils.
The wood of Protea subvestita is used for firewood and for carving small implements and curios.
Growing Protea subvestita
Protea subvestita is a summer rainfall shrub or small tree which requires a position in full sun with well-drained, acidic soil (between 5–7 pH levels), and requires moderate watering throughout the year for a period of 3 years, until the plant is established. It can live for up to twenty years or more. It is moderately frost hardy and will tolerate short periods of frost. Protea subvestita is a water-wise shrub once it is established in the garden. Protea subvestita grows on nutrient-poor soil where phosphorus is scarce. Apply moderate amounts of organic fertilizer to encourage the sensitive proteoid roots. Avoid using strong artificial fertilizers containing phosphorus, as they cause the plants to collapse and eventually die. Keep the soil moist during the hot dry season, by mulching your bed with a layer about 5 mm thick. The mulch will keep the roots cool, keep moisture in the soil and reduce the growth of weeds. Pruning can be done when harvesting the cut flowers and removing the old flowers from the display plant to make it neat and attractive.
Protea subvestita is easily propagated and responds best when propagated by seed. When harvesting the seeds, allow them to remain on the mother plant for at least a year until maturity to obtain the optimum germination. Sow the seed in autumn (March to May) in a well-drained soil, such as coarse sand and finely milled pine bark sowing medium. It is important to select the fertile seed before sowing; the fertile seeds are plump, wheras infertile are not. Protea seeds are very sensitive to waterlogging and humidity. Place them a well-aerated sowing bench and use a free-draining container. Treating the seeds with smoke will improve germination. At Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, seed trays are placed in an airtight plastic tent and smoke from burning fynbos is piped in for thirty minutes. The air is then allowed to clear and the seed trays are watered. Smoke extract can also be used, where the seeds are soaked in the extract for 24 hours and then sown. Packets of the Kirstenbosch Instant Smoke Seed Primer are available for sale from the Seedroom. Treat your seed with a dusting systemic fungicide containing the active ingredient metalaxyl, to prevent the post emergence seedling infection. The optimum temperature for germination of the seed is 5–100C for night temperature and 15–200C for day temperature. After sowing cover the seed with a light layer of sand to cover any exposed seed. Keep the soil moist and apply fungicide once a week. To prevent birds and rodents from eating the seeds, cover the benches or trays with a grid. Once the seed has germinated, they will produce the cotyledons, followed by true leaves. The seedlings are ready to be transplanted into small plastic bags or into compartmentalized trays, when they have true leaves. Once potted up, place them under the shade net for hardening off, particularly in the dry and hot conditions.
At Kirstenbosch, Protea subvestita it is also be propagated by cuttings. The cutting can be done in summer, from November to April on the semi-hard growth of the season. Select disease-free cuttings of 200 to 250 mm from upright-growing lateral shoots. Dip the cutting in the rooting hormone for at least 5 seconds. Place your cuttings in a free draining and well-aerated medium of 70% perlite and 30% fine-milled bark or coarse sand and finely milled pine bark sowing medium in the multi-trays. Put the trays on the heating benches of 22–25oC, and regularly treat the cuttings with the fungicide to prevent the fungal infection. Remove the dead leaves and wilting cuttings until your cuttings are rooted. The cutting takes 3 months to root.
At Kirstenbosch the seedlings and cuttings are grown under shade netting in the nursery for a period of 1 to 2 years, until they are ready to be planted into the garden. Shade netting reduces the direct sun which can dry out the soil in the plastic bags and also prevents scorching.
Nocturnal beetle such as Snout Beetle can cause leave damage by feeding on the leaves during the night. Control the beetle by using a bright torch in the night and place a wide, open container under the tree and shake them off and crush their hard exteriors.
- Brown, N.A.C. & Duncan, G.D. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Duncan, G., Brown, N. & Nurrish, L. 2013. Grow proteas. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Manning, J. & Goldblatt, P. 2012. Plants of the Greater Cape Floristic Region 1: the Core Cape Flora. Strelitzia 29. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Raimondo, D. & Rebelo, A.G. 2013. Protea subvestita N.E.Br. National Assessment: Red List of South African plants version 2015.1. Accessed on 2016/08/01
- Rebelo, A.G. 2001. Proteas. A field guide to the proteas of southern Africa, edn 2. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.
- Rebelo, T. 2000. Proteas of the Cape Peninsula. Protea Atlas Project. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Late Summer, Autumn, Winter
Flower colour: White, Pink, Cream
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average