Thursday, September 5, 2019

The shape changers

Michael - Thursday

King Protea
We've planted a couple. Fingers crossed
One of the problems of living in Johannesburg (albeit a first-world one) is that it’s very hard to grow the iconic proteas and pincushions of the Western Cape there. This is a pretty minor problem compared with the more third-world ones of crime and choking traffic. It’s actually the result of one of the attractions of the city—its climate. Johannesburg has dry winters and summer rain, often dramatic thunderstorms, occasionally with impressive hail thrown in. I used to enjoy the drama of the summer weather, and the winters, cold by South African standards, were dry and sunny, which kept you cheerful while you shivered. (Since the climate is supposed to be warm, after the sun sets you huddle over a radiator as the outside temperature moves to freezing.)  Proteas, on the other hand, like their winters moist, and not too wet. They have an important network of roots just below the surface of the soil, and these mustn’t be disturbed (by enthusiastic weeders) or drowned (by, for example, thunderstorms). Furthermore, their leaves are designed for gentle rain, not hail, and they can’t tolerate frost. The mismatch with Johannesburg is obvious.

Nevertheless, I grew up in Cape Town and I fell in love with the diversity and strangeness of these plants. They’ve been around for a while. Fossils of this broad family date back to the Gondwanaland era, when the land consisted of a single continent, and thus representatives are found all over the world. A hundred million years ago give or take a few million.

The name of the broad family Proteaceae comes from Proteus, the Greek sea god known for his multiple shape changes in his encounter with Menelaus in the Odyssey. The family includes the Waratah and bottlebrushes of Australia, the Hakeas, Leucadendrons, and even Macadamias. Shape changers indeed. The magnificence of some of the flowers is recognised by, for example, the Waratah being the state flower of New South Wales, and the King Protea being the national flower of South Africa. Furthermore, the common name of the protea family is the sugarbush because of their sweet nectar. This attracts the wonderful sunbirds.

Double banded sunbird on a sugarbush

Well, not quite...
So I did my best. When my partner at the time and I bought a house in Johannesburg, I engineered drained pits with stone soak-aways. I crept out of the house on the coldest winter nights to wrap the plants in hessian sacking to protect them from frost. I watered them in the winter and drained them in the summer. For a while they cooperated, even producing a few half-hearted flowers, but then the drainage system filled up with clay, I was away at critical points in the winter, I became lazy, and so on. One by one the plants gave up the ghost. As I surveyed the dry stems sticking out of the ground, I decided that I’d learnt my lesson.

But now I’ve moved to Knysna and things here are very different. Our new property is on sandy, well-drained soil. The winter is mild with enough rain to keep those surficial roots moist, but not enough to give them the dreaded “wet feet.” Further encouragement was provided by a pincushion that had seeded itself on the vacant plot next to us and flowered last year—just a year after the devastating Knysna fires had raged through the area. Proteas actually like a grass fire moving through and giving their seeds some elbow room from time to time. More to the point, the smoke contains important nutrients for them.

So, forty years on, I’m having another bash. Pat and I have planted nearly two dozen proteas of different species and hybrids from a local nursery that specialises in the so-called fynbos flora of the Western Cape. All but one seem to be doing well without any of the high-end engineering I tried before. The pincushions are spreaders, and flower in winter and spring and the new plants are already obliging.

Red pincushion

Blushing Bride
Yellow pincushion
Carnival Red
The "true" proteas take longer, needing to grow for a few years before they can put effort into flowers. In the meanwhile, we leave them to their own devices as much as possible. That’s what they like. I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Bravo. I admire your commitment, Michael. I have long ago put my gangrene thumb to rest, and allowed nature to decide what shall live and what shall not on my Farm. So far, so good...and I have someone to cut the grass.

    1. Jeff, I'm really doing the same. The proteas grow naturally here. Only gold mines grow naturally in Johannesburg!

  2. Wonderful flowers! Enjoy