Protea Peepshow

You know the protea. They’re the strong, structural types ever-present in supermarket bouquets, bundled and sold with stems of Geraldton Wax, kangaroo paw and banksia under the misnomer of an Australian native. But truth be told the protea is exotic, a plant that has travelled from South Africa to the world courtesy of the cut flower industry. In this photo series Emma Perry singles out the protea under a new, moody light.

The king protea, Protea cynaroides.

Let’s turn the lights low and look anew at the protea. ‘Protea’ is both the genus and common name for the flowering plant native to South Africa, where they grow prolifically in the Cape Floristic Region on the country’s southern tip. Proteas come within the family Proteaceae, to which banksia, grevilleas, hakeas and waratahs also belong – perhaps the source of all the confusion when it comes to so-called native flower arrangements!

The botanical heavyweight Carl Linnaeus named the genus Protea, in reference to the changeable Greek god Proteus and the plant’s diverse forms. But the more common name is sugarbush, and from here on let’s keep it casual like that.

The ancestors of all Proteaceae have been traced in the fossil record back to Gondwana, some 75-80 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed amongst them. During the break up of the southern supercontinent, the Proteaceae family separated into two main subfamilies: the Proteoideae, which includes the sugarbush amongst others, and the Grevilleoideae, encompassing the banksia, grevillea and macadamia.

Sugarbush first caught the eye of plant hunters during the 1700s. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew appointed a Scottish gardener, Francis Masson, as its first official botanical collector to the Cape of Good Hope in 1772. Masson sent seeds back to England, which were planted and tended under the eye of Sir Joseph Banks. But flowers were also cut, dried and sent out across Europe for their decorative appeal earlier than that. And by 1885 at least one species of sugarbush was available from plant nurseries in Adelaide!

The appeal of the sugarbush is evident in its shapely flower heads with their downy, pink skins; in the massive bowl-shaped inflorescences of the king protea (Protea cynaroides); and in the blushed mood of other forms.

Emma Perry captures all this innuendo in her brilliant photo series below. So make sure no-one else is looking… and scroll on.

All images taken at Peninsula Wild Flower. Thank-you to Dawn Allen and Julie Smith for their generosity!

King protea.
King protea.
King protea.
'Little Prince', a compact form of the king protea.
'Possum Magic', Protea magnifica x longifolia.
King protea.
King protea.