Scientific name: Protea scolymocephala
Plant type: Evergreen shrub
Environment: Full sun, well drained, sandy soil
Bloom: Cream-green flowerheads tinged with pink
Uses: Specimen plant
South Africa – 27K, 32C, 40E
Thistle protea (Protea scolymocephala) is a shrub native to the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It is a small shrub with cream-green flowerheads tinged with pink. In its native range it is found in coastal lowland areas and is pollinated by birds and rodents.
The specific epithet scolymocephala references the flowerheads’ similarities to those of the genus of Scolymus, a thistle-like plant in the Asteraceae family. The flowerhead of the species is also where the common name thistle protea or sugarbush comes from.
In the Cape Provinces in South Africa, fire is a natural part of the fynbos ecosystem and Protea scolymocephala has adapted to this. The flowerheads are serotinous, meaning that they will release their seeds only after being burned. When a fire occurs in the plants’ habitat, the plant will burn, but the flowerhead with seeds will open up and the seeds will be released, creating a seed bank in the soil that will germinate during the next rainy season. The seeds are dispersed by wind, which is aided by hairs on the individual seeds. These hairs also help to anchor the seeds in the soil.
Though fire is a regular part of the fynbos habitat there needs to be enough of a break in between fires for new populations to develop and set their own seeds. If fires occur too frequently there is not enough time for this to happen. If fires take place too infrequently, however, the plants’ reproductive abilities will diminish over time. As a result, groups such as South African National Parks undertake prescribed burns in order to maintain this ecosystem and species such as Protea scolymocephala.
The wild population of thistle sugarbush is currently in decline and is considered Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which assesses the global extinction risk for plant species, as well as animals and fungi. Though the thistle sugarbush is well adapted to its environment, it experiences threats due to pressures such as invasive plant species and habitat degradation due to agricultural and urban expansion.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Victoria Stewart.