King protea (Protea cynaroides)

Also known as: Giant protea, Mountain-rose sugarbush
GenusProtea (1)
SizeHeight: 35 - 200 cm (2)
Flower head diameter: 12 – 30 cm (2)

This species has yet to be classified by the IUCN.

With its massive, bowl shaped inflorescences, the king protea is one of the most spectacular members of the Proteaceae family, and as a result, has been designated the national flower of South Africa (3).  The king protea is a woody shrub, with thick stems leading to clusters of pink or crimson coloured flowers, arranged into large flower heads that are surrounded by large, narrow, colourful bracts, and flattened, paddle-shaped leaves (2) (4) (5).  The appearance of the king protea varies substantially throughout its range, and an astonishing 81 variants have been used in horticulture (6). However, the variants with pale pink bracts and a silvery sheen are the most familiar, and are widely used as decorative garden plants.  The seed of the king protea is a large nut that is covered in hairs (2).  

The king protea is endemic to the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa, where it is found from Cedarberg in the northwest, to Grahamstown in the east (2).

The king protea grows amongst the fynbos shrubland on mountain ranges between sea level and 1,500 metres (2).

The king protea is a perennial plant that flowers for several months each year (6) (7).  Birds such as sunbirds and sugarbirds, and insects, such as scarab beetles, are attracted by the sweet, sugar-rich nectar and the brightly coloured bracts and styles, and are the main pollinators.  Most flowers are produced on young plants up to five years old, with some plants occasionally flowering up to 15 years of age (6). As the king protea lives in nutrient-deficient soils, only a small proportion of the flowers produce nutrient-rich seeds (2).  These seeds are stored on the plant in fire proof cones, with seeds released, usually after a fire, when the cone dries out.  The seeds of the king protea are dispersed by wind, and germinate after the first heavy autumn rains. The seeds are often consumed, and killed, by birds and mammals.  After fires much of the above ground vegetation is burnt; however the king protea plant persists in an underground bole, from which it will sprout into several stems (6).

Although sparsely distributed, the king protea still occurs throughout a large range, and as a result it is listed as Least Concern on the South African Interim Red Data List (8). However, around 20 percent of king protea habitat has been lost through urbanisation, and habitat conversion for agriculture and plantations (6).  Around urban areas, the natural fires, upon which the king protea is dependant for reproduction, are suppressed, reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.  This is compounded by the introduction of non-native plant species, resulting in increased competition for natural resources (2).

The king protea is restricted to the botanically rich habitat of the Cape Floristic Region, where conservation is a high priority.  Conservation measures currently being undertaken in the region include the restoration of the landscape to its natural state, through the burning and cutting of non-native plants, and the purchasing of land to protect against encroaching urban development and agriculture (9) (10).  At present, only a small proportion of the Cape Floristic Region lies within reserves, and many of the protected areas are privately owned, and tend to be very small, with the level of protection provided variable.  To ensure the preservation of king protea populations, a larger network of protected areas should be established with greater connectivity between reserves (9).  In addition, the conservation organisation Fauna and Flora International are coordinating projects that promote ecologically and financially sustainable cultivation of fynbos plants, to provide long-term, community directed protection of this fragile ecosystem (10). 

For more information on the Cape Floristic Region and its conservation, see: 

For more information on African plants, see:

Authenticated (08/03/10) by Tony Rebelo, Threatened Species Research Unit, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Kirstenbosch, South Africa.

  1. ZipcodeZoo (January, 2010)
  2. PlantZAfrica (January, 2010)
  3. South African Government Information (January, 2010)
  4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (January, 2010)
  5. Blue Planet Biomes (January, 2010)
  6. Rebelo, T. (2010) Pers. comm.
  7. SANBI's Integrated Biodiversity Information System (January, 2010)
  8. Interim Red Data List of South African Plant Taxa (January, 2010)
  9. Cowling, R. and Richardson, D. (1995) Fynbos: South Africa's unique floral kingdom. Fernwood Press, South Africa.
  10. Fauna & Flora International (January, 2010)