Shuttlecock sugarbush (Protea aurea)

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderProteales
FamilyProteaceae
GenusProtea (1)
SizeHeight: up to 5 m (2)

Subspecies Protea aurea potbergensis is classified as Near Threatened (NT) and Protea aurea aurea is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the Interim Red Data List of South African Plant Taxa 2007 (3).

The Protea family is South Africa’s best known plant family (4), and contains an incredible diversity of flowering plants, from low shrubs to trees, and thus was named after the Greek sea god, Proteus, who possessed the ability to take on any form (5). The shuttlecock sugarbush is a large, erect shrub reaching a height of up to five metres (2) (4), with oblong to egg-shaped leaves (2). The most distinctive feature of this species is undoubtedly the shuttlecock-shaped flower heads, measuring 30 to 120 millimetres long, formed from a multitude of small flowers clustered closely together. Modified leaves encircling the flower heads are pink to creamy green (2).

Endemic to the Cape Floristic Region, a ‘hot-spot’ of plant diversity in south-western South Africa (2). Subspecies P. a. potbergensis is found only on the Potberg Mountains (4).

The shuttlecock sugarbush grows on cool, sandstone, generally south-facing, slopes (2) (6).

The shuttlecock sugarbush bears its distinctively shaped flower heads from January until June (2). The tiny flowers, or florets, in the centre of the flower head may produce male and female reproductive organs (stamens and pistil) and nectar, while those around the outside are sterile and so act solely as advertisements (7). This spectacular bouquet attracts birds, such as orange-breasted sunbirds (Anthobaphes violacea), which come to feed on the nectar, but simultaneously benefit the plant by carrying out pollination, as pollen rubs on and off the bird’s forehead or bill (7) (8).

The seeds of the shuttlecock sugarbush are dispersed by the wind (4). Fires that occur within their habitat kill the plant, but the seeds are able to withstand such temperatures, and survive to start a new generation (4). Many Protea species have developed a way of avoiding the summer drought by delaying seed germination until autumn, but not the shuttlecock sugarbush; the seeds may begin germinating in early summer and this species has no summer-avoiding dormancy period (9).

The subspecies P. a. potbergensis is classified as Near Threatened (3), presumably due to its restricted location. This subspecies occurs within a nature reserve, (a protected area), but the natural habitat of this area still faces the severe threat of infestations of invasive plants, particularly rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and Port Jackson (Acacia saligna) (10). While the shuttlecock sugarbush, as a species, is not considered threatened, urban expansion and agriculture pose a threat to the habitat of the Cape Floristic Region (11), to which this species is confined.

Within the Cape Floristic Region there are a number of protected areas (12), and a number of conservation organisations are working to conserve this botanically rich habitat (13) (14). One of these, De Hoop Nature Reserve, contains the endemic population of the subspecies P. a. potbergensis; however, as mentioned above, while this may protect against the threats of encroaching agriculture and urbanisation, invasive species still pose a threat (10).

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

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Goldblatt, P. and Manning, J. (2000) Cape Plants: A Conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa. National Botanical Institute of South Africa, Pretoria .
  3. Threatened Species Programme. (2007) Interim Red Data List of South African Plant Taxa. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. Available at:
    http://www.sanbi.org/biodiversity/reddata.htm
  4. Protea Atlas Project (February, 2008)
    http://protea.worldonline.co.za/sugar3.htm
  5. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Protea Information Sheet (February, 2008)
    http://www.kew.org/ksheets/
  6. Paterson-Jones, C. and Manning, J. (2007) Ecoguide Fynbos. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa.
  7. The Private Life of Plants(BBC tx. 1995).
  8. Cowling, R. and Richardson, D. (1995) Fynbos. South Africa’s Unique Floral Kingdom. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, South Africa.
  9. Bond, W.J. (1984) Fire survival of Cape Proteaceae – influence of fire season and seed predators. Plant Ecology, 56(2): 65 - 74.
  10. Government of the Republic of South Africa. (2003) Nomination of the Cape Floral Region of South Africa for Inclusion on the World Heritage List. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South Africa.
  11. Rouget, M., Richardson, D.M., Cowling, R.M., Lloyd, J.W. and Lombard, A.T. (2003) Current patterns of habitat transformation and future threats to biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. Biological Conservation, 112: 63 - 85.
  12. UNEP-WCMC: Cape Floral Protected Areas of South Africa (February, 2008)
    http://www.unep-wcmc.org/sites/wh/pdf/CAPE%20FLORAL%20REGION.pdf
  13. Conservation International: Biodiversity Hotspots (February, 2008)
    http://www.biodiversityhotspots.org/xp/hotspots/cape_floristic/Pages/default.aspx
  14. Fauna and Flora International (February, 2008)
    http://www.fauna-flora.org/fynbos.php