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Proteaceae: at the service of Hephaestus or of Poseidon?

According to Greek mythology, Proteus was a god in the service of Poseidon. Living on the island of Pharos near Egypt, he was the sea-god responsible for herding Poseidon's aquatic flocks. When confronted by an ene--my, he had the remarkable gift of being able to adopt different shapes and appearances, similar to the way that proteins made of amino acids can have different forms, which is why proteins are named after him. The proteas, members of the Protea family (Proteaceae), are also remarkable for their variety of forms, and so they too were also named after this Greek god. The members of the Proteaceae, however, are not too keen on water and are often closely linked to fire, and seem to prefer Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea (or Vulcan to Neptune for those who follow Roman mythology).

The members of the Proteaceae do not, of course, change shape. It is just that different species vary greatly in appearance. Certainly, some are clearly pyrophytic (fire-loving), fitting in well with this symbolic affinity towards the fire gods. Furthermore, many prefer dry places, or at least places which are not too wet. This is true of the members of the Proteaceae that grow in the Mediterranean biome, an environment where many of the family's most remarkable species are very much at home.

The Proteaceae are basically southern hemisphere plants. Their distribution area covers Central and South America, the southern half of Africa and Asia, as well as Australasia. With a distribution of this kind, it is understandable that there are nemoral (woodland) species associated with the rain forests, such as the Chilean firebush (Embothrium coccineum), that grow in the so-called Valdivian forests, and the well-known Asiatic and Australian genus Grevillea. The latter has about 200 species, the best-known of which is the silky oak (G. robusta), a large tree that has been widely planted in gardens in temperate climates. Nevertheless, most of them prefer dry conditions with low humidity, and this is true of members of the Proteaceae from the South African and Australian mediterraneans.

In the Australian mediterranean, there are many banksias (Banksia), a genus with about fifty species. The members of the Proteaceae normally produce tubular flowers with four stamens and a protruding style in an inflorescence comparable to the capitulum of composites, an arrangement that is particularly clear in the banksias. The most spectacular must be Banksia coccinea with its inflorescences containing up to a thousand perfectly aligned, fiery red, tubular flowers. Its very reproductive structures loop back on themselves, making the whole thing look rather like a particularly ingenious piece of wickerwork. The equally conspicuous inflorescences of some Banksia species are, however, a vivid sulphur yellow. Even so, their hard, evergreen sclerophyllous leaves remind us that they are Mediterranean plants.

Not only their leaves but also their well-know pyrophytic nature remind us that Banksia are Mediterranean plants. Their fruiting bodies are like heavily reinforced pine cones that can withstand very high temperatures. In fact, high temperatures are required to "persuade" them to release their seeds. This is why Banksia seedlings, which grow into large shrubs, dominate so completely after a fire. Here, Hephaestus is clearly winning the battle against Poseidon.

Australia's mediterraneans have many more genera of the Proteaceae, such as Telopea, Hakea or the famous Macadamia integrifolia, which produces an fatty edible nut, the Macadamia or Queensland nut, that is highly appreciated--which is why it is grown on a large scale both in Australia and Hawaii. However, the Protea family is most abundant in the Cape region. Indeed, the South African mediterranean has a hundred or more species, the most representative members of the family, especially of the genus Protea. Most are trees and shrubs that are tolerant of poor soil conditions and they are highly prized by gardeners.

There are about a hundred species of the genus Protea, all of which grow in sandy siliceous soils. They are characterized by a collar-like ring of large, sometimes brightly colored, bracts that enclose the inflorescence, making them look rather like an artichoke. Protea cynaroides, the most characteristic species and national flower of South Africa, received its specific name because its flower is similar to an artichoke (Cynara scolymus). Incidentally, the very first Cape plant to appear in a botanical book was a Protea, P. neriifolia, in a Flora by C. Clusius published in 1605.

On the other hand, the species of the genus Leucospermum lack floral bracts, but their very prominent styles explain why they are common called pincushions; there are some fifty species, all of which have yellow or red flowers, such as L. cordifolium, L. lineare, and L. cuneiforme. Leucadendron is also an important genus with some eighty species that are dioecious (the individual plants bear either male inflorescences or female inflorescences). The female inflorescences are like a sort of pine cone, while the male ones are surrounded by eye-catching pink or golden yellow bracts. And there are more genera in the Proteaceae, such as Serruria with its laciniate (jagged) leaves and bluish flowers, Mimetes with a bract under each flower, and Aulax.

Many of these South African and Australian members of the Proteaceae are highly valued as ornamental dry flowers, because the floral bracts and the "cones" of some genera are brightly-colored, long-lasting structures, and living up to their family's reputation, they come in a very wide variety of shapes.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
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