Wednesday, October 10, 2018
In the Field: Protea Aurea
Protea aurea’s most distinctive feature is undoubtedly the shuttlecock-shaped flower heads, measuring about 3 to 5” long, forming from a multitude of small flowers clusters ... hence the common name Shuttlecock sugarbush. Aurea starts to flower in early fall when little else is blooming in the field. Leaves are oval and egg-shaped at the base. They are grey-green, soft and velvety when young. This is to protect the delicate soft leaves from drying out in the sun and from being eaten by wild animals. After the first year, the leaves harden and develop a waxy coating. The hairs disappear, and a smooth leaf surface remains.
The flowers bloom at the top of branches. Buds are cylindrical and when tightly closed resemble a candle. The outer bracts are cream-colored at the tip of the flower changing to green-brown at the base of the flower. When the bud begins to open, the bracts expand outwards and bend outwards. This exposes the many flowers within which stand straight up.
Until recently, Protea aurea has had a very small distribution range and was only found in the Southern Cape. It was first discovered in 1940 and not found again until 1965. The name, aurea, means golden and it is thought that this name was given in error after seeing a dried bloom, as the flower heads fade to a dull yellow when dry.
Aurea is serotinous, meaning the seeds are held within the dried flower heads on the plant for a long period of time. This protects the seed from being eaten by predators. When there is a fire, the mother plant is abolished, and the flower heads burst open and release the seeds. The seeds fall to the ground and germinate prolifically after the first winter rains.