In search of Proteas.

The Proteaceae evolved over 100 million years ago on the supercontinent Gondwana, the subsequent breakup of which led to the family being distributed across the Southern Hemisphere and resulted in their high levels of speciation. As a perfect example of the Antarctic flora of Gondwana their story is of major importance to paleo-botanists, geologists, botanists and taxonomists alike.

Burnt Protea

Burnt Protea by Barbara Munro

Such a level of speciation has come at a high price for many members of the family. They have evolved to exist in very specific ecological niches. This has led to many members of the family becoming threatened with extinction, especially in a world changing so fast that they are unable to keep up.

South Africa’s Proteaceae are particularly at risk, their lives linked inextricably to highly specific environmental factors. Many of the high altitude species, adapted to cooler growing conditions, less frequent fires and unable to cope with the influx of non-native invasive plants and pests, are at the mercy of the biggest threat to biodiversity, Climate Change. They are being pushed higher and higher up their mountain homes leaving them isolated, eventually with nowhere left to go.

Growing so many species of Proteaceae already, we believe that many species will grow successfully in the UK climate yet many of the higher altitude species have never been tried here. This is largely due to the lack of availability of seed or plants as well as a lack of horticultural knowledge and endeavour.

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK


The largest collection of Proteaceae ever in the UK was that of George Hibbert in his garden, considered at the time finer than Kew, in Clapham, London. Most of the, over 200, species of Proteaceae in this collection were grown in pots in his extensive conservatory; taken outside during the summer months and brought in again for the winter. Collected by James Nevin, as seed from the wild, Hibbert’s plants were exchanged only with George III and Empress Josephine of France and in edition 592 of Curtis’s Botanical magazine published in 1802 it reads “Introduced by Mr Nevin into the garden of Mr Alderman Hibbert, a gentleman whose munificence and urbanity leave to no lover of science a regret that so extensive and invaluable a collection should be the property of a private individual”. Hibbert’s plants were regularly illustrated, often by James Andrews, and furnished the pages of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. He has the honour of having many species named for him and the Genus Hibbertia, in the Dilleniaceae, is named for him also.

Hibbert’s gardener wrote about the Proteaceae in his book published in 1807. This was the last book to be published exclusively and in any detail about the cultivation of Protea in the UK.

September this year will see Ben and I heading off on quite a big adventure. We will realise a dream, long held, to visit the Western Cape of South Africa and see Proteas in the wild. We will follow in the footsteps of Nevin and collect seed of the Proteaceae species we find there.

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

The aim of this trip is to study the habitat and growing conditions of high altitude Proteaceae in the Western Cape of South Africa; to gain information on their horticultural needs and hence facilitate their ex situ conservation in the UK.

We will

  • Explore the cold, high rainfall mountain areas of the Western Cape of South Africa.
  • Analyse growing conditions. Including climate, soil structure and composition.
  • Collect seed of species from these areas.
  • Record location, environment and altitude as well as what other species are growing nearby
  • Upload this data to iSpot so that others can share in our findings easily
  • Cultivate plants arising from seed collected
  • Keep notes on the process and horticulture of resulting plants
  • Analyse the ability to grow these plants in the British climate under varying conditions.
  • Publicise the project and its findings both nationally and internationally, write articles  and blogs about it and the process of growing the plants.
  • Write reports to be made available to interested parties, including the Royal Horticultural Society, The Scottish Rock Garden Club, the Botanical Society of South Africa, BGCI, Cape Nature and SANBI.
  • Raise awareness of the difficulties faced by South Africa’s native flora as well as providing suggestions on which species are more suitable for UK horticulture.

Of course we will be tweeting from the expedition using the @fossilplants twitter account.

I hope the information we gain will act as a valuable update to the work of Hibbert over 100 years ago and I really hope it benefits the plants which Ben and I adore so much.

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro


Our expedition would not be possible if it wasn’t for the team at Cape Nature: who have helped us so much with getting all the relevant permits and permissions, Rupert Koopman: who has advised and helped us all along the process, The Royal Horticultural Society and The Scottish Rock Garden Club: for their generous financial help and Martin Smit, of Stellenbosch University Botanic Gardens, for his support and encouragement.

Thank-you, also, to Barbara Munro for the stunning pictures that illustrate this blog. Barbara’s work can be found at and will be on show at Annual Open Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists. It is held in Westminster Central Hall 15th to 24th April 2016