Introduction to ‘proteas With Altitude’

The Proteaceae are a large, charismatic family of flowering plants, commonly known as proteas and mainly found growing in the southern hemisphere. Named after the Greek, shape shifting, god Proteus, they come in a vast range of different forms. In 2015, an initial expedition was undertaken to study wild plants and collect seeds of Proteaceae, growing at high altitude, in the Western Cape of South Africa. Thirty species were collected as seed to be studied at Fossilplants’ research nursery facilities in North Wales. A second expedition’s (2017) aim was to explore more remote, mountainous terrain, to discover and investigate the habitat and growing conditions as well as to collect species not yet in cultivation and to bring into cultivation higher altitude material of those already grown. During this second expedition 43 species were collected, 16 being new to the ‘proteas with Altitude’ project and 6 being new to cultivation altogether.

Mimetes hottentoticus. Mimetes is one of the genera being researched by the 'proteas With Altitude' project

Mimetes hottentoticus. Mimetes is one of the genera being researched by the ‘proteas With Altitude’ project

Through these collections, FossilPlants is making steps towards meeting international conservation targets as well as increasing local botanical knowledge in South Africa. The IUCN’s Technical Guidelines on the Management of Ex-situ Populations for Conservation states that ‘Ex situ conservation should be initiated only when an understanding of the target taxon’s biology and ex situ management and storage needs are at a level where there is a reasonable probability that successful enhancement of species conservation can be achieved; or where the development of such protocols could be achieved within the time frame of the taxon’s required conservation management, ideally before the taxa becomes threatened in the wild. Ex situ institutions are strongly urged to develop ex situ protocols prior to any forthcoming ex situ management.

For those threatened taxa for which husbandry and/or cultivation protocols do not exist, surrogates of closely related taxa can serve important functions, for example in research and the development of protocols, conservation biology research……’ Through creating cultivation protocols for both endangered and less threatened species ‘proteas with Altitude’ works towards achieving the goals of this statement.

Species of Proteaceae can take between 5 and 15 years to reach reproductive maturity and as such the nursery facilities in which they are grown will develop alongside the long-term requirements of the plants. The intention is that plants will be distributed to other botanical collections over time and formal agreements with RBG;Kew, RHS Garden Wisley and Logan Botanic Garden have been set up in order for their horticulture to be studied in a variety of climates and locations. This will also allow these botanical collections, the nursery site and garden to be used for the study of the widest possible range of species of high altitude Proteaceae species as new seed collections are made.

The conservation research nursery site from which ‘proteas with Altitude’ is run also allow the propagation of a range of other plants; the sale of which will secure future funding of the project. Plant sales will also assist with funding the ex-situ conservation efforts to reintroduce to the wild the endangered Iris lortetii, in association with Tel-Aviv University Botanic Gardens.

An annual project report will be published, which will be submitted to all concerned parties including CapeNature (the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board), the RHS and the wardens in the reserves in which we have worked. The project has been lucky in receiving promotion in both the horticultural and mainstream press, including through social media. The project has been supported by the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, The Royal Horticultural Society and the Scottish Rock Garden Club alongside a successful crowd funding project and has been achieved in partnership with Stellenbosch University Botanic Gardens.