Proteas are particularly associated with the Western Cape, but some members of this family can also be found on our high-lying ground. Protea parvula is one of the hidden gems of the Reserve.
By Gerrit van Ede
When you mention proteas, the average person will think of those beautiful shrubs or small trees of the winter rainfall area in South Africa. The King Protea, Protea cynaroides, comes to mind. Most people are surprised to see the lovely Protea roupelliae, Silver Sugarbush, in flower on Verloren Valei.
This protea could even be considered as a small tree as it can grow as tall as 8m. At Verloren Valei they grow only to about 3m in height owing to the cold. Typically, they grow in small colonies, normally below a ridge that gives them some shelter.
A protea that is much less noticeable is the dwarf creeping protea, Protea parvula (Dainty Sugarbush). This a real gem with its fairly large white to rose and even nearly red-coloured flowers up to 100mm in diameter.
Protea parvula prefers to grow on rocky ridges in sour grassland. Its distribution is fairly limited in Mpumalanga and Swaziland, with its centre in the Lydenburg/ Mashishing – Dullstroom area. The plants are well adapted to fire in winter due to the formations of a woody underground rootstock. The thin stems quickly grow in spring from this rootstock with leaves only on one side of the stem. Flowers are produced at the tip of these stems from December till March, with a peak flowering at Verloren Valei around the middle of December.
Protea parvula has thin stems, similar in dimensions to those of Protea simplex. However, Protea simplex has upright stems while P. parvula has creeping stems. They both fall in the section Leiocephalae, as does the third Protea that occurs on Verloren Valei, Protea caffra, the Common Sugarbush. Hybrids of P. parvula and P. caffra can be found on Verloren Valei, but finding P. caffra is far more difficult as the plants are very stunted at Verloren Valei and do not resemble the normal large shrub or small tree that we see at lower altitudes.
The name Sugarbush for all proteas is derived from the Afrikaans name Suikerbos; this name was originally given to Protea repens due to its copious nectar from which a sweet syrup was obtained, bossiestroop. The botanical name derives from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his form at will.
According to SANBI’s Red List of Plants, Protea parvula is near threatened.