Common Sugarbush Protea repens, Gewone Suikerkan
A great pity, for the Sugarbush's claim to fame is its "honey" as Thunberg well knew. Its abundant honey was first noted in 1672, but Thunberg was the first to record its medicinal use in 1781. Indeed quantities of nectar in excess of a teaspoon may readily be obtained from a flower head, much more following rain when cupfuls of dilute nectar may be poured out of a single head. Apparently, nectar was collected simply by breaking off flower heads, shaking the contents into a jar, and throwing the "spent" flower heads away. No concept here of conservation, or of coming back a few days later to obtain more nectar from the same flowers. But why should there have been? The Sugarbush occurred in large numbers on the Cape Flats from Cape Town to Paarl and Somerset West - a truly unconquerable resource! Today these populations no longer exist, even in the few remaining undeveloped sites in the area. The collected juice was strained and boiled until the amber liquid formed a thick ruby-red syrup. Originally the syrup was used as a sugar-substitute (hence the names Sugarbush and Suikerkan). However, there are probably very few souls alive who have sampled Protea sugar: so no comparison of Bossiestroop with Sugar Maple Syrup is possible. Of course, the syrup is best recorded for its medicinal properties - namely curing coughs and other chest complaints. The medicinal use probably reached a peak in the early 1800's when it was an essential item in local medicine chests. However, by 1900 the art of making bossiesstroop was apparently lost.
One of the saddest aspects of this species was its early demise on the Cape Flats, where fire wood was in very short supply. One of the largest shrubs on the sandy flats, it must have fueled camp fires for the first two hundred years of European occupation. However, an equally important use of Sugarbush wood was to fuel the lime kilns supplying Cape Town with cement. As early as 1724 the Dutch East India Company was informed that the plant cover of the Cape Flats was failing, and that the area threatened to become a desert. Early attempts at using grasses failed. In 1884 the Forest Department, despondent with planting Pines and Proteas (in what is now known as Pinelands), opted for the quick-growing Australian wattles, gums and hakeas to cover the open flats. By the end of the Second World War almost 15% of the Cape Flats was cultivated under these aliens.
One can only speculate on what effects the demise of this huge nectar source had on the populations of the Cape Sugarbird. If the Sugarbush bloomed in late spring - early summer on the flats, then it would explain why Sugarbirds congregate during summer in large numbers in urban gardens today. Are Sugarbirds far less common today than 200 years ago, when the Sugarbush supplied its summer food source, sustaining the large populations which fed during autumn and winter on the nearby mountain slopes? We will never know!
Nectar is not the only substance produced by the Sugarbush which is used by animals. Bees collect the resin produced on the outsides of the flower heads to seal their nests. This resin seals the bracts so that nectar does not run out of the heads. It also functions as an ant-trap, hindering ants intent on stealing nectar. A large number of insects visit the flower heads, feeding on pollen, nectar, the blossom itself and one another. Even indigenous rats and mice visit the heads for the nectar.
The Sugarbush's significance is not limited to South Africa. It is the first protea to have flowered in cultivation in Europe (at Kew Royal Gardens, ca 1780), and (ca 1890) in Australia, New Zealand and California, countries in which proteas are now important commercial crops.
For 200 years Protea repens was South Africa's national flower. It was not officially proclaimed - it had just grown to that status. On 19 February 1976 Protea cynaroides was proclaimed the official national flower of South Africa. The Sugarbush was usurped from its rightful role, gained through popularity, utility and appeal, by a plant with a bigger flower head.
Few other plants are as well ingrained in our history as is Protea repens. In the words of Fred Michel, a Cape Town dance-band leader, who while picnicking amid Sugarbushes on Lion's Head composed the now world famous song: "Suikerbossie ek wil jou he" (Sugarbush, I want you!).
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