Where is the family name Proteaceae derived from?
The name is taken from the genus Protea. All plant families are named after a genus, which becomes the type genus for the family.
But all this begs the question, which remains: "Why is Protea named after the Greek God Proteus?" Why Proteus? Why not another Greek God? Just what prompted Linnaeus to give this particular name.
John Rourke says, in his 1982 book on Protea, that it was two years later that Linnaeus offered an explanation of his choice: "imo Protea ipso magnis variabili & differente" - Yes, like Proteus himself vastly variable and different. John finds this a most unconvincing argument, and suspected that Linnaeus shrewdly sought to disguise his woefully sketchy knowledge of these unfamiliar plants.
I suggest that Linnaeus
made a blunder and tried to salvage the situation with a contrite
explanation. His blunder was quite simple. Linnaeus had never
seen a Protea or Conebush. His knowledge was confined to plates
in Boerhaave (see back page), who had visited the Cape Peninsula.
Remembering that Linnaeus used the name for the Conebushes, three
important facts are:
What better name to give to a group of plants bewilderingly diverse in leaf shape and size (actually different species), form and structure of flowers (different sexes), which, from a head looking like a Sugarbush transforms into a cone (pure fallacy) typical of this genus. What else but Proteus himself!
As Linnaeus says in his 1853 Genera Plantarum: "variat dein etjam domi mille modis vere Protea" then it changes its home in a thousand ways - truly Protea.
Thus the name Protea was given because of a conceptual misunderstanding. For although Conebushes are variable, they are not especially variable. Although John Rourke romantically alludes that the name might have been given to the variation in the Sugarbushes, this is pure artistic licence: Sugarbushes are irrelevant to the assignment of the name Protea. Who today can comprehend why Linnaeus would assign so splendid and mythical a name, Proteus, to mere Conebushes? Sugarbushes perhaps, but Conebushes? Never! Simply put, Linnaeus was duped by Boerhaave's plates! An error which we all take for granted. An error that has allowed countless people to truly appreciate the magnificence of this wonderful family.
Mistake, or no mistake, Proteus lives on! But if you wish to know what the future portends - don't consult a Sugarbush. Grabba Conebush instead!