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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.

This is a trick question. The Family is not named after Proteus. The genus is! A plant family is named after a typical genus by adding the ending -aceae. This is a recent rule and the source of the name changes in certain families. Thus Leguminosae should be Fabaceae (Family of the Pea (Faba), there being no genus Legumin). The same applies to the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae, Apium), Asteraceae (Compositae, Aster), Brassicaceae (Cruciferae, Brassica), Lamiaceae (Labiatae, Lamium) and Poaceae (Graminae, Poa). In all of these cases both names is acceptable. Protea Atlas Logo

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:
_ Under Protea argentea Linnaeus describes some six forms, labelled alpha, beta, gamma etc., which today include L. argenteum, L. salignum and L. xanthoconus. Linnaeus recognized only two species of Protea: P. argentea, with six variants, and P. fusca [= L. levisanus], with three variants.
_ Linnaeus did not know that Conebushes were dioecious (had separate male and female plants). Thus he considered males of L. xanthoconus as being equally different from females of L. xanthoconus and specimens of the other species. Some fifty years later botanists were still ignorant of the sexual character of Conebushes and were describing male and female plants as separate species.
_ Linnaeus may have been duped by Boerhaave's illustrations into thinking that the Sugarbush head (genus Leucadendron sensu Linnaeus) produced in its centre the cones of a Conebush (genus Protea sensu Linnaeus). Thus the head of (in todays usage) Protea aurea gave rise to the cone of Leucadendron pubescens. Truly a magnificent change in form - unknown in all other plants. Remember, Linnaeus had probably never seen live plants - his entire knowledge of the family was based on Boerhaave's illustrations.

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!

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