Protea Atlas Logo
  Overview of Project
  Project Staff
  Checking, Illustrations
  Upcoming Activities
  Id and  Species Lists
  Protea Information
  Protea Gallery
  Growing Proteas
  Interim Dist. Maps
  Afrikaanse Inligting


A Guide to the Genera

The genera of southern African Proteaceae can most readily be recognized by their characteristic flowerheads.  Other features which can be used to check identification include the leaves,  perianth segments,  floral  bracts  and,  when available, seeds.  The key provided will identify the genus of any specimen of southern  African Proteaceae without any difficulty.

1. Flowers in twos per floral bract, two seeds per flower  ........... 2.

1' Flowers single per floral bract, one seed per flower ........... 3.

 2. Leaves in starlike whorls of 6, flowers in dense spike-like racemes, a large,  resprouting,  riverine tree........... Genus  BRABEJUM

2' Leaves alternating down the stem, flowers in little clusters in terminal leaf axils, fruit are hard,  round follicles which split into two halves to release two winged seeds........... Genus  HAKEA

 3. Sexes on separate plants: female plants with cones and male plants with smaller fluffy cones or bright yellow, spike-like racemes with stalks........... 4.

3' Sexes on the same  plant: no male and female flowers, cones never present ........... 5.

 4.  Flowerheads in female plants comprised of conspicuous cones,  formed by woody bracts subtending the florets.  The cone base is covered by an involucre of small,  brown basal bracts.  Leaves below flowerhead larger and more colourful than other leaves.  Males similar to females but without woody bracts ........... Genus  LEUCADENDRON

4'  Flowerhead in female plants cup-shaped,  formed by flattened branchlets resembling woody bracts,  surrounding 7-15 flowers on a short column.  Male flowerheads consisting of bright yellow,  spike-like racemes on a short peduncle ........... Genus  AULAX

 5. Leaves divided into many needle-like lobes........... 6.

5' Leaves entire, tip often toothed, not divided into needle-like lobes........... 7.

6. Divided needle-like leaves with a flat upper edge, often dimorphic with both a needle and flat leaf form.  Flowerheads of several small heads (capitula) each containing four flowers, arranged in terminal spikes........... Genus  PARANOMUS

6' Divided needle-like leaves round in cross-section, never dimorphic.  Many-flowered flowerheads in loose terminal clusters or in dense racemes........... Genus  SERRURIA

7. Flowerheads comprised of several small heads (capitula),  each being 1-9 flowered,  involucres grouped into a terminal lax panicle or raceme.  Usually small shrubs........... 8.

7' Flowerheads either a many-flowered spike or capitulum, not a compound capitulum, or, if compound, then consisting of many axillary capitula with leaves clearly separating capitula........... 9.

8. Flowerhead small, globose or cylindrical, a panicle comprising many 4-9 flowered involucres. Perianths straight in bud, all four perianth lobes equal.  Fruit usually glabrous........... Genus  SOROCEPHALUS

8' Flowerhead usually elongate, a raceme of 1-3 flowered involucres. Perianth unequal in bud, the top perianth segment larger and ladle-shaped.  The pollen presenter is conspicuously spoon-shaped.  Fruit hairy ........... Genus  SPATALLA

9. Flowers in terminal or axillary capitula........... 10.

9' Flowerhead a lax spike, with sessile flowers on a lengthened axis.  Trees.  Leaf margins undulate. ........... Genus  FAUREA

10. Perianth not separating into 3 fused and one free segments, or if so, then involucral bracts inconspicuous ........... 11.

10' Capitula surrounded by large, often colourful, involucral bracts, perianth consisting of three fused segments and one free segment. Leaves with thickened edge, never toothed........... Genus  PROTEA

11. Flowerheads axillary, surrounded by large, highly coloured involucral bracts, sometimes hidden by leaves ........... 12.

11' Flowerheads not surrounded by large, highly coloured involucral bracts, if involucral bracts present then green or papery in texture........... 13.

12.  Flowerhead compound, consisting of many axillary capitula with brightly  coloured involucral bracts, each capitula subtended by a leaf which may exceed the involucral bracts in length and take over the bright-colour display function........... Genus  MIMETES

12' Flowerhead simple, pedunculate, axillary, with brightly coloured large involucral bracts........... Genus  OROTHAMNUS

13. Flowerheads axillary,  not very small,  with prominent styles protruding well beyond the perianth ........... Genus  LEUCOSPERMUM

13' Flowerheads terminal, floral bracts becoming large and woody after pollination, hypogynous scales  present ........... Genus  VEXATORELLA

13" Flowerheads very small, terminal, with an involucre of thin, non-descript, papery bracts, hypogynous scales usually absent ........... Genus  DIASTELLA

Genus  FAUREA Harvey:    The Beechwood Trees

The genus Faurea is characterized by the flowers borne on spikes.  All species in Africa are trees and occur in savanna and forest habitats.  The leaves are lanceolate, and vary in size between the species.  The perianth parts are all fused at the base into a tube, with one perianth segment free distally.  The ovary is covered by long silky hairs.  The fruit are hairy and have persistent styles.

Genus  PROTEA L.:    The Proteas  

The genus Protea is easily recognized by the involucral bracts which surround the flowerheads (hereafter refered to as heads), the florets with three completely fused and one totally free perianth parts, and hairy, woody fruit almost indistinguishable from the ovaries.  Additional features include a long narrow pollen presenter almost always joined to the style by a knee‑joint, leaves which vary from linear to broad blades with simple tips, thickened red or yellow edges with a black mucron on the tips; perianth parts often with awns and densely aggregated into tight heads; involucral receptacle hard, woody and showing clear spirals when florets are removed.

The generic name Protea is a conserved name.  In its historically correct treatment it should be the genus of the Silver Tree (now Leucadendron argenteum).  Strictly, using the rule of priority, the correct name for what we call Protea is Leucadendron L.   However, the two names were swopped in 1810 and are now firmly established.

Genus  AULAX Berg.:  The Featherbushes

Aulax is characterized by having male and female plants, by the female plants bearing a female flowers and fruit in a woody cupule formed by short incurved branches, and male plants bearing male flowers in  lax, terminal, spike‑like racemes.  The female florets have the perianth fused with the ovary, all four perianth segments free and linear staminodes.  The male florets have perianth limbs united to form a basal tube with symmetrical free lobes, and a conspicuously thick style apex functioning as the  pollen presenter.  Hypogynous scales are absent in both sexes.  The fruit is an compressed obovoid achene, truncate at the base and with long, dense, white long hairs, largely confined to the edges and the median ridge.

As in Protea,  and unlike Leucadendron, the majority of fruit contained in a Featherbush cone are duds ‑ viable seeds may be found in only 5 per cent of fruit,  although usually there are many more than this.

Genus  SERRURIA Salisb.:  The Spiderheads

The genus Serruria can easily be recognized by their dissected leaves which have cylindrical segments.  The flowers are subtended by a conspicuous bract, and consist of four free perianth segments united only at their bases.   Flowers are grouped  into flowerheads which may usually be discerned as a lax or dense raceme of terminal clusters of florets, or only a single terminal cluster of florets.  Involucral bracts (surrounding the terminal clusters) are infrequent and loosely arranged on the stem below the terminal cluster of florets.  The fruit is a small hard nut, sparsely covered with hair and containing a basal elaiosome.

Spiderheads are largely confined to the winter rainfall area and extend as far east as Mossel Bay along the coast.

The Spiderheads were last revised in 1912, and therefore their taxonomy is certainly outdated.  New species have been discovered and described and several more await description.  Furthermore, those species described in 1912 are not all valid.  The species accounts below outline the species as I currently understand them, and must be considered preliminary.  Spiderheads form two major groups (the solitary capitulum group and the multi‑headed racemose group) which may in fact comprise two genera.  Hopefully, Dr John Rourke will revise the genus within the next ten years.

Genus PARANOMUS:  The Scepters

The genus Paranomus is best distinguished by its leaves which vary from entire to dissected.  The dissected leaves have a grooved dorsal surface ending in a mucron, and are always slightly curled upwards.  The 'entire' leaf morph is unfortunately not found in all species, but in the species in which it occurs, it is characteristic of older branches, especially those bearing flowerheads.  These leaves do not have a netowork system of veins like other protea leaves, but a simple parallel venation similar to primitive plants.  The flowerheads are spike‑like, with every bract containing a set of four flowers, each subtended by its own leathery bract.  These bracts become woody with age, forming tiny round shells.  The florets contain four free perianth segments, which are usually hairy on the outer surface.  The ovary is surrounded by stiff, white hairs, and the style may be hairy or hairless.  The fruits are a smooth nut, surrounded by a ring of hairs at the base and containing a persistent style.

The identification of the 18 Paranomus species requires a X10 magnification hand lens, although groups may easily be discerned.  Important features for the identification of Paranomus species include the position, length and density of hairs on the style, the size, shape and number of flowers in the spikes, and the leaf shape and size.

Genus SOROCEPHALUS R.Br.: The Powderpuffs

The genus Sorocephalus is easily recognized by its globose flowerheads, consisting of numerous heads (involucres) each consisting of 4‑9 florets, subtended by inconspicuous bracts.  The perianth is symmetrical, and fused for the lower half.  The perianth is straight in the bud, short (8‑25 mm), and styles are straight and filiform.  Leaves are simple, small, either needle‑like or with a groove on the upper surface.  The fruit is a hairless nut with an lobed base. The three main divisions into which the genus is divided are based largely on fruit morphology (which are difficult to find in the field) and leaf shape.  Other features required for distinguishing species are the number of flowers in the flowerheads, the presence of hairs on the perianth limbs, the pollen presenter shape and the shape of the bracts.

The Powderpuffs are extremely badly known.  Many species are known from only a few localities and very few herbarium specimens.  Mountaineers and ramblers could contribute significantly to our knowledge of this genus.

Genus SPATALLA Salisb.: The Spoons

The genus Spatalla is most easily recognized by the undivided leaves, three or one flowered involucres, the perianth which is always curved away from the centre of the involucre, one perianth segment may be much larger than the other three free perianth segments, and by the prominent spoon‑like pollen‑presenter.  Fruit are hairy cylindrical nuts with a truncate and stalked base.  The Spoons are clearly related to the Powderpuffs.  A legacy of their ancestry are the four floral bracts which subtend the 3 or 1 flowered involucres.  Normally one would expect a single floral bract per flower.  Reduction of floral bracts does occur in the Unispoons, but never attains a 1:1 relationship characteristic of the Powderpuffs.

Features used for the identification of Spatalla species include the flowerhead shape and type, the shape, size and hairyness of the bracteoles, the presence of hairs on the style, pollen presenter shape, and various leaf characters.

Genus  LEUCOSPERMUM R.Br.  The Pincushions

The genus Leucospermum is most easily identified by the long styles which protrude from the flowerhead, creating the impression of a pincushion.  The flowerheads are axillary, never terminal, and the involucral bracts are small and inconspicuous.  The three outer perianth segments are partly fused to form a tube at the bottom of the flower, while the forth segment is mostly free and often elongated.  The leaves may have a many‑toothed apex: virtually all Proteaceae with more than three glandular teeth to the leaves are pincushions.  These teeth are apparently nectaries, but their function is unknown.
The hairs on Leucospermum leaves are of two types: long, thin hairs (trichomes) which occur in all other local Proteaceae genera, and short, curly hairs which are confined to pincushions.  These curly hairs give the leaves the appearance of being covered by a thin layer of white or grey wool which can be rubbed off.

Care is needed to distinguish Leucospermum from Diastella and Vexatorella, but the axillary flowerheads, inconspicuous involucral bracts and the partly fused outer three perianth segments are unique to the Pincushions.  With the exception of the Flat‑, Louse‑ and Sandveld‑ Pincushions, Pincushions have large flowerheads which cannot be confused with either the Vexators or the Silkypuffs.

Genus VEXATORELLA Rourke  The Vexators

The genus Vexatorella can most easily be mistaken for a Leucospermum (section Diastelloides), from which it can easily be distinguished by its terminal flowerheads, which may be grouped into a panicle.  The leaves always have a single callus on the tip.  The four perianth segments separate symmetrically and are only fused in the tube region.  Flowers are sweetly scented.  The floral bracts become lignified after flowering, a feature shared with L. secundifolium.  The fruits have a persistent style, and are hairless with an elaiosome surrounding the fruit and forming a little stalk.

Genus DIASTELLA Salisb.  The Silkypuffs

The genus Diastella can easily confused with the smaller Leucospermum species.  Silkypuffs rarely grow taller than one meter.  Their leaves are linear to oval, usually without teeth.  Flowerheads are small, globose, terminal (or both terminal and axillary) capitula, 10‑20 mm in diam..  One to three rows of papery or membranous bracts extend to or beyond the florets, enveloping the flowerhead at base.  The perianth is 6‑10 mm long, and subtended by a linear to filiform floral bract, covered with silky hairs.  All four perianth segments are free almost to the base.  Hypogynous scales are usually absent.  Pollen presenter linear acute.  Fruit is a typical Leucospermum nut.

Genus  MIMETES Salisb. The Pagodas

The genus Mimetes can readily be distinguished from all other Proteaceae by the dense heads of flowers formed by aggregating tubular, axillary, stalkless flowerheads (technically a pseudanthia), each containing 3‑22 (35) florets and subtended by a leaf, into a large cylindrical flowerhead (technically a conflorescence).  The perianth segments are almost entirely free and symmetrical.  The style is hairless and is adorned by a distinctively‑shaped pollen presenter in each species.  Leaves are 1‑3 toothed.  The fruit is ovoid to cylindric, usually hairless to minutely hairy, with a prominent elaiosome at both ends joined by a thin ridge down one end.

The 14 Mimetes species are easy to identify and are readily separated into four major groups.

Genus OROTHAMNUS  Pappe The Marsh Rose

The genus Orothamnus is distinct from all other genera in that the flowerheads are pendulous, and are surrounded by large, hairy, pink involucral bracts, which resemble the petals of a rose.  The Marsh Rose is most closely allied to the Tube Pagodas, with the flowerheads of Orothamnus equivalent to the Mimetes pseudanthia.  The major difference between Orothamnus and Mimetes is that the Marsh Rose has terminal flowerheads, not axillary as in the Pagodas.  The stem then continues growing upwards from an axillary bud, in this fashion several flowerheads may be produced during the flowering season. The genus is confined to the Kogelberg and Kleinmond mountains, with a single population near Hermanus.  There is only one species in the genus.

Genus  LEUCADENDRON  R.Br. The Conebushes

The genus Leucadendron is easily identified by the woody cones borne on some plants in each species, and the plants of separate sexes.  About half the plants (the females) in any population produce cones which bear seeds, whereas male plants bear cones for the short flowering seasons and never produce seed.  Cones consist of spirally arranged floral bracts, which cover and partially hide a floret.  After flowering the bracts become hard and woody, forming the conspicuous fruiting cones.
The perianth segments are fused into a tube with only tips free. In male florets the ovaries are reduced.  In female florets the style is straight or slightly curved, with a large terminal portion, usually with a slit on the top for receiving pollen.
Male plants are usually more branched than female plants and are often slightly larger with smaller leaves and cones.  Male florets are subtended by an inconspicuous floral bract. The perianth segments  are free on top half of floret, but fused into a tube below.  The style is always present, and serves as a pollen presenter, but other female organs are reduced.

The identification of Conebushes is difficult as it relies very heavily on fruit morphology.  Fortunately, many species store their fruit for most of the year in the female cones.  In species which do not store their fruit, cones laying on the ground should be collected if it is intended to identify the species.  In addition, several other characters are required, from both male and female plants, to identify most species.  These include: cone shape and size, the habit of the species and the leaf size, shape and hairyness.

Genus  BRABEJUM L. The Wild Almond

The genus Brabejum is the only naturally occurring African member of the Proteaceae to bear two seeds per flower.  This feature is a characteristic of the Australian Proteaceae to which this species is most closely related.  The genus can also be identified by the florets being borne in dense, spike‑like racemes, florets with long stalks, the leaves in whorls of 4‑6, and the large, densely velvety, almond‑shaped seeds.

Genus HAKEA Schrad.  The Needlebushes

Needlebushes can be recognized by their hard, needle‑shaped leaves, the flowers which are not borne in a head, but generally occur axillary as a few flowers, sometimes grouped into catkins.  The flowers differ from most African Proteaceae in that each flower bears two seeds.  Hard, woody follicles bearing two seeds, protect the seeds from fire.

Back PAN 8