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IDM Zimbabwe - Sugarbushes - Protea

Sugarbushes (the term "Protea" is now used internationally for all members of the Protea Family) are easy to identify. The flowerhead is characterized by the flat receptacle with pointed, woody floral bracts (resembling a rasp). These are surrounded by large bracts (called involucral bracts), so that many people mistakingly think that the flowerheads are flowers. The flowers (up to a 1000 per flowerhead) occur on the receptacle, surrounded by the bracts, and are long and wiry, with a basal hairy ovary that forms the woody fruit.

Protea taxonomy from Zimbabwe is a minefield. If you feel strongly that the status of species outlined herein is wrong, don’t waste your time complaining or talking. Do something! I would recommend that you proceed as follows:

  1. Get a permit and collect herbarium specimens from as many populations as you can. This will provide the proof of any ideas you may have. Find a herbarium that will look after your specimens in perpetuo.
  2. Take photographs in the field, and label them carefully. A large part of the problem is that the features we see in the field disappear on the dead, squashed, gray, dusty specimens used by taxonomists. Features that you notice in the field, should also be carefully measured, and recorded, if possible. Remember that they will disappear or become hard to see later in the herbarium.
  3. Look carefully at your specimens and photographs. If your argument is to have any credibility, you will need to show that there are differences between the taxa/species/subspecies that you are trying to distinguish. If you cannot find any features, then there is probably no difference. A rule of thumb is that three unrelated differences is good enough for a species, two or less is good only for a subspecies (no overlap between populations), variety (as separate populations, but not geographically distinct) or form (freak plants or where differences occur within a population). A difference must be measurably different and not overlap much between the taxa concerned.
  4. Go and visit the problem species throughout its distribution. It is all very well to show that a taxon on your farm is different from another on your neighbours, but if the species as a whole is very variable, then you will need to show that the difference on your farm is greater than the normal difference found within the species. Here lies the rub!
  5. Don’t despair! Visit the taxonomists, or invite them round. Present your arguments and listen to theirs. Try and sort out their ideas of what delimits a species – do they rely only on morphological data, or are they proponents of speciation by isolation. It is imperative that we have a single system of classification that everyone feels is accurate and meaningful. On the other hand it is essential that special and distinct local forms be given taxonomic recognition. The argument that there is too much variation or too many local forms is not valid. It is more accurate to say that we do not have enough taxonomists to tackle the task, or that such detailed studies are - at present - a luxury.
    Remember, if it does not have a name it does not exist. Conservationists, horticulturists, ecologists and biogeographers (and through them, politicians, lobbyists and planners) use these names all the time. If you feel that the names are wrong or inadequate, then it is up to you to get them put right. If necessary, do it yourself.

The shortage of taxonomists in the region is a problem. The more ideas, opinions, discussion and interaction the better. We can never have too many taxonomists, whether professional or amateur. It is imperative that you document your opinions, taking care to meticulously record your justification. Science requires that you quantify and categorize your ideas. Remember that gut feel is the first step. The next step is the exploration, using measurements and special features, of proteas, of the country, of Africa. There is no end, no final answer, no ultimate solution. Simply enjoy the voyage of discovery. Do your bit!

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