Global warming is coming to your living room, your dining room, your kitchen, anywhere you decorate with cut flowers. And maybe to your medicine chest. Changes in climate and land use are snuffing out plants critical to the worldwide floral trade, and perhaps to new treatments for diseases: proteas.
Proteas such as the king protea, which measures 12 inches across and is the national flower of South Africa, are under fire. Researchers conducting a study of proteas near Cape Town estimate that the plants’ abundance will decrease by more than 60 percent by 2050. Some protea species will become extinct. Others already have.
Winter rains will soon fall over Cape Town. But when August and September arrive, proteas bloom in riotous color. On steep, rocky slopes strewn with lichen-covered chunks of granite, the flame-red and magenta-pink flowers dot the hillsides. They attract hordes of tourists and provide jobs for thousands of South Africans who gather proteas for the worldwide cut-flower industry.
Visitors and florists are joined in the lab if not the field by biochemists like Johannes van Staden of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Van Staden has conducted initial studies of proteas’ anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. “It’s amazing that so little is known about proteas’ potential to produce new drugs,” he says. The results to date, however, echo what traditional healers have believed for centuries: protea extracts may be helpful in treating intestinal inflammation, food poisoning and related illnesses.
With their vase-shaped bracts surrounding pencil-thin flowers, proteas resemble nothing so much as sea anemones. The plants are named for the Greek sea god, Proteus, who could change his form at will. Indeed, there’s a protea in almost any shape you can imagine. For now.
In a region where average temperatures have significantly warmed over the past 30 years and suburbs are sprawling up hillsides, Cape Town’s most unusual flowers are besieged, says ecologist Lee Hannah of Conservation International. “In response, proteas are moving uphill themselves, to cooler spots with less development,” says Hannah, lead scientist on the Cape Town protea study.
Many species have such tiny ranges that plowing a field or building a single house can wipe out the global population. More than half the world’s several hundred protea species are threatened. Most live in South Africa. Several are found in Australia, and some have been transplanted to Hawaii’s steep-sided volcanic slopes.
Proteas are the keystone species of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but richest of Earth’s six floral kingdoms. The Cape Floral Kingdom, Hannah says, “is the size of a postage stamp, comparatively speaking. But it has the highest plant biodiversity anywhere on the planet.” Some 9 000 plant species, 6 000 of which live nowhere else in the world, are found there. Table Mountain in Cape Town, for example, supports some 2 200 species, more than the entire United Kingdom.
Evergreen, leathery-leaved plants in what’s called the fynbos ecosystem cover mountains, valleys and coastal plains near the Cape of Good Hope. “Amazingly, proteas thrive in the nutrient-poor soils and high winds,” Hannah says. For a short summer season, proteas are laden with flowers that look like they might have arrived from a faraway galaxy. In fact, proteas came not from another place, but another time. They’re remnants of the distant past, when Africa, Australia, India, South America and Antarctica existed as one landmass: Gondwana. Proteas once thrived on Gondwana. Today members of the protea family live oceans apart.
The last of Earth’s proteas grow in places known as hot spots. “Hot spots are regions with large numbers of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, and that have had more than 70 percent of their habitat destroyed,” Hannah says. “The last thing these species-rich, high-habitat-loss areas need is another threat, but that’s what climate change presents.” As Earth’s climate warms, species will try to keep pace, moving to their preferred temperature ranges. Protea seeds are carried on the wind to new locations. Those that root in cooler areas will survive.
Of the more than 300 species of proteas near Cape Town, nearly all will have to shift their ranges by 2050, Hannah believes. Conservation plans that allow species to relocate may be an answer. “Most of our efforts focus on parks, which are fixed in place,” says Hannah. “However, when a species starts to move, we need a ‘park’ not only where that species is today, but where it will be in the future.”
As part of the Protea Atlas Project at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, biologists Guy Midgley and Tony Rebelo, with the help of dozens of field volunteers, have collected extensive information on Cape Town’s proteas. “So far, we’ve discovered eight new species in the protea family,” Midgley says, “and one-third of protea species well outside their previously known distribution ranges.” New proteas include the Palmiet River sceptre, clandestine spiderhead, and Laingsburg conebush. The large-leaf sugarbush, already familiar to botanists, was found 160 kilometers beyond its formerly documented range, “and the waterlily sugarbush a stunning 400 kilometers farther afield,” says Midgley. “Proteas are full of surprises.”
The Greek god Proteus could predict the future. However, Proteus did not willingly part with the information. He simply changed his shape and escaped. Midgley says that vigilance is needed so the fynbos doesn’t witness more proteas vanish.
Sherry Moretti, a floral designer for an international hotel group, agrees. “I once wanted something breathtakingly gorgeous for a special hotel opening,” she says. “On that evening, proteas lined the entrance, bedecked the foyer, and graced every table. I can’t imagine a planet without proteas. They welcome you through the portal, and into another world.”
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