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Plant story - finding snow protea

Find out how snow protea (Protea cryophila) was lost and found thanks to the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

Monique McQuillan collecting a seed head (Photo: C. Cowell)

Introducing snow protea

Family - Protaceae
Common name - snow protea

Snow protea (Protea cryophila) is confined to two of the highest peaks in the Cederberg Wilderness area in South Africa. It grows on sandstone soils on rocky ledges and scree slopes. During the winter the plants are covered by snow for weeks. This plant species is listed as Critically Endangered and notorious for not flowering and producing seed.

The flower takes a full year to open, and plants seldom have more than three to four flowers at any one time, while plants can reach 70 years of age. Adult plants are non-resprouting and are killed by fire, which is a major cause of the decline of this species. Global warming is now also a serious threat to this plant as the snow belt is receding rapidly every year and the snow protea cannot keep pace. This protea rarely flowers anymore, as it depends on the snow as a cue, and in recent years the snow fall has been minimal.

Collecting snow protea seeds for conservation

In January of 2005 we received a call from the Cederberg Conservation authorities that both populations were in full flower, so an expedition was then planned to go and collect the seed in July that year. As luck would have it, the Cederberg had one of its highest snowfall the week before our trip was planned, so we set out for the Cederberg mountain, thermal underwear and all!

Over a period of two days we climbed the highest peaks of the mountains in search of Protea cryophila. Leaving our tent at 6 am, at -2°C to start the six hour hike to the top each day left us feeling a ‘little’ tired by the end of it all. However, it was not in vain that we trudged up the steep slopes in two-foot thick snow in the middle of winter. Once on top to our delight we found that all plants had produced three to five flowers each and that most had viable seed.

With collecting bags full of protea seed heads we headed down the now treacherous slopes of Sneeuberg mountain. Alas, one of our team unknowingly dropped a precious bag of seed and left it up on the mountain slopes. Fortunately all was not lost as the following week the Cape Mountain Rescue Team were called out to save a luckless hiker and came across an MSB collecting bag full of protea seed. Fortuitously I am a member of the Rescue Team too, and Stephan, our team leader recognised the collecting bag and returned it to me unharmed. So it is safe to say that this species has been ‘rescued’ more than once from being lost…

Story by Carly Cowell, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town, South Africa | More plant stories

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We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.

Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.

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