Plant story - conserving Protea odorata, an endangered plant species

Efforts to find and conserve populations of Protea odorata date back to the early 1980's when four sites were identified.

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01 Jan 2010

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Protea odorata collecting

Protea odorata habitat (Photo: C. Cowell)

Over recent years, two of the four sites where Protea odorata was known to be found were unfortunately ploughed up for farming and in 1996 one of the two remaining populations were 'accidentally' removed to make way for the widening of the N1 National highway into Cape Town, South Africa.

Only one population of Protea odorata now remains on a farm called Palm Valley with only 17 individual plants now in the wild. The plight of this plant species was bought to the attention of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and its partner Cape Nature Conservation. Through their efforts, the landowner was persuaded to save this remnant patch of natural veld on his land and not flatten it for a housing development.

Seed was collected and sent to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst and further seed and vegetative material was taken for cultivation at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. These plants were grown on for a full year and then returned to a sister site, 5 km away, which is a nature reserve where they will be safe. Planting was done in the dead of winter whilst it was still raining and rather cold (yes it gets cold in South Africa too). Around 30 plants were planted out in 2005; unfortunately the summer of 2005 was extremely hot and dry, and our little plants did not fair too well.

Thus we have bulked up more plants from collections made by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank and are planning to return once again in the cold wet winter to return Protea odorata to the Swartland en masse, with the knowledge that no matter the outcome this plant species is safe from extinction.

Plant facts

Protea odorata is an erect shrub growing up to 1.2m in height with pale cream to pink flowers used in the traditional cut-flower trade. The flowers are the smallest in the genus and flowering is mainly in March and April. The leaves of the bush are thin and linear resulting in a delicate looking shrub.

The plants are killed by fire with only the seeds surviving. The seeds remain on the flower heads and are released after fire. The major threats to this species are from agriculture (wheat and stock farming) and too-frequent fires which kill young seedlings. Plants only produce seed in their third season of growth, and few viable seeds are produced, making seed collection rather difficult.

The preferred habitat is clay bottomlands (often slightly salty) where the sandy soils stop.

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

Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species

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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