Protea cryophila (snow protea)
A mountain shrub with striking flower heads, the snow protea can withstand impressive extremes of temperature.
About this species
Protea cryophila is a Near Threatened shrub, which is notoriously hard to find in flower or producing seed. It survives a wide range of weather conditions, from extremely hot and dry in the summer, to freezing cold and covered by snow for weeks in the winter. When flowers do appear, they take a full year to open, and individual plants seldom bear more than three or four flowers, despite reaching up to 70 years of age. The specific epithet cryophila means 'lover of cold'.
Geography & Distribution
The snow protea is restricted to the Cederberg Wilderness area of South Africa. It grows mainly in the small snow belt of around 25 km in length, and between 1,750 and 1,900 m above sea level, in the Cederberg Mountains. It is confined to two of the highest peaks, and grows in sandstone soils on rocky ledges and scree slopes.
Protea cryophila in situ (Image: C. Cowell, SANBI)
A prostrate shrub forming dense, tufted clumps, the snow protea grows to 0.5 m tall and 1-3 m wide. It has a single main stem and creeping branches. The leathery leaves are 300-500 mm long, 50-70 mm wide, folded lengthwise and are clustered at the tips of branches. The striking flower head is 130-160 mm in diameter. The basal bracts are pointed and reddish-brown. The involucral bracts (leaf-like structures around the edge of the flower head) are pointed, with a white, woolly-haired outer surface and a carmine inner surface. The centre of the flower head, containing the mass of individual flowers, is creamy white to pink. Flowering occurs from January to April.
Threats & Conservation
Adult plants do not re-sprout, and are killed by fire, which is a major cause of the decline of this species. Global warming is now also a serious threat, as the snow belt is receding rapidly every year and the snow protea cannot keep pace. The snow protea rarely flowers now, as it depends on the snow as a cue and in recent years the snowfall has been minimal.
In view of its restricted distribution on high mountains, Protea cryophila is a potential indicator species of adverse climate change.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 21.54 g.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Three.
Kew partners venture through snow to collect seeds
Climbing up the mountain (Image: C. Cowell, SANBI)
In January of 2005, Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership team in South Africa, based at the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in nearby Cape Town, received a call from the Cederberg Conservation authorities to say that two populations of Protea cryophila were in full flower. An expedition was then planned to go and collect the seed the following July. Unfortunately, the area had one of its highest periods of snowfall the week before the collecting trip was planned. However, because this species was then considered Critically Endangered and notorious for not flowering and producing seed, the team set out for the Cederberg Mountains, equipped with thermal underwear!
Over a period of two days the highest peaks of the mountains were climbed in search of the snow protea. Leaving their tents at 6 a.m. each day in temperatures of -2°C to start the six hour hike, the team waded through two-foot thick snow on steep slopes to the peak, making it quite a challenging expedition. However, their efforts were not in vain, as once they reached the top they were delighted to find that the plants had produced three to five flowers each, and that most had viable seed.
With collecting bags full of protea seed heads they headed down the, now treacherous, slopes of Sneeuberg Mountain. One of the 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 the collecting bag full of protea seeds. Fortuitously, as a result of links with the rescue team, they recognised the collecting bag and returned it to the collecting team in good condition.
Attempts to cultivate the snow protea at lower altitudes in more moderate climates have been unsuccessful.
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