Search for rare protea

The plan is to bring this protea back from extinction.

Drawings of an extinct protea were the only evidence that it had once existed but there are now hopes that seeds of the species are buried under pine trees on a Wynberg farm and will be stimulated once burned.

The farm had started clearing some pines which had fallen along its periphery fence along the M3 but decided last year to remove the invasive pines on the rest of the farm.

The farm owner is now partnering with conservation groups to recover the seeds of the Wynberg conebush, Leucadendron grandiflorum that may be buried there.

The pines, Pinus radiata, a coniferous conifer from south-western north America, spread by seeds, invade fynbos, forest clearings, grasslands, usually on moist mountain slopes. It is category 2 on the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) as it competes with and replaces indigenous species.

Dense stands can reduce water run-off and stream flow from mountain catchments, reduce grazing, and pose a fire hazard which threatens the survival of indigenous animal and plant species. Therefore landowners control the trees and are only allowed to grown Pinus radiata with a permit, available from the Department of Environmental Affairs.

And so, in clearing the pines along the periphery fence, the decision was made in late 2016 to remove pines growing on the rest of the farm.

It was at this stage that the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET), based in Westlake, stepped in. The land is one of the few remaining areas of Cape granitic soil, home to silvertrees, Leucospermum argenteum, seen growing on this granite band from Lion’s Head in the north to Tokai in the south. Almost all of the land has been transformed and there is hardly any natural vegetation remaining.

According to CTEET’s CEO Dr Anthony Roberts, there are three recorded extinctions of proteas where plants have not been seen in the past 50 years.

“We are partnering with the City of Cape Town’s Biodiversity Branch and the landowner to try and recover one of these lost proteas. Approximately 2.6 hectares of this private land has been under pines for the past 70 years and having been cleared, will be burned under controlled conditions with the hopes of stimulating the seeds of the extinct Wynberg conebush, Leucadendron grandiflorum, that may potentially lie buried within the soil”, says Dr Roberts.

He says the plants were last seen in 1806 and little is known of them. “Records indicate that seeds were collected by botanical collector James Niven around 1800, but details of the seeds and their dormancy are unknown and the whereabouts of the collected seeds remains a mystery,” he says.

According to the Illustrated Dictionary of Southern African Plant Names, leukos is as Greek word meaning white, dendron is tree; referring to commonly called “witteboom” or silver.

According to the Protea Atlas Project, which records all South African species within the Proteaceae family, L. grandiflorum was described in 1806 from only one male plant growing in amateur botanist George Hibbert’s garden in England. No herbarium specimen has been located and the description and the drawings are the only existing evidence that this species once lived.

Dr Roberts said the Wynberg Hill site is presently being prepared for the planned ecological burn which they hope can take place mid-May. They will clear alien vegetation that will most likely show its face and also conduct regular flora surveys in the hopes of rediscovering this remarkable species and possibly others not yet described.

BLOB The Protea Atlas Project states that we are on the verge of losing our proteas. More than one-third of our protea species are listed in the Red data book of plants, which lists species threatened or potentially threatened by mankind. Among our proteas, some 35 species are considered to be “endangered with extinction”, and a further 46 species are “vulnerable to extinction”. The former category is used for species in imminent danger of extinction, whereas the latter is used for species that will become extinct if the threats to which they are exposed continue unabated. Another 76 species are listed as “rare” because their small population or limited distribution range would make them vulnerable if their habitat were to be developed or transformed in any way.

Another proteaceae thought to be extinct is Mace pagoda, Mimetes stokoei. Once prolific in the Highlands State Forest above Kleinmond it became extinct after over-picking but seedlings of this species came up after a fire after 70 plus years.

The Wolseley conebush, Leucadendron spirale, is also thought to be extinct due to its habitat in the Breede River and Wolseley being mostly ploughed up.