For South Africa's Proteas, Change Is Not a Good Thing

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 11, 2005

Global warming is coming to your living room, your dining room, your kitchen, anywhere you decorate with cut flowers.

Changes in climate and land use are killing a population of plants critical to the worldwide floral trade: proteas.

A recent study of hundreds of species of proteas that live only near Cape Town, South Africa, estimates that the plants' abundance will decrease by more than 60 percent by 2050. Some proteas will become extinct. Some already have.

When summer comes to Cape Town, 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.

With their vase-shaped bracts surrounding pencil-thin flowers, "proteas look like sea anemones," said Cheryl Andrews of Orlando, who uses proteas in the floral displays she designs for large hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott. "Proteas are named for the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his form at will. Indeed, there's a protea in any unusual shape you can imagine."

In the Washington area, "buyers attracted to exotic or tropical arrangements love South African proteas," said Neil Bassin, owner of Buckingham Florist in Arlington. "But these beautiful flowers might not be around much longer."

Proteas such as the king protea, which measures 12 inches across and is the national flower of South Africa, are under enemy fire. 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, said scientist Lee Hannah of Conservation International.

"In response, proteas are moving uphill themselves, to cooler spots with less development," said Hannah, who published results of a study of the effects of climate and land-use change on South Africa's proteas in the March issue of the journal BioScience. Some proteas are already extinct, said Hannah and Guy Midgley, a scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town.

Many species have such a tiny range that plowing a field or building a single house can wipe out the world population.

Hannah recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the impacts of climate change and land use on biodiversity. "I brought cut proteas with me to the hearing," he said. "It might have been one of the last glimpses of these flowers."

More than half of the world's several hundred protea species are threatened, Hannah said. Most live in South Africa, but there are several in Australia, and some have been transplanted to Hawaii's steep-sided volcanic slopes. South Africa has designated 35 proteas as "endangered with extinction" and 46 as "vulnerable to extinction." Another 76 are listed as "rare."

Proteas are the keystone species of South Africa's Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest but, biologists say, richest of Earth's six plant kingdoms. The Cape Floral Kingdom, Hannah said, "is the size of a postage stamp, comparatively speaking. But it has the highest plant biodiversity anywhere on the planet Earth. About 8,000 plant species, three-quarters of which live nowhere else in the world, are found there, in what's called the fynbos ecosystem."


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