Scientific Name: Protea lepidocarpodendron
Common Names: black bearded sugarbush
Plant Type: Perennial shrub to small tree
Environment: Full sun, well-drained, preferably acidic soil. Likes regular watering. Does not like disturbance around roots.
Bloom: Autumn and winter
Uses: Large densely bushy shrub with large furry flowers makes an attractive focal point
Other: Makes an excellent, long-lasting cut flower. Its unusual furry black and white appearance adds interest to any arrangement. SFBG has several shrubs that are hybrids of Protea lepidocarpodendron x Protea neriifolia.
South Africa bed: 27F, 27H, 32B, 42A, 42B
Blooming a bit out of season for us at the Garden, we decided to focus on this unique specimen for the month of December. Our internal records indicate that this species has produced at least some flowers for us in both March and October in the past. It is not entirely odd to have two separate flowering periods within a given year; several other species in the Garden will bloom in alternate seasons, triggered by day length and favorable weather conditions. This year, with our warm and welcomingly wet fall, several of our magnolias have decided that they cannot wait until the New Year and have decided to grace us with their large, colorful blooms, in some cases a full two months early.
A native of South Africa, Protea lepidocarpodendron derives its long specific epithet, or species name, from the Greek lepis, karpos, and dendron, translating to scale, fruit, and tree, respectively. We may call it the scaly-fruit tree. The small fruit are dry and exceedingly hairy, and are hidden behind the multiple, yellow-pink, petal-like bracts that comprise each flowerhead. Though the leaves only last a week or so once stems are cut for floral displays, the flowerheads are long-lived and add a unique accent to arrangements. Although the flowerheads on the black bearded sugarbush may not be as striking as others in the genus (at least to us!), they nonetheless serve an important role in their native habitat. Along with other South African proteas that display upright flowerheads, they are an important source of nectar for sugarbirds, protea beetles, and other insects. Drawn to the flowerheads for this nectar, these insects also become an important food source for other birds, who know exactly where to find their next crunchy meal.
Some sources list the black bearded sugarbush as being threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and competition with non-native plant species. One of the world’s ancient flowering plant groups, ancestors of modern plants in the protea family, the Proteaceae, were present on the massive continent of Gondwanaland over 180 million years ago. Gondwanaland slowly broke up, forming the modern continents of Australia, South America, Africa, and Antarctica. Today, members of this plant family are still found thriving on the first three of these continents and have migrated elsewhere, as well.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Corey Barnes. Profile by Mona Bourell. Photos by Mona Bourell, Joanne Taylor, and Kathryn Rummel.