A few weeks ago, my boyfriend brought me flowers for the first time. They were a strange choice — not conventionally pretty, but beautiful in a vaguely reptilian way, with scaly wooden stems, pink flowerheads, and long, leathery petals. He had gotten them at the flower store down the street, but they appeared to be from a different world. The thick stems were so tall that they couldn’t fit easily into a vase, and so heavy that they threatened to topple a pitcher. He didn’t remember their name but thought it started with a “p.”
They were — I discovered — proteas.
Named after the Greek god Proteus, who could change his shape at will, proteas assume many forms — from the towering, plate-sized king protea and the cylindrical/cattail-looking banksia to ground-level balls of protea scabra.
Ours were the artichoke-shaped, nectar-bearing protea repens, a particularly jurassic varietal that bordered on unnerving. They took up so much space on the kitchen table that they sometimes felt like an additional person at dinner, or like they might swoop down and grab a bite of steak.
Although the genus Protea was named by Carl Linnaeus in 1767, the proteas’ prehistoric looks are reflected in their actual prehistoric-ness: Believed to have existed 300 million years ago, proteas are likely one of the world’s oldest groups of flowering plants. They’re found throughout the southern hemisphere, but are especially populous in and associated with Australia and South Africa, where a protea is both the national flower and a part of the national coat of arms.
(Bonus South Africa protea fact: The protea repens — a.k.a. the sugarbush — is the subject of a traditional South African folk song, “Suikerbossie ek wil jou hê” [Sugarbush, I want you], which can be found widely on YouTube, and which Doris Day and Frankie Laine sold more than a million copies of in 1952.)
Protea flowers are thought to represent change, hope, courage, and transformation, but ours changed very little. They sat quietly at the kitchen table, never blooming further (they stop opening when you cut them, as I learned). No leaves fell and no petals wilted. After about a week, they started to lose their color, and all together it looked like they’d been turned to stone.
The stony proteas presented something of dilemma: they seemed too hulking and alive to discard, but also too drab and gray to keep on display. At my boyfriend’s suggestion, I moved them to a different room.
Early South Africans were more creative. The sugarbushes — or protea repens, which we had — give off enough nectar that people can apparently just tip their flowerheads over to collect it in jars. Afterward, the nectar can be strained and boiled into a syrup, called bossiestroop, or bush syrup.
Known for its cough- and cold-curing properties, bossiestroop’s popularity as a remedy “probably reached a peak in the early 1800s,” according to the Protea Atlas, “when it was an essential item in local medicine chests.” But the syrup was also used as a sweetener and a sugar substitute — here’s a story that I especially like, from a letter to the author of the 1980 book Proteas of Southern Africa:
My Grandmother, so I was told, exhibited six [homemade] bottles of bossiestroop at a show in Paarl, and of the six my mother got two, which she kept for many years. Shortly after I got married, in 1934, my wife on one occasion made waffles, and we used the contents of one bottle with the waffles. Its taste is difficult to describe, except to say that it was very pleasant and agreeable.
“I estimate that this bossiestroop was made circa 1880–1890. This [second one] is the last remaining bottle and probably the only one of its kind in existence, and with the present day Nature Conservation Laws and the increased cultivation of land, and the consequent scarcity of the Protea plants, it is very unlikely that any more of it will be produced.
The book includes a picture of the remaining bottle of bossiestroop (the world’s last bottle?), taken in 1978.
I enjoyed imagining the newlyweds eating the vintage bossiestroop with waffles, but the description of its flavor as just “pleasant and agreeable” — even 40 years after the fact — piqued my curiosity, so I turned to Google.
It turns out bossiestroop descriptions are hard to come by. So far I’ve found “as rich as honey,” “sugary,” and “deliciously sweet” (also: “highly digestible and healthy, too”), and, color-wise, both “brown or amber” and “ruby-red.” Possibly this is because “very few souls alive … have sampled Protea sugar,” according to the Protea Atlas, “as by 1900 the art of making bossiestroop was apparently lost.”
Or was it? The best description I’ve found is also one of the most recent, from a 2011 blog post from the small perfume company African Aromatics. The post is conveniently also a guide to making your own bossiestroop, provided you have access to some fresh sugarbush flowers.
I recommend the whole thing, but, for bossiestroop-detailing purposes, the writer calls the flavor of the finished syrup “fruity, with honey-like notes” and a “sweet-sour after taste.” (For other varieties of protea syrup, she uses the phrases “pear/fruity/rhubarb,” “[like] maple syrup,” and “rosy.”)
People also commonly dry protea blossoms, turn them into jewelry (the shapes on the pods apparently fit with the Fibonacci sequence), or use old pods to scrape off foot calluses. People have also used the stalks/trunks as firewood and charcoal, and to make furniture and tools.
So, that’s all to say what I wish I had done with my proteas — I wish I had known to eat their nectar, dry out their flowers, or use their seed pods as foot rasps or necklaces. Instead, I threw them out.
I’d considered tossing them in the heap of miscellaneous plants at the back of the yard, but something about the proteas felt too foreign to be “safe” out there, whatever that meant, so I wrangled them into a trash bag and took it out to the garbage can area. I came to regret this several times over, so please learn from my mistake, if you’re lucky enough to come into a bunch of proteas. And if you ever make protea syrup, save some for your grandchildren.