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Blushing Bride Serruria Florida, Trots van Franschoek

The Blushing Bride is part of our local folklore: few plant species can have had as much conflicting information written about them. One thing is certain, however! Botanically Serruria florida was officially discovered by Carl Thunberg in the Fransch Hoek Mountains in 1773. It then disappeared from the scientific annals for over 100 years. From then on authorities differ in their accounts. However, it appears to have been generally accepted by botanists of the day that it was extinct. Protea Atlas Logo

According to Conrad Leighton (Cape Floral Kingdom, 1960, Juta), the Blushing Bride was rediscovered at the French Hoek flower show in 1914, by Professor Harold Pearson (then director of the one-year old Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens), in the company of Dr Rudolf Marloth and Rt Hon. G. Brand van Zyl, who collected a few seeds from which "all the thousands of plants grown at Kirstenbosch subsequently, distributed as seed to members of the Botanical Society and the horticultural trade, and now grown commercially in South Africa and introduced to other countries" are derived.

Sima Eliovson (Proteas for pleasure, 1967, Howard Timmins) attributes the rediscovery to Professor Peter MacOwan in 1891 in the Assegaaibos Valley. She also notes that security guards were used to protect the plants while the seeds, destined as the source of almost all the cultivated specimens available around the world, ripened in the Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Prof Brian Rycroft (Proteas, 1977, Philatelic Services) states that in 1900 Arther Buller and Lionel Baker rediscovered the species at the far end of the Franschhoek Valley in a remote kloof. He also states "even if the entire population of Serruria florida should die out in its natural home, the species is no longer threatened with extinction because thousands of plants are now in cultivation".

If the rediscovery of the Blushing Bride is so uncertain, imagine trying to determine how it got the name "Blushing Bride":

Professor Robert Compton suggested that the flowers may have been formerly used as a favourite bridal bouquet at French Hoek weddings.

However, the most popular version is attributed by Conrad Leighton to Mr C Hayes of Port Elizabeth:

Historically it is reputed that French Hugenots farmers would approach their girlfriends with a S. florida flower in their lapels when about to ask for their hand in marriage. The common name, Blushing Bride, apart from the obvious inference of the flowers colour, derives from the fact that the suitor's intention was apparent to all who met him, much to the embarrassment of his bride to be. The deeper the pink colour the more serious the intentions of the suitor.

However, Cristo Smith (Common names of South African Plants, 1966) curtly dismisses the name to "poetic conceit". In fact, there is little to suggest that the species had a common name until the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens started to distribute the seeds and plants.

The issue of the common name is not one to be taken lightly. If Serruria florida was used extensively by suitors and florists, then its rarity may be attributable to over-exploitation, and the species may have been more widespread within the Franschhoek Mountains. However, it may be a naturally rare species, sufficiently rare for it never to have been noticed by the farmers of the Hugenot Valley. Thus the name may be appropriate as "blush" derives from the Middle English blusche meaning a gleam or glimpse: until 1914 no more than glimpses of the rosy glow of Serruria florida were obtained.

Knowledge of the ecology of the Blushing Bride summarizes attitudes of the conservation authorities towards fire. During the 1930's the number of known plants were found to be declining. A bush fire in 1943 destroyed the only known wild population. Three years later sixty plants were flourishing at the site. Surely the lesson should have been obvious! And yet the decline in numbers which occurred as the vegetation grew older was attributed to frequent fires and consequently the area was rigorously protected. In 1962 not a single plant remained in the original area. A few additional colonies were found, some with only old straggly plants, others with young ones. Under Marie Vogts guidance the area of the original colony was cleared of undergrowth to encourage any seeds to germinate and to prevent competition from other plants: to no avail. However, an accidental fire which swept the area resulted in massive germination and soon there were lots of plants in the colony. This lesson, that Fynbos plant species must have fire and that seed banks must be considered when estimating plant numbers, was also discovered from research on the Marsh Rose Orothamnus zeyheri in the same decade.

Serruria florida has a high economical potential. It is easily grown from seeds, responds very well to pruning, is a fast grower, and flowers within 15 months of germinating. However, it is relatively short-lived and only produces a commercially viable crop for about three years. As a garden plant it is superb, provided you remember not to disturb its roots and preferably not to plant it in flowers beds which are regularly disturbed (and therefore ideal breeding grounds for Phytophthora).

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