How easy it must have been to discover a new fynbos species 2 centuries ago.
It seems all you had to do was amble down to the famous flower sellers on Adderley Street in Cape Town, and examine their offerings. The legendary marsh rose protea (Orothamnus zeyheri) was discovered by botanist Carl Zeyher, who described it for science from a twig obtained from the Adderley Street flower sellers in the early 1800s.
The whereabouts of the now-extinct mace pagoda protea (Mimetes stokoei) was re-discovered by the botanist who first found it, Thomas Stokoe, in 1925, after he found a few specimens being sold by an Adderley Street flower seller. He’d completely forgotten where he’d first seen it and she directed him to where it had been picked.
(It may seem odd to mislay a species, but fynbos plants are so particular in their habitats that individual species like the mace pagoda protea can sometimes number only a few dozen specimens. The mace pagoda's existence hung from a thread for decades and its whereabouts was kept secret. In a tragic irony, the very last known specimen was killed in the early 1960s when high winds thrashed its stem against a little fence built to protect it.)
You'll find the flower sellers along Cape Town's main road, which is Adderley Street, between Strand Street and Darling Street.
Close by is Greenmarket Square, with its many vendors of intriguing goods and antiques. Adderley Street is also not far from funky Long Street and the shady Company's Garden.
Ask the flower sellers for suggestions, but you can buy proteas very inexpensively, and they can last for weeks.
Up until World War II, the flower sellers were allowed to gather wild flowers from the fynbos surrounding Cape Town. After the war, a permit system was introduced to protect vulnerable species.
The flower sellers have a long and illustrious history in Cape Town. Accounts vary about how long they have been there, but Lawrence Green writes in his book Tavern of the Seas that they first started selling strawberries before they switched to flowers.
These charming and quick-witted women are as iconic to Cape Town as Table Mountain. They will tell you that their mothers, fathers, grandparents and beyond have been involved in the flower trade. They delight in banter and giving advice on which flowers might be suitable for particular occasions.
And yes, they still sell proteas, but only those that have been harvested from nearby farms.
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