Family ProteaceaeProtea neriifolia is part of an ancient plant family, the Proteaceae, which had already divided into two subfamilies before the break-up of the Gondwanaland continent about 140 million years ago. Both the Proteoideae and the Grevilleoideae occur mainly in the southern hemisphere. In southern Africa there are about 360 species, of which more than 330 species are confined to the Cape Floral Kingdom, between Nieuwoudtville in the northwest and Grahamstown in the east. Protea neriifolia belongs to the genus Protea, which has more than 92 species, subspecies and varieties.
The leaves of Protea neriifolia are most often bright- or dark green and look quite like the leaves of the oleander (Nerium oleander). This accounts for the species name neriifolia, which means 'with leaves resembling those of the oleander'.
Protea neriifolia was first discovered in 1597, was illustrated in 1605, and has the distinction of being the first protea ever to be mentioned in botanical literature. It took quite a while before it was officially recognised as a distinct species by the botanists and it was only described and named in 1810. Enthusiastic horticulturists in the meantime had already succeeded in growing Protea neriifolia in glasshouses in Europe and in 1811 an illustration of a plant grown to flowering size in the Herrenhaus Gardens near Hanover, Germany, was published. During the early nineteenth century it was possible to buy cream or pink flowering plants from a nursery in England and Protea neriifolia could be found in many private collections.
Protea neriifolia is a very widespread species and occurs from sea-level to 1300 m altitude in the southern coastal mountain ranges from just east of Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. It grows mainly on soils derived from Table Mountain Sandstone, often in large stands.
The flowers are pollinated by scarab beetles, protea beetles and many other insects, as well as by birds. The birds are attracted by both the nectar and the insects visiting the flowers.