The genus Protea was named in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus after the Greek god Proteus, who could change his form at will, because proteas have such a wide variety of forms. Linnaeus's genus was formed by merging a number of genera previously published by Herman Boerhaave, although precisely which of Boerhaave's genera were included in Linnaeus's Protea varied with each of Linnaeus's publications.
The Proteaceae family to which proteas belong is an ancient one. Its ancestors grew in Gondwana, 300 million years ago. Proteaceae is divided into two subfamilies: the Proteoideae, best represented in southern Africa, and the Grevilleoideae, concentrated in Australia and South America and the other smaller segments of Gondwana that are now part of eastern Asia. Africa shares only one genus with Madagascar, whereas South America and Australia share many common genera — this indicates they separated from Africa before they separated from each other.
Most protea occur south of the Limpopo River. However, Protea kilimanjaro is found in the chaparral zone of Mount Kenya National Park. 92% of the species occur only in the Cape Floristic Region, a narrow belt of mountainous coastal land from Clanwilliam to Grahamstown, South Africa. The extraordinary richness and diversity of species characteristic of the Cape Flora is thought to be caused in part by the diverse landscape where populations can become isolated from each other and in time develop into separate species.
Proteas attracted the attention of botanists visiting the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century. Many species were introduced to Europe in the 18th century, enjoying a unique popularity at the time amongst botanists.
Within the huge family Proteaceae, they are a member of the subfamily Proteoideae, which has Southern African and Australian members.
After the demise of apartheid, the ANC government decreed that South African sporting teams, hitherto called "Springboks" were to be known as the "Proteas", although an exemption was made for the rugby union team, who remain "Springboks". In apartheid times, the "Proteas" was the Cape Coloured representative team.
^Today the national cricket team are known as "The Proteas".Grundlingh, A. M.; André Odendaal, S. B. Spies (1995). Beyond the Tryline: Rugby and South African Society. Ravan Press. p. 92. ISBN0-86975-457-2.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)
Protea Atlas Project: a project to map the distribution of South African plant species, using Protea as a flagship.