The genus is named for the Greek sea-god Proteus who could change into many different shapes. The name refers to the great diversity within the genus. The specific name derives from an old name for eastern and central regions of South Africa, Kaffraria, where the plant originates.
The common sugar bush is one of three proteas which occur in the Witwatersrand area. It is the most widely distributed protea in South Africa and may be found in grassland and woodland throughout Gauteng, in parts of Kwazulu Natal, Lesotho, Northern Province, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape as far south as the Katberg mountains and in Zimbabwe. It is usually found growing in large colonies especially on rocky ridges.
It grows as a shrub or small tree with a somewhat rounded crown and is common in the natural areas of various botanical gardens. The grey-green leaves are elongated with nearly parallel sides. They are leather-like in texture and can be up to 250mm in length.
The flower heads can develop singly or in clusters. They reach up to 80mm in diameter with the outer bracts varying from reddish to pink or cream in colour. Many tiny, single flowers are clustered together in the flower head. When pollinated each flower forms a small nut which is covered in rich reddish brown hairs.
The thick bark has a chunky, corky texture. It protects the mature plant from the fires that are essential to the maintenance of the grasslands in which the common sugar bushes grow.
Caterpillars of Capyspenningtoni (Pennington’s protea) and Capysdisjunctus butterflies feed on the flowerbuds. The copious nectar (from which the plant derives its common name – sugarbush) attracts birds and insects such as beetles which pollinate the flowers.
Cultivation has so far proven to be difficult. The germination of seed in cultivation is possible, however, transplanting quickly kills the seedlings.
Mature sugarbushes in gardens where the original, natural vegetation has been retained also eventually succumb. This may be due to the disturbance of the roots, too much water and sensitivity to fertilisers. It is best to avoid any cultivation around the base of the plant. The bark is reportedly used for medicinal purposes.