Grey tree-pincushion (Leucospermum conocarpodendron)

Grey tree-pincushion ssp. conocarpodendron flowering in spring
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Grey tree-pincushion fact file

Grey tree-pincushion description

GenusLeucospermum (1)

The grey tree-pincushion is a tree-like shrub, with striking golden yellow inflorescences, and contrasting grey foliage, that grows in conspicuous stands along the northern and western mountain slopes of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. The large, rounded, grey-green leaves are stalkless, with three to ten conspicuous glands at the tip, and are covered in a mat of short, fine inconspicuous hairs that often wear with age. The flower heads are large and spherical, and protrude in groups of two or three, from thick, rigid flowering stems, and may be partially enclosed by the leaves. The fruit of the grey-tree pincushion is a large nut-like seed.  

Two subspecies of the grey tree-pincushion are recognised:  Leucospermum conocarpodendron conocarpodendron and L. c. viridum. L. c. viridum is distinguished from the nominate subspecies by dark-green coloured hairless leaves, while hybrids may be produced in areas where the two subspecies’ ‘ranges’ overlap (2).

Also known as
hairy tree pincushion, monkey protea, tree pincushion.
Height: 3 – 5 m (2)
Diameter: 3 – 6 m (2)
Flower head diameter: 7 – 9 cm (2)
Main stem diameter: 15 – 40 cm (2)

Grey tree-pincushion biology

The grey-tree pincushion is a perennial plant that flowers between August and December.  Birds, such as sugarbirds and sunbirds, are attracted by the sweet, sugar-rich nectar, and are the main pollinators. The fruits fall from the flower head around two months after flowering, and are typically gathered by ants, which cache them in underground burrows. As the ants only consume the fleshy, lipid-rich outer coating attached to the seeds, the actual seed remains intact and can survive for up to 200 years. This method of dispersal is used by a large number of fynbos plants, although most use wind to disperse the seeds. This behaviour serves to protect the seeds from natural fires, which may kill much of the above-ground vegetation allowing the seedlings to thrive in open, less competitive areas, in the fires wake (4) (5) (6). The seeds are stimulated to germinate after changes in temperature, pH and oxygen levels follow the clearing of the above-ground vegetation by fires (2).       


Grey tree-pincushion range

The grey tree-pincushion is endemic to the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, where it grows on north, or west-facing slopes of several mountain ranges, up to 160 metres above sea level (2). L. c. conocarpodendron grows in the northern areas of the species’ range, while, L. c. viridum is found in the southern areas, and off the Peninsula for 100km to the east with a degree of overlap (3) (4).



Grey tree-pincushion habitat

Like the majority of Leucospermum species, the grey tree-pincushion is found in the Cape Floristic Region, where it forms part of the fynbos shrubland. It is most abundant on rich, heavy clay soils derived from granite, but will also grow on sandstone soils (2).


Grey tree-pincushion status

This species has not yet been classified by the IUCN.


Grey tree-pincushion threats

The grey tree-pincushion has a very small range and, as a result of continuing habitat loss, L. c. conocarpodendron is listed as Endangered, and L. c. viridum is listed as Near Threatened, on the South African Interim Red Data List (7). Substantial areas of grey tree-pincushion habitat have been lost to urbanisation and habitat conversion for agriculture and gum plantations. This has been exacerbated in areas where non-native plant species have been introduced, resulting in increased competition for natural resources. Furthermore, around urban areas, the natural fires, upon which grey-tree pincushions are dependant for reproduction, are suppressed reducing the species’ ability to reproduce (2).  


Grey tree-pincushion conservation

The grey tree-pincushion is restricted to the botanically rich habitat of the Cape Floristic Region where conservation is now a high priority. Conservation measures currently being undertaken in the region include the restoration of the landscape to its natural state, through the burning and cutting of non-native plants, and the purchasing of land to protect against the threats of encroaching urban development and agriculture (8) (9). At present, only a small proportion of the Cape Floristic Region lies in reserves, and many of the protected areas are privately owned, with the level of protection provided variable.  

However, fortunately for the grey tree-pincushion, much of its range is encompassed in the Table Mountain National Park, where the species remains locally abundant in certain areas (10). In addition, the conservation organisation Fauna and Flora International are coordinating projects that promotes ecologically and financially sustainable cultivation of fynbos plants to provide long-term, community directed protection of the fragile ecosystem (9).    


Find out more

For more information on African plants, see:

For more information of Proteas, see:



Authenticated (10/05/10) by Tony Rebelo, Threatened Species Research Unit, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Kirstenbosch, South Africa.



Cape Floristic Region
An area occupying about 90,000 square kilometres in South Africa that contains an incredibly high diversity of plant species (around 8,700 species), of which 68 percent are found no where else.
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
The natural shrubland vegetation occurring in the south-western and southern Cape of South Africa, holding the greatest diversity of plant species in the world. Fynbos is characterised by tall shrubs with large leaves, heath-like shrubs, wiry reed-like plants, and bulbous herbs.
The beginning of growth, usually following a period of dormancy and in response to favourable conditions. For example, the sprouting of a seedling from a seed.
The offspring produced by parents of two different species or subspecies.
The reproductive shoot of a plant, which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
Nominate subspecies
The subspecies indicated by the repetition of the specific name. Thus, in this case the L. c. conocarpodendron is the nominate subspecies of L. c. viridum.
A plant that normally lives for more than two seasons. After an initial period, the plant produces flowers once a year.
Animals that in the act of visiting a plant’s flowers transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. ZipcodeZoo (January, 2010)
  2. PlantZ Africa (January, 2010)
  3. Protea Atlas Project (January, 2010)
  4. Rebelo, T. (2010) Pers. comm.
  5. Slingsby, P. and Bond, W.J. (1985) The influence of ants on the dispersal distance and seedling recruitment of Leucospermum conocarpodendron (L.) Buek (Proteaceae). South African Journal of Botany, 51: 30-34.
  6. Yeaton, R.I. and Bond, W.J. (1991) Competition between two shrub species: dispersal differences and fire promote coexistence. The American Naturalist, 138: 328-341.
  7. SANBI’s Integrated Biodiversity Information System (January, 2010)
  8. Cowling, R. and Richardson, D. (1995) Fynbos: South Africa’s unique floral kingdom. Fernwood Press, South Africa.
  9. Fauna and Flora International (January, 2010)
  10. World Database on Protected Areas (January, 2010)

Image credit

Grey tree-pincushion ssp. conocarpodendron flowering in spring  
Grey tree-pincushion ssp. conocarpodendron flowering in spring

© Colin Paterson-Jones /

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