I grew up in the heart of the fynbos area and was lucky as child to be able to spend a lot of time exploring the mountains of Paarl. I must admit though, having grown up with the fynbos, I took their beauty for granted. What’s more in those days, Protea was considered to be a kitsch flower – only for tourists. I never even thought of smelling them, since there were just so many other obviously fragrant flowers and plants to explore.
I certainly never heard of anyone planting a Protea for their scent. It was only when we moved to Gordon’s Bay at the foot of the Hottentots Holland mountains where we are surrounded by fynbos nature reserves, that my interest in Proteas was renewed. Since I also have Sugarbush in my garden, they in particular piqued my interest.
For 200 years the Sugarbush (Protea repens) was South Africa’s unofficial national flower. Sadly, on 19 February 1976, the Sugarbush was usurped from its rightful role, and the King Protea (Protea cynaroides) was proclaimed the official national flower of South Africa. More than any other Protea, the sugarbush embodies for me the name of Protea. The Protea was named after the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape to avoid capture. This ability of Proteus gave rise to the adjective protean, with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”. “Protean” has connotations of flexibility, versatility and adaptability, qualities that perfectly describes the Sugarbush. These qualities could indeed serve us all well in these times.
Protea repens is one of the easiest, most adaptable and reliable proteas to cultivate. It is tolerant of a wide range of soils, from heavy clay to deep white sand. Sugarbush colours range from cream to deep red. Like so many other plants of the fynbos, the Sugarbush is extremely well adapted to high winds, long droughts, fire and wet, and cool winters. The seeds produced throughout its lifetime are either distributed and stored in the soil, or stored in the old seed heads. The seed heads will only be stimulated to open and release the seeds when the plant dies or is killed by fire. Fires occur naturally mainly in late summer or autumn and are followed by the first winter rains, which provide the moisture the young seedlings need to grow to a size that will survive the long, hot dry summers. (Ref)
It isn’t just the Sugarbush’s pretty face that provides sweetness to our lives. It really is a pity that the Sugarbush is no longer called by the name that the botanist Thunberg gave it, Protea mellifera, but is instead called Protea repens. Mellifera comes from Latin melli- “honey” and ferre “to bear” which is exactly what the Sugarbush provides, not just for the bees, beetles, rodents and sugarbirds that pollinates it, but also for humans. It is their “honey bearing” quality that gives its folkname of sugarbush or suikerbossie. In honour of its rich history in our culture there are numerous roads called “Suikerbossie” and even a famous folk song called “Suiker bossie ek wil jou he” (Sugarbush, I want you). A translation of the song was recorded by Doris Day & Frankie Laine in 1952 and sold over a million copies.
The Cape was founded as a halfway house and refreshment station by Jan van Riebeeck on 6 April 1652 for the long sea journeys to the East, during the height of the spice race by the VOC (Verenigde Oosindische Compagnie – Dutch East India Company). For a while during the first years, they were cut off from the rest of the world and ran very low on provisions themselves. It was during this time that the Khoi-Khoi introduced them to the “honey” of the sugarbush. From that time “bossiestroop” became not only part of the local diet but also an essential part of the folk medicine chest. The use of bossiestroop reached its height during the 1800’s. However, by 1900 the art of making bossiesstroop was virtually lost, so that today the name is all that remains of the once famous syrup in the South African culture. These days the greatest use for the sugarbush is as a garden specimen.
As far as I know there has been no other sugar syrup made from the nectar of a flower. The very idea fascinated me, truly Ambrosia. How does it taste? How is it made? What does it smell like? Almost every reference on the sugarbush will tell you that a syrup was once made from nectar, but how was it actually made? Besides that, I was rather skeptical that flowers could yield so much nectar.
According to most references, quantities of nectar in excess of a teaspoon can be obtained from a single flower head, and much more following rain when cupfuls of dilute nectar can be poured out of a single head. In the old days “stroopslanners” (syrup beaters) collected large volumes of nectar by shaking it out of the flower heads into buckets, according to Leipoldt. This nectar was then boiled down to a syrupy consistency. Sometimes the syrup was also cooked until it crystallized into what was called kandy or sugar. It was then broken up into pieces and used to sweeten tea. It was commonly known as bossuiker (bush sugar). According to Leipoldt, it was black but the syrup, which was cooked for a shorter time, was lighter in colour. Lady Anne Barnard, wrote in May 1797, that the flowers of the sugarbush was cooked to form a syrup, and that it was as rich as honey. According to her most of the preserves in the Cape Colony were made with this syrup. Leipoldt also mentions that in his days the old people still added a few tablespoons of bossiestroop to their jams which gave the jams and amazing taste. The syrup was also widely used medicinally as a cough syrup and for chest complaints. Reputedly, because of its low fructose content, the syrup was also traditionally used by diabetics.
Besides being used as a sweetener for beverages and for making preserves, it was also used to make liqueurs and a notorious beer. In 1687 the sale of sugarbush beer was banned from tap houses in the Cape as it was “the cause of numerous fights and injuries and promoted other evils.” Widows and the poor were however, still allowed to brew and sell sugarbush beer under the provision that it was only “two or three days strong.” In 1688, during the annual Cape market, however, everyone was given the exception to sell and brew sugarbush beer. (No doubt the market was a jolly affair.) (Ref)
This beer must have been prepared in much the same way as the traditional mead was prepared in the Cape. From the Khoi-Khoi the early settlers also learned to use local plants to help fermentation. Kareemoer.(Avonia payracea), Avonia ustulata, Gilia gummifera (moerwortel or dronkwortel – drunk root), Peucedanum sulcatum (Bierwortel – beer root) was popular for brewing mead, used as yeast and as sugar source in beer brewing. The dried and pulverized roots and stems were also used as yeast for baking bread. It is interesting to note that these plants may contain psychoactive substances, so they may have been used not only as yeast, but to improve the ‘kick’ of the brew.
Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke, in “People’s Plants”, gives a detailed description of the process of making mead using Gilia gummifera (moerwortel).
The large tap root was dug up, cleaned of sand and cut into 10ml slices which were then left to dry in the sun. The middle portion was then removed and discarded. (As the outer cortex shrinks the middle section becomes prominent and is easy to remove.) When the remaining material was thoroughly dry, it was finely grounded and added to water with honeycomb that contained bee embryos. The mixture ferments, turning the liquid yellow. Once it stops bubbling, usually after a day, the granules sinks to the bottom. The granules were then strained and dried and retained as yeast for future beer making and baking. The strained and dried residue was granular like dry yeast. To bake bread, one teaspoon was mixed with a half a cup of lukewarm water and a teaspoon sugar and left until it foamed before it was used.
The remaining liquid was allowed to ferment for another half a day before drinking. According to those who experienced this resulting traditional mead, it is highly intoxicating, and caused a bad hangover. No wonder the sugarbeer was the cause for “many a fight and other evils” if it was anything like the mead with the additional kick of these plants with their psychoactive substances. (Not to mention the grumpiness resulting from a bad hangover.) According some references hops and bruised ginger was sometimes also added as ingredients to the sugarbeer brew.
It is interesting to note that research on the sugar composition of the northern hemisphere nectars has shown only three major nectar sugars: sucrose, glucose and fructose. The relative amount of these three sugars in a particular nectar is often related to the method of pollination. For example, bees prefer sucrose in their nectar, whereas flies prefer glucose and fructose. The sugar ratios in the nectar are also related to plant phylogeny. An analysis done of the nectar of the sugarbush Protea, by Sue Nicolson, and Ben-Erik van Wyk, showed that it contained a glucose/fructose nectar, with about 5% xylose. Xylose, which does not occur in any other genera, occur sometimes in large amounts, in the nectar of Protea and Faurea,. The bossiestroop is much like honey in composition, highly digestible and healthy too. (Ref)
But what does the bossie stroop actually taste like? As bossie stroop was not available anywhere, I decided to try two experiments; one using the flowers in much the same way as you will to make a floral syrup and another harvesting only the nectar from the flowers. For the floral type syrup I picked the flowers from my garden. I cut the flowers open for I knew there would be insects hiding inside. True enough, inside the inflorescences I found bees, ants, beetles and even a beautiful emerald scarab beetle. It was also interesting that the cross section of the ovaries was white, but when exposed it turned orange. If pear and apples turns brown because they contain the enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (tyrosinase) that reacts with oxygen and iron-containing phenols, does the White Sugarbush also contain these enzymes and phenols?
Certainly the white sugarbush has a delightful lemony, pear scent that gets stronger the closer to maturity the bloom is. The pink /red sugarbush’s scent is sugary sweet with a scent I can only describe as distinctly protea. There is nothing else that that I can relate the scent to. When you cook the flowers the pear/fruity/rhubarb scent strongly comes to the fore. Perhaps it contains pear ester as the scent of white sugarbush resembles the ester with its tropical fruity nuances. It is also interesting that it has been found that beetle-pollinated Protea species emit fruity scents, dominated by linalool and the nectars of all the species emitted proportionally high amounts of acetoin (3-hydroxy-2-butanone) and aromatic alcohols, typical in fermentation products. Acetoin has rarely been reported as a flower scent component in other flowers. Yeasts tend to predominate in the nutrient-rich medium of nectars, which may also be why the sugarbush was so great for making beer. (ref)
The taste of the syrup cooked from the flowers resembles maple syrup with a fruity after taste, slightly acidic. I tried it as a glaze on a fruit loaf; it tasted great but the resin from the outer bracts tends to make it sticky initially, but when it cooled it was just like any other glaze. I left some at room temperature which started to ferment after a week.
Next, I went to collect just the pure nectar. The nectar yield from the red/pink sugarbushes were more like a few drops than a teaspoon full, but the white sugarbushes yielded the promised amount. All I had to do was to carefully tip the flowers into a jar and the nectar poured out. After a while I got the hang of it; you tip the flower at an angle and squeeze gently – milking the nectar. However, what takes a long time, is to fish the nectar drunk bees out of the collected nectar. Every flower did not only yield a generous teaspoon full of nectar, but also at least three or four bees and ants!
The scent of the fresh nectar is much like Phenyl Ethyl Acetate, with its characteristic rosy honey like scent. The pure nectar made a wonderful addition to my perfume Ambrosia, which I composed around the scent and extract from another local flower, the Honey resin bush. The addition of the nectar completed for me both for the scent composition of the perfume, as well as its symbolic value, but I will write more about that in another article.
After I collected the nectar, I filtered it through coffee filter paper before I poured it into a pot to boil it down. I boiled it down to about a quarter of the original amount and it was still not syrupy in consistency. If I boiled it any longer I would not have had any nectar left. I collected the nectar after a rainy period, According to one study the nectar concentration in the sugarbush varies from about 21.6% on a weight/weight basis in dry weather to about 1.9% after rain. The inflorescences of the Potea repens are relatively smooth compared to the more furred Proteas where the pubescent hairs protect nectar from dilution by rain as well as from evaporation. The nectar concentration of the furred proteas is little affected even by heavy rain. (Ref)
Maple sap contains on an average 2.5 percent; sugar content, which is similar to that of the nectar of the Sugarbush after rain. So, I can only speculate that like maple syrup which requires 30-40 litres of maple sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup with a sugar content between 66% – 68%, you will require roughly similar amounts to make Sugarbush syrup. It takes about 3.78 litres of Maple syrup to make about 17.60 kg of maple kandy or sugar, so once again it will take about equal amounts to make bush sugar.
How does the sugarbush syrup taste? It is fruity, with honey-like notes with sweet sour after taste. If it was more concentrated, I am sure it will be sweeter. It makes an unique flavorant in food, wine and liquors. Much like pomegranate syrup, you can also use it for cordials, marinades, basting and salad dressings.
I am surprised that the members of the South African Protea Producers’ are not producing any sugarbush syrup products. As it will be an eco-friendly and sugarbird friendly product for those producers who do not use poisons for the perfect flower. It could be an unique South African product. In collaboration with wine producers from the area, sugarbush liquors will be a wonderful exclusive product. Most wine producers are anyway situated in areas where the sugarbush naturally grow. The times that the sugarbush flower is also a relative quiet time on wine farms.
In the old days sugarbushes were found in abundance throughout the Cape. Sadly with expansion, and with the destructive use of sugarbush as fire wood, they are now virtually extinct on the Cape flats were once it was such an abundant resource for the sugar beaters. Just like other natural resources today, once it was thought there will be an endless supply. They are now mostly confined the slopes of the mountains.
In honour of the delightful Sugarbushes, I am working on a perfume inspired by the scents of the Sugarbush, called of course, “Suikerbossie.” It is a sweet fruity fragrance with fresh floral and lemony notes. It is strangely addictive. My scent strips keep disappearing. Later I find them in my daughter’s pockets. “I just can’t stop smelling them …”
Oh, Sugarbush …