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Temperature controls phenology in continuously flowering Protea species of subtropical Africa

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Premise of the study

Herbarium specimens are increasingly used as records of plant flowering phenology. However, most herbarium-based studies on plant phenology focus on taxa from temperate regions. Here, we explore flowering phenologic responses to climate in the subtropical plant genus Protea (Proteaceae), an iconic group of plants that flower year-round and are endemic to subtropical Africa.


We present a novel, circular sliding window approach to investigate phenological patterns developed for species with year-round flowering. We employ our method to evaluate the extent to which site-to-site and year-to-year variation in temperature and precipitation affect flowering dates using a database of 1727 herbarium records of 25 Protea species. We also explore phylogenetic conservatism in flowering phenology.


We show that herbarium data combined with our sliding window approach successfully captured independently reported flowering phenology patterns (r = 0.93). Both warmer sites and warmer years were associated with earlier flowering of 3-5 days/°C, whereas precipitation variation had no significant effect on flowering phenology. Although species vary widely in phenological responsiveness, responses are phylogenetically conserved, with closely related species tending to shift flowering similarly with increasing temperature.


Our results point to climate-responsive phenology for this important plant genus and indicate that the subtropical, aseasonally flowering genus Protea has temperature-driven flowering responses that are remarkably similar to those of better-studied northern temperate plant species, suggesting a generality across biomes that has not been described elsewhere.

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