South Africa’s large areas of semi-desert scrub and grassland might suggest a certain poverty of plant life. Aside from the fact that a tract of pristine grassland can hold up to 60 grass species, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are eight major terrestrial biomes in South Africa:
- Nama Karoo
- succulent Karoo
- grassland, and
These biomes, or ecological life zones, have distinct environmental conditions and related sets of plant and animal life.
Around 10% of the world’s flowering species are found in South Africa, the only country in the world with an entire plant kingdom inside its borders: the Cape Floral Kingdom. While it represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa, it is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora.
Also called the Cape Floristic Kingdom, it contains 9 000 species, 69% of them endemic – and 1 435 identified as threatened. It is a World Heritage site and a biodiversity hotspot.
The Cape Peninsula alone boasts more plant species than the whole of Great Britain.
- See Unesco’s World Heritage site and Conservation International’s information on bidodiversity hotspots for more detail on the Cape Floral Kingdom
This southwestern area of South Africa is the home of the fynbos (an Afrikaans word meaning “fine bush”), which is composed of ericas (heathers), proteas and the grass-like restios.
Most spectacular in flower are the proteas (Proteaceae), which include the king protea – the national flower – and others of broadly similar shape, the pincushion leucospermum types, and spiky leucadendrons. The colour range is vast.
The ericas (Ericaceae), the largest genus of flowering plants in South Africa, are more delicate, repaying close examination of their almost infinite variety of colour and form. One or other of these species will be found in bloom at almost any time of the year.
These share their Cape home with such beauties as the red disa orchid, one of South Africa’s 479 wild orchids, which grows in the mountains, as well as numerous irises, pelargoniums and many more.
South Africa’s pelargoniums, in particular, have contributed greatly to gardens all over the world, as have the arum lilies – the classic white species is from this area, the yellow and pink from elsewhere in the country.
The world’s gardens also have South Africa to thank for the agapanthus, gladiolus, Barberton daisy and Gardenia thunbergia, to name a few.
Carpet of flowers
The Cape in the spring is a breathtaking sight, but even more astonishing is Namaqualand. Dry, rocky and desert-like for the rest of the year, it yields its floral wealth for a short few weeks in the spring in dazzling sheets of colour.
The golden yellow and orange Namaqualand daisies are predominant, but in between them are a wide variety of flowers, including the iridescent succulent mesembryanthemums.
Colours here are particularly intense, although there is also much fascination in less colourful species such as the quiver tree (the San, or Bushmen, used to make quivers from its fibrous stem) and the bizarre-looking tall succulent known as the halfmens (half human).
And anyone interested in plants’ abilities to adapt to harsh circumstances in a myriad different ways (not all are succulents) need not wait for spring to visit the area.
Although South Africa has more than a thousand indigenous trees, large species are relatively scarce in many parts of the country.
But they are very much at home in some areas, such as the Knysna-Tsitsikamma forest with its tall stinkwoods, black ironwoods and yellowwoods, and the northeastern region in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, home to the ancient cycads and Lowveld species such as the “fever tree”, so called because of its association with malaria areas.
It is also in the north that one finds the famous thick-stemmed baobab, which according to African myth was accidentally planted upside down, accounting for the odd shape of its branches.
Then there are the forests of KwaZulu-Natal, where the beautiful shade-loving orange Clivia miniata, a now much cultivated member of the amaryllis family, is found.
Another popular orange (and purple) garden flower, now the emblem of the US city of Los Angeles, originates in the Eastern Cape: the strelitzia. In much the same colour range, South Africa’s winters are marked by the flowering of some of the country’s 125 species of aloes.
The Eastern Cape’s Greater Addo National Park, which stretches across 180 000 hectares from the coast to the Karoo, includes samples of five of the eight South African biomes mentioned above.
Medicinal plants and thorn trees
There is virtually no area of South Africa without its particular floral treasure or species of special beauty or interest.
These include succulents that look almost exactly like stones (lithops), mangroves, tree ferns, traditional food plants and those that would kill you if you took a bite, and – one of the most promising fields of study in South Africa – a large number of plants of medicinal value.
Some of these, such as the Aloe ferox, a purgative, were discovered to be medicinally useful by the early European colonists; many more have long been known and used by indigenous African people.
Yet for all the spectacular plants to be found, perhaps the landscape that most eloquently conjures up the spirit of South African flora is the typical savannah, with its (often dry) grasses and more-or-less thickly scattered shrubs and thorn trees.
Lingering images may vary widely, from fynbos field to subtropical forest, but for many South Africans the thorn tree is the nesting place of their hearts.
Reviewed: 4 June 2012
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