Flourishing Flora of South Africa

The flora of southern Africa is one of the richest, most beautiful and vulnerable in the world. Popular species include the red hot poker, the bird of paradise flower, the arum lily, the gladiolus, agapanthus and sweet-scented freesias. Most of these were first introduced into European botanic gardens and private collections in the 18th century. More recently, plants such as the richly-colored gazanias and the shy osteospermums, which open their petals only when the sun shines, have found favor abroad.

The Floral Kingdom

Located around Cape Town on the southwestern tip of the continent, the Cape Floral Kingdom of fynbos region covers about 70 000 sq. km – an area the size of the Republic of Ireland and is home to 8600 kinds of flowering plants.

On the Cape Peninsula alone, 2600 indigenous species have been counted – more than in many considerably larger countries. Renowned for its proteas and heathers, this is also where you will find South Africa’s most famous orchid – the red disa, known as the “Pride of Table Mountain”. This area receives most of its rain in the cold seasons of the year, between April and October. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town is an excellent place to see fynbos in its natural habitat.

The Semi-Deserts

North of the winter rainfall zone lies the arid area known as Namaqualand, running parallel to the Cape’s west coast as far as the lower Orange River Valley. This is a dry land which receives on average about 50-150mm of rain a year. The correspondingly sparse vegetation is dominated by succulents, especially shrubs with fleshy leaves.

Mesembryanthemums (vygies in Afrikaans), grow here in abundance. Other natives include the pebble plant (Lithops), plants of the similar Conophytum families and many species of daisies, which have adapted to their parched surroundings by germinating and flowering only after good spring rains. All produce splendid blossoms of shimmering, metallic red-violet, yellow, white or copper-colored petals, which appear in one burst in the spring.

Trees are in general rare in this region, but the tree-like Aloe Arborescens (candelabra plant) can be found in large quantities in certain parts to the north. The Karoo National Botanical Garden, at the foot of the Brandwacht Mountains near Worcester is an excellent introduction to the local flora.

Ranking a little higher on the vegetation scale is the Great Karoo – the vast semi-desert stretching up from the Northern Cape into the Free State and beyond. The rainfall here averages between 125-375 mm a year, and plant life is dominated by small shrubs, mainly members of the family Compositae, such as the camellia, the silk-cotton bush and the quassia.

Great silvery plumes of feather grass and ostrich grass are a common sight here, while in the deeper valleys, you will often encounter the sweet thistle, which produces a beautiful display of yellow blossoms in the summer months.

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