Southern 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 five major habitat types in South Africa: Fynbos, Forest, Karoo, Grassland,
The Country can also be divided into seven biomes, or ecological life zones,
with distinct environmental conditions and related sets of plant and animal
life: Nama Karoo, succulent Karoo, fynbos, Forest,
thicket, Savanna, and grassland.
Whichever classification is used, some 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 Floristic Kingdom,
which contains 8 600 species, 68% of them endemic. The Cape
Peninsula alone boasts more plant
species than the whole of Great
This South-western area of South Africa is the home of the Fynbos,
which is composed of Ericas (heathers), Proteas and the grass-like Restios.
Most spectacular in flower are the Proteas, 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, 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
550 wild orchids, which grow in the mountains, as well as numerous Prizes, pelargonium
and many more.
South Africa's pelargonium, 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.
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 North-Eastern 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 140 species of Aloes.
The Eastern Cape's Greater
Addo National Park, which stretches 200 kilometers from the coast to the Karoo,
includes samples of six of the seven South African biomes mentioned above, lacking
only the succulent Karoo.
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.