You can’t plan a wildflower trip to South Africa. Not entirely. You can choose the season but not the weather. Unlike a guided safari where you are almost guaranteed to see “‘the big five” in a national park, with flowers you can only put yourself in roughly the right place at about the right time, and hope.
Photography by Christin Geall.
South Africa is home to approximately 20,000 plant species (10 percent of all plants found on earth). The Cape Floral Kingdom, on its southwestern coast, has about 9,600 species, 70 percent of which are endemic, meaning they grow naturally nowhere else on earth. It boasts 94 species per 1,000 square kilometers. (Compare that with other heathland ecosystems in California and Australia, which have 12 and 14 species per 1,000 square kilometers, respectively.) The Cape Peninsula, a smaller area known for its exceptional plant diversity and endemism has more than 2,600 plant species (more than in all of the UK) in an area smaller than London.
I’m at work on my second book about flowers, so when word started to circulate that rains were indicating one of the best flower seasons in South Africa in decades, I booked a ticket two weeks out and threw together an itinerary as best I could—starting in Cape Town, with a couple days in the winelands, then north to the Cederberg Mountains, and further still to Namaqualand. Traveling through Nieuwoudtville on the southbound journey, I spent three nights at Kersefontein, well positioned for West Coast National Park and the Hopefield Flower Show. On my way to the airport I made one last flower stop near Darling.
My goals were to learn more about South African species in the cut flower trade, understand more about the farming of indigenous perennials, and to see plants introduced to global horticulture in their native habitats. What I didn’t factor in was how I’d be seized by the thrill of the hunt, immersed in beauty so staggering it broke my heart to turn away, and how I’d spend every free moment poring over field guides, boggled by diversity. How many pelargoniums are in the country? More than 200. How many Ericas? Maybe 770.
Many popular garden flowers, particularly geophytes, or plants that grow from an underground storage organ such as corm, tuber, or bulb (an adaptation to drought and high temperatures) are South African. These include: Gladiolus, Freesia, Bulbine, Clivia, Crocosmia, Kniphofia, Agapanthus, Eucomis, Nerine, Crinum, and Amaryllis. Other plants, such as Calla lilies, Proteas, Gerbera daisies, Ice plants, Pelargoniums, Gloriosa lilies, Bird of Paradise, Asparagus ferns, aloes, Leucospermums, and Leucadendrons are among countless others whose origins trace to South Africa. Many have been hybridized by horticultural companies and patented, with little money returning to the country despite centuries of bioprospecting.
The South African spring flower season usually begins in mid-August and lasts through September. Rainfall and temperature determine the bloom, so if you’re planning a trip consult local tourism offices, and consider that it may be best to move from Namibia in the north, south to Cape Town, which is cooler. If the sun doesn’t shine, many species don’t open; if the temperature drops below 18 Celsius, again many species close. Winter rain brings flowers, but works against you if roads become impassable. I changed up my itinerary based on information gleaned “on the ground” and on the weather.
I travelled solo half of my time in South Africa accompanied by a driver I met in Cape Town who didn’t mind a slow pace with frequent stops for photographs. This gave me time to pore over field guides in the back seat, offered some peace of mind in the city, and meant I had someone to share joy with whilst not getting lost. Into the Cederberg and to and from Namaqualand, I drove with a girlfriend through sand, mud, and mountain passes, and of course, we were chatting so much we got lost. No
matter how you play it, a spring wildflower trip to South Africa will exceed your expectations.
- Spring at Jaftha’s Flower Farm in Cape Town
- Garden Visit: Julie’s Soothing Green and White Palette in Cape Town
- South African Spring: Arum Lilies, Everywhere