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Have Flowers, Will Travel: South Africa’s Superblooms

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Have Flowers, Will Travel: South Africa’s Superblooms

September 26, 2023

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.

Farmers open their lands to flower enthusiasts during the spring bloom.
Above: Farmers open their lands to flower enthusiasts during the spring bloom.

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.

A tapestry of blue Heliophilia with golden Ursina cakilefolia, and white Osteospermum and Dimorphotheca in the Beidouw valley. In summer the temperature can reach 45 Celsius.
Above: A tapestry of blue Heliophilia with golden Ursina cakilefolia, and white Osteospermum and Dimorphotheca in the Beidouw valley. In summer the temperature can reach 45 Celsius.

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.

Cyanella alba subsp. flavascens only grows in and around the Beidouw valley. The peach flowers Moraea miniata are called &#8\2\20;tulp’&#8\2\2\1;in Afrikaans, which means tulip in Dutch. The purple flower is Gladiolus venustus.
Above: Cyanella alba subsp. flavascens only grows in and around the Beidouw valley. The peach flowers Moraea miniata are called “tulp’”in Afrikaans, which means tulip in Dutch. The purple flower is Gladiolus venustus.

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.

Hantam Botanic gardens is on a plateau outside Nieuwoudtville and functions as conservation area for a diverse range of geophytes; it is often referred to as &#8\2\20;the bulb capital of the world.&#8\2\2\1; Pictured: Bulbinella spp.
Above: Hantam Botanic gardens is on a plateau outside Nieuwoudtville and functions as conservation area for a diverse range of geophytes; it is often referred to as “the bulb capital of the world.” Pictured: Bulbinella spp.

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.

White and purple rain daisies Dimorphoteca pluvialus with yellow Oxalis in West Coast National Park. Numerous ‘African daisies’ only open between \10am and 4pm and always turn towards the sun. The park opens a peninsula for two months during flower season and the scenery is spectacular. While megafauna weren’t on my agenda, I spotted an African penguin resting on the beach; bontebok and Cape zebra in the flower-covered veld; and an ostrich high on a sand dune with its feet buried in purple flowers and head in the blue sky.
Above: White and purple rain daisies Dimorphoteca pluvialus with yellow Oxalis in West Coast National Park. Numerous ‘African daisies’ only open between 10am and 4pm and always turn towards the sun. The park opens a peninsula for two months during flower season and the scenery is spectacular. While megafauna weren’t on my agenda, I spotted an African penguin resting on the beach; bontebok and Cape zebra in the flower-covered veld; and an ostrich high on a sand dune with its feet buried in purple flowers and head in the blue sky.
Diascia collina.
Above: Diascia collina.

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.

For the spring season, a &#8\2\20;flower beach safari&#8\2\2\1; is set up on the site of an old diamond mining camp in Namaqua National Park (six hours from Cape Town). Next to the cold southern Atlantic, some flowers use fog drip to survive in the desert. The yellow pictured is Didelta carnosa, a succulent. When the fog burned off, purple Felicia interlaced the yellow.
Above: For the spring season, a “flower beach safari” is set up on the site of an old diamond mining camp in Namaqua National Park (six hours from Cape Town). Next to the cold southern Atlantic, some flowers use fog drip to survive in the desert. The yellow pictured is Didelta carnosa, a succulent. When the fog burned off, purple Felicia interlaced the yellow.
A carpet of Romulea hirsuta with a member of the Aizoaceae or Ice Plant family, of which there are approximately \100 types in South Africa.
Above: A carpet of Romulea hirsuta with a member of the Aizoaceae or Ice Plant family, of which there are approximately 100 types in South Africa.

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.

Baboon flower (Babiana rubrocyanea) is a red-listed species which grows near Darling in the Western Cape.
Above: Baboon flower (Babiana rubrocyanea) is a red-listed species which grows near Darling in the Western Cape.

Christin Geall is the author of Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020). To learn more about her trip to South Africa visit her website.

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