Readers’ wildlife photos

September 27, 2023 • 8:15 am

I’m going to South Africa next year (Cape Town and the area around Kruger National Park), but one thing I also wanted to do was see the wildflowers around Table Mountain, which apparently will be blooming in August.  I had no idea how weird many of the flowers are, but this set of photos, sent by reader Stephen Warren, convinced me even more that I need to make flowers a priority.  Stephen’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them. These photos arrived yesterday.

I am visiting my daughter Charlotte in Cape Town. She is studying at the University of Cape Town. She came here last year, from the UK, volunteering in a nursery, and she liked Cape Town so much she decided to stay!

This morning I made a visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a 40min walk through Newlands Forest from where I am staying. The land was purchased by Cecil Rhodes in 1895, and bequeathed to the nation in his will when he died in 1902; but it wasn’t until 1913 that development of the land to create the National Botanical Garden began. Harold Pearson who is buried in the gardens provided the inspiration. I spent two hours there and it was like Paradise.

The gardens are located in the shadow of Table Mountain, on the Eastern side, pictured below (the traditional view of Table Mountain is from the North). The tree to the left is a Red Mahogany.

In the other direction, nearby you see the fine houses of the wealthy Constantia district, and beyond are the plains of Eastern Cape Town with Stellenbosch in the distance.

The gardens cover 1300 acres, so you can wander for hours. They are very well maintained, with lawns and stone paths. Many of the plants are labeled, and there are occasional helpful explanatory displays. I know next to nothing about botany, but I collected a few notes. Unfortunately, the day was mostly overcast, so some of the pics are a bit gloomy. Around the gardens are dotted these signs telling you who is responsible for that area. Let me express my thanks to Godfrey and all the other gardeners!:

The southern tip of Africa comprises the Cape Floral Kingdom. Because of the desert to the north, the region is isolated and about 80% of the indigenous plants are unique to the Cape Floral region. It covers 0.5% of Africa but includes 20% of Africa’s plant species. About 80% of the region is covered by Fynbos (pronounced fain-boss) a ‘fine-leaved sclerophyllic shrubland adapted to both a Mediterranean climate and periodic fires’. The best known Fynbos plants are the Proteas, or sugarbushes, so I have included some pictures of Proteas. The genus Protea belongs to the family Proteaceae so I have included some of the larger family. And if I sound like I know what I am talking about, I certainly don’t, and I will be happily corrected by botanists and South Africans, and especially anyone who is both.Well, the national flower of South Africa is Protea cynaroides, known as the King Protea, pictured here, not yet fully out:

Here is another Protea, but I couldn’t find the name of it:

The next plant was labeled Protea magnifica which is the Queen Protea or the Bearded Sugarbush, and should be pink, so I’m not convinced by the label, even though it seemed to belong to the bush – but what do I know?:

Next is Leucospermum reflexum (family Proteaceae) and I have included this picture because in the centre you can just see the magnificent Southern Double-Collared Sunbird [Cinnyris chalybeus]. This was the best I could do for bird pictures because I was just using my phone, but there were other truly wonderful birds including the Orange-Breasted Sunbird and the Malachite Sunbird.

Also from the family Proteaceae is the Silver Tree, Leucadendron argenteum, which is a fine sight:

Leaving the Proteaceae I will finish with a few examples of Strelitzia. The first is probably familiar, a Narrow-Leaved Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia juncea:

Now in the garden is a treetop walkway called the Boomslang, a snake, because it snakes around the treetops. Below is a picture from the walkway. The tree at the end that looks like a banana tree is the Wild Banana, so named only because it looks like a banana tree. It doesn’t produce bananas, and it is in fact a kind of giant bird of paradise, Strelitzia nicolai. It has white flowers of the same form:

In the garden near the entrance there is a bust of Nelson Mandela [see note at bottom]:

Next to the bust is a fine clump of Strelitzia reginae, another Bird of Paradise, pictured below, this one yellow:

There is a display next to Mandela’s bust which talks about Mandela planting a tree, and it states he was given a specimen of ‘our yellow flowered Strelitzia reginae named in his honour’. The plaque was confusing about this and I later found out what they didn’t say – that at Kirstenbosch itself they developed a strain of Strelitzia reginae and they called it Mandela’s gold (details here). The plaque doesn’t mention the name Mandela’s gold and seemed instead to be saying that the Latin name honoured Mandela. Regina of course means Queen, and Queen Charlotte of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz family was the wife of George III. She was a keen amateur naturalist. Strelitzia reginae is named after Queen Charlotte – which rather brings me back to where I started.

17 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. The Cape Floral Kingdom packs an incredible diversity of plant species, especially considering its tiny area, equivalent to Portugal (90 000 km^2 or 35 000 miles^2): about 9000 species of which 2/3 are endemic. Alpha diversity for plants is one of the highest, if not the highest, in the world – even above hotspots such as the Amazon. The top of Table Mountain alone as more plant species than the whole of Great Britain.

    The Cape Floral Kingdom (or Cape Floristic Region) is mostly associated with the fynbos biome, characterised by a heath-like, mediterranean, flora. Here there are flowers for all months.

    The August/September peak mentioned by Jerry is more related to an adjacent biome (to the north), the Succulent Karoo – a dry region that is the home to the richest succulent flora in the world. It has over 6000 species of which about 40% are endemic (the highest number of plant species for a semi-arid area). Flowering depends to the amount of rain, but tends to be concentrated in spectacular explosions limited in time. This year was a particularly special one.

  2. Wonderful that you are going to Cape Town. Take a trip to Stellenbosh and the wine country. Also a train trip to Johannesburg would be great. Also go down to the Cape of Good Hope. Nothing there but rock and stupendous winds. But terrific to stand on the southern end of the inhabited world.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful photos and great commentary Stephen. I love stories of people who visit a place and love it so much that they simply stay….citizens of the world I call them.

  4. Thank you for these wonderful photos. It’s so interesting to see these flowers (Protea and Bird-of-Paradise etc.) in their native settings.

  5. Since you’re writing a pro-science blog, it would be nice if you didn’t call bananas “trees”. [gentle poke, but you’re quoting someone else, so it’s not you who said that!] Giant strelitzia and banana are distant relatives in the ginger order and can look similar from a distance in clusters like that because the leaves are quite similar, but in typical contexts giant strelitzia doesn’t look at all like banana and is mistaken as a palm by many people, as in the common misnomer “traveller’s palm”, with a woody (not actual wood of course) trunk similar to palms.

  6. South Africa is magical and unmatched in floral diversity. Walk in a grassy field and look down and you are walking on six different species of flowers under your feet.
    After our visit I looked for a good book explaining and featuring this diversity; how did it evolve? What climatic, water and soil conditions allowed it? The Cape Town park of indigenous plants is unique in the world. You can see the country’s biodiversity right there even if you dont travel elsewhere. Dont overlook the karoo!!!!Amazing huge spread of cactus=lilke plants that have no connection to cactus whatsoever!!!!Just growing everywhere you look. SA should definitely be on everyone’s list if they are interested in nature…and the pluses are the birds and animals!

  7. I had no idea about the floral diversity in South Africa, thanks for the learnings. And thanks for showing us some of the beautiful flowers and landscapes from the area.

  8. Lovely proteas so strange and yet to an Australian so familiar, especially having seen some of the flowers in SW Western Australia

  9. The third photograph (yellow flowers) is certainly a Leucospermum but I won’t venture which species (Wikipedia says 48 species).

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