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Roughly stated, there are six floral regions in the world. One, the Boreal Forest Kingdom, extends across 20 million square miles of Russia, Europe and North America, making up 40% of the (dry) Earth's surface.
At the other end of the spectrum (so to speak), is the Cape Floral Kingdom, occupying a mere 0.04% of that surface. Yet, inside that tiny area, barely 500 miles long and 200 miles wide, the aspiring eco-tourist will find a staggering 8,600 plants, of which 5,800 are endemic (unique to the area). This is the home of watsonia, ixia, gladiolus, erica, protea … plants that are now so common around the world and found in so many gardens, hardly anyone even wonders where they originated. They came from the Cape. And they can be found in a bewildering variety of species .. there are over 100 pelargoniums (that's geraniums to you), over 500 ericas of the world's 740 species, .. the list is extensive. Even if you never graduated beyond lawn-school, you cannot help being impressed by the diversity. Charles Darwin would have had a ball.
The Serengeti of flowers.
If you don't want to make it then, or you live in the north (New York, Toronto), you might want to get away in our winter (December - February). Remember it's their summer out there (35C), and there are lots of flowers all year round.
The main reason for going in September is to see the spring flowers in Namaqualand. This is an area 300-700 km north of Cape Town. The road (the N7) is paved and fine to travel at 100 km/hr. The flowers, however, are erratic .. one year they will be good, the next year spectacular, the following year only OK. It depends on the rains, and they vary.
The National Botanical Gardens .. Kirstenbosch
Located in the gardens, huge soapstone carvings from neighboring Zimbabwe (often weighing several tons), add a gallery-like feel to the already manicured layout of lawns and paths and beds.
At the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is a closed area, that requires an entrance fee, but is well worth the time spent. Over 2500 species of plant await the horticulturist or botanist, plus there are a number of wild buck and other game. But beware of the baboons! At the end of the road near the lighthouse, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet below a 250m high sea cliff, these primates have learned to live well off passing tourists, and are not immune to jumping onto your car and breaking windscreen wipers and radio aerials until they get fed!
Outside the city .. wildflower shows
Visit the Orchid Show first. The Darling area is home to numerous indigenous orchids and disas, and the organizers bring together a wide range of local and exotic plants for visitor to admire. Once through the show area, you pass into a warehouse where gardeners can buy many of the plants they have just seen, in all sizes from seeds, bulbs and cuttings through to huge established plants. (A note to North American visitors: permits are needed to bring plants into the USA or Canada.)
Darling is not a large town (pop. 3,000?), but the local folks are proud of their show. Let's leave the orchids, and head across to the main event, the Wildflower Show. Year after year, collectors have learned where the best of the fynbos (see Info Box 1) is, and each year they create museum-like dioramas of plants, collected together in themes. There will be a dry Karoo section, filled with succulents, daisies (in flower), ixias, renoster bush and more. The next show-piece might be a wetland diorama, filled with arum lilies, marsh grasses, anemones, leucadendrons and similar.
The marvel of these displays is not simply that they are there, under a roof, and in full bloom, but that they look like they have grown there. Wild flowers are notoriously difficult to cultivate or store. The show somehow manages to bring together and display swathes of spectacular spring flowers. Many of the plants are labeled, plus there is a section where individual plants (usually cut, and in vases) are fully described with Latin and local names, for your information.
The volunteers are friendly, and keen to chat. Mr Duckett is a local farmer (retired) who has been helping at the Flower Show for longer than he can remember. Every year he has a few 'specialties' that he knows where to find, and he digs and brings them in a frantic rush on the Friday of the show. So do many others. Together, the whole creation appears in just a few hours of hectic work.
We talk about watsonias, which resemble gladiolus plants, but have a more delicate flower, and I mention that at Kirstenbosch earlier that week I saw an entire bed of white ones, which must be a new variety. I have, by accident, pushed the right button on Mr Duckett.
"I'm glad you mentioned that, because I'm the fellow who found that flower. One spring .. I forget how many years ago that was now … I was collecting for our Flower Show, and there, in a whole field of wild watsonias, there was one white stem. Just one. I didn't have time then, but later I came back and dug it up. Carefully, of course. And I sent it down to the people at Kirstenbosch. And they did whatever they do, and now there's hundreds … thousands .. it's wonderful."
Mr Duckett is clearly pleased with his tiny contribution to the field of horticulture. And, no, the variety isn't named after him. It's named after the area. "I just found it," he says modestly.
East of Cape Town, a few hour's drive along the famous Garden Route to Port Elizabeth, the small town of Caledon in the wheat belt boasts the Caledon Botanical Garden. This 214-hectare centre is renowned for its displays of spring wildflowers, and an annual show is staged each September. It's the perfect time to see the Caledon bluebell. Nearly 60-hectares have been cultivated, while the remainder consists of mountain fynbos. Indigenous trees ring a lake, forming an attractive feature in the valley. Short walks explore the garden, which also has a tea room and picnic sites.