South African Flora

As California’s drought stretches into the future, the plants of Earth’s five Mediterranean climate zones attract gardeners’ interest and soon earn their appreciation. Many of these plants are fine additions to the landscape, offering beauty, fragrance and benefits for garden fauna as well as easy cultivation (with some exceptions) and environmental friendliness.

In today’s column, with our feet on the ground, we have an overview of the flora of one of these “summer-dry” zones: South Africa.

This relatively small country’s Mediterranean climate zone is the very small and extraordinary Cape Floristic Region. As background, botanists have identified six Floristic Regions (floral kingdoms) of the world. These are regions with distinctive plant life. The Cape Floristic Region, by far the smallest of the six, is noteworthy for very high diversity of plant life, with over 8,000 species, and very high endemism: nearly 70% of the plant species are native to the Region and nowhere else.

Much of the Region’s botanic diversity grows on the fire-prone shrub land called fynbos, which is roughly comparable to California’s chaparral. Both of these two shrub lands have shrubs with hard leaves, closely spaced on their stems.

The fynbos is the home for numerous small shrubs, evergreen and herbaceous plants, and bulbs, many of which are in three plant families.

The Protea family (Proteaceae), which includes 80 genera and 1,600 species, all in the Southern Hemisphere, and mostly in South Africa and Australia. The family name comes from the name of the Greek god Proteus, who could change between many forms. The adjective “protean” (changeable, versatile) has the same root. Plants in this family have a great diversity of flowers and leaves.

The popular South African genera in the Protea family include

  • Proteas (sugarbushes), which come in a range of heights, from three feet to nine feet, with unique compound flower heads (correctly, inflorescences) in pink or sometimes red.9-11-15 Protea
  • Leucospermums (pincushions), most reach four-to-five feet tall, with yellow, orange, pink or red flowers.

9-11-15 Leucospermum

  • Leucadendrons (conebushes), various species grow from three-to-eight feet tall; the striking silver tree (L. argenteum) reaches 25-to-40 feet tall, with “soft, silky, shimmering, silvery-green-gray, lance-shaped foliage.” The cone-shaped flowers typically are surrounded by petal-like bracts, often combining red and yellow colors.

9-11-15 Leucadendron

Australia is home to several genera of the Proteaceae, including banksia, grevillea and hakea.

The Cape heaths (Ericaceae) include some 660 species that are endemic to South Africa, and are often called winter (or spring) heather. Another 40 species, including summer (or autumn) heather are native to other parts of Africa the Mediterranean basin and Europe. Most of the Cape heaths are small shrubs, from eight inches to sixty inches in height, with attractive tubular pink flowers throughout the year.

The Cape reeds (Restionaceae). The genus Restio includes 168 species in South Africa. Various species of Restio grow from one-to-ten feet tall, with tiny flowers grouped in spikelets that comprise inflorescences. Other genera in this family of perennial, evergreen rush-like flowering plants are found throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

To view photographs of South African plants, serve the web for the plant’s botanical name and click on the menu option for images. Better yet: to experience the real presence of these plants, browse to arboretum.ucsc.edu, navigate to Visit/Gardens and Collections/South Africa, and tour the Arboretum’s South African collection in person. You could become inspired to bring South Africa’s botanical bounty into your own garden.

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