South Africa is world renowned for its indigenous flora, and particularly the flora of the Western Cape Fynbos biome in the winter rainfall region.
Geophytes form an important part of this flora and Cape bulbs are known throughout the world for their diversity and beauty. Most tourists and
travellers interested in our indigenous flora visit Cape Town and the
surrounding regions, particularly during the spectacular spring flower season up the West Coast and in Namaqualand. Very few visitors extend their
journey to the lesser known regions of the Eastern Cape to the east of Port Elizabeth - a region of primarily summer rainfall that in terms of bio-diversity, numbers and variety of wild flowers, including bulbs, almost rivals the Western Cape.
Climate and topography of the Eastern Cape
The province contains a vast variety of landscapes, from the stark Karoo (the semi-desert region of the central interior) to mountain ranges and gentle hills rolling down to the sea. The climate and topography give rise to the great
diversity of vegetation types and habitats in the region. Except along the coast and along the southern slopes of the mountain ranges that form a series of
escarpments, the annual rainfall seldom exceeds 500mm and occurs mostly in summer. Rainfall in summer comes in the form of both thunder showers and prolonged drizzle and mist as weather fronts move through the region from west to east. Particularly along the coast and on the southern mountain slopes, mist precipitation is significant. Some winter rain does fall occasionally and snow sometimes occurs on the high mountain ranges. Frost will occur regularly between May and September in areas above 1000 metres. The
topography is hilly and in places rugged with a series of mountain ranges
extending from east to west, rising to altitudes of up to 2000 metres.
Considerably drier areas of rain shadow occur to the north of the escarpments as well as in a number of deep river valleys, such as the Great Fish River
valley, that bisect the region. Fire is an integral part of the grassland ecology, occurring mainly in early spring when the moribund grass is burnt to make way for spring growth. Some early flowering Cyrtanthus species and many ground orchids are stimulated by fire to flower.
The fact that the Eastern Cape lies in the region of transition between the
winter rainfall biome and the summer rainfall regions of East and Central
Africa is a feature that makes it unique. Elements of both vegetation zones are present. For instance typical West Cape genera like Ixia and Strumaria each have their most easterly representatives in this region, i.e. Ixia orientalis ranges as far east as Cathcart and Strumeria gemmata as far as the
mountains in the Sterkstroom district where they endure extremely cold and dry winters. Haemanthus coccineus occurs as far east as the Keiskamma River near East London. On the other hand, this region is the western boundary of summer rainfall species such as Haemanthus montanus and H. humilis ssp. humilis, which extend from the Eastern Cape through Natal and into the
A further anomaly of this transition zone between winter and summer growing species, is that some bulbs retain a summer dormancy. For instance the Brunsvigia spp, although growing in a summer rainfall region, follow a growth pattern almost akin to winter rainfall species. Leaves appear after flowering in late summer, persist through winter and the plants go dormant in spring.
A number of other bulb species in the Eastern Cape exhibit similar growth
patterns - e.g. Massonia jasminiflora and Veltheimia bracteata which are
summer dormant and flower in winter. Freesia laxa is an example of a bulb that grows in winter, flowers and seeds in spring and early summer and
disappears entirely in mid-summer. The fact that it grows in full shade in
forest probably affords it the protection it needs against winter elements.
The diverse climatic and topographical features of the Eastern Cape give rise to a very wide range of vegetation types embracing coastal dune forest,
acacia savannah, various types of grassland ranging from lowland mixed grassveld to highland sour grassveld, valley bushveld and lush Afromontain forest. Within each veld type special circumstances such as aspect, slope, soil type, wetlands, stream banks, cliffs, ravines, gorges etc. give rise to an
infinite variety of microclimates and habitats to which particular species are adapted. Consequently, a very large number of species occur in the Eastern Cape, some extremely localised and others widespread. It is interesting that in those species that are more widely spread, considerable variation occurs which often gives rise to questions as to their status. Are they geographic forms of a particular species or should they be given specific status, for
example the Haemanthus humilis/carneus complex and the many varieties of
Eucomis autumnalis? This is an ongoing debate in which both amateurs and botanists participate.
Almost all the bulbous genera which occur in Southern Africa are represented in the Eastern Cape. The region is particularly rich in Amaryllidaceae, some species being endemic. Both Clivia miniata and Clivia nobilis from the coastal regions have become exceedingly scarce as a result of poaching from wild populations. The ubiquitous Boophone disticha has flowering times of different populations varying from August to November. A particularly robust form with long straight leaves occurs in the Kei River Valley. The bulb scales are
extensively used by the Xhosa people to treat circumcision wounds and are consequently heavily exploited. Brunsvigia is represented by two species -
B. gregaria and B. grandiflora. Both are widespread, occurring from the coast to the high mountains. B. gregaria varies from pale pink in the eastern and southern populations to bright scarlet in the drier regions of the Karoo.
Inland populations flower in February, while those near the coast flower as late as mid-April. Because of its upright leaves, B. grandiflora has been
severely affected by grazing livestock. This magnificent plant is now confined to small areas where livestock has been excluded by fences i.e. road reserves and areas adjacent to arable land.
The most widespread and common Amaryllid is the beautiful Ammocharis coranica. It is stimulated to flower by fire and spectacular stands of blooms occur soon after early spring burns. Like B. gregaria, westerly populations are darker in colour. Although extremely rare, pure white specimens of both
B. gregaria and A. coranica do occur in the wild. Scadoxus puniceus is also widely distributed, ranging from lowland acacia veld to the summits of the high mountains. It flowers in spring and is always confined to shady,
sheltered spots under trees and bushes or between boulders.
Crinum is represented by three species in the Eastern Cape. C. moorei occurs in the frost-free coastal dune forest. C. macowanii is widespread in the
grassland and bushveld areas with colder and drier winters but it is also
severely threatened by overgrazing. C. campanulatum is endemic and is
confined to shallow seasonal pans (referred to locally as "vleis") in the Peddie and Bathurst districts, which bake hard in the dry season when there is no sign of a bulb. They are opportunistic in that they will flower only when the pans fill with water. In good seasons the mass flowering of this spectacular crinum is a breathtaking sight. They rapidly set seed which drop and float on the water. They germinate when they come into contact with the mud when the water evaporates after the rains have passed. While these crinums vary mostly from dark to pale pink, one pan in the Peddie district has paler colours ranging to pure white.
The region is particularly rich in Cyrtanthus species, some endemic to the
region and some as yet undescribed. Dyer (1939) states that with the
concentration of species in the Eastern Cape, it may be regarded as the
headquarters of the genus. Most species put out their flowers before their leaves, but some are evergreen. The most widespread is C. contractus, which extends from inland areas of the Eastern Cape northwards. It seems to have no preference as to habitat, occurring sporadically in open grassland where it flowers in October, or earlier if stimulated by fire, its brilliant red umbels being most conspicuous in its usually drab surroundings.
A further species of the open grassland referred to as C. mackenii var. cooperi occurs southwards from Stutterheim, where it overlaps C. contractus. It is the earliest of the genus to flower in this area with sparse dull yellow to pinkish flowers. Although widespread it favours marshy ground where large
populations are concentrated, making an impressive sight in early August. This species is referred to as C. ochroleucus in the book by Batten &
Bokelmann "Flowering Plants of the Eastern Cape". C. ochroleucus is however the name of a species from the West Cape which it resembles, but which does not occur here (Dyer, 1939). It is difficult for me to accept that this
Cyrtanthus is a variety of C. mackenii, the well known garden subject also called Ifafa lily. Both in habitat and growth pattern, it is very different to
C. mackenii which is evergreen and has many shiny dark green leaves with bright yellow flowers and occurs along the banks of streams in full shade in patches of frost-free coastal forest. C. mackenii never occurs in open
grassland and multiplies prolifically by splitting of bulbs forming large clumps at the edges of pools. In contrast, "C. mackenii var. cooperi" almost never splits (it has single bulbs), is fully deciduous and has only one or two
grey-green leaves. The distribution of the two species does not overlap.
I believe some revision needs to be done to clarify the status of C. mackenii var. cooperi.
Another evergreen species occurring in wooded streambeds near the coast is C. brachycyphus. This is a free flowering attractive species, with small bright red flowers and rapid vegetative reproduction, making it an ideal garden
subject. Occurring in the same areas and with a similar growth pattern, but with wide-flaring large trumpet-like flowers, is the beautiful C. sanguineus.