Nature in South Africa

Nature in South Africa is a world in its own right; biodiversity is very high. At least 4 biomes or eco zones should be discerned. Fynbos is the natural shrubland or heathland vegetation occurring in a small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa, mainly in winter rainfall coastal and mountainous areas with a Mediterranean climate, its famous representative the Giant Protea. Going north, precipitation gets less, and we arrive in a semi-desert: the Karoo. Further to the north-east we ascend to a plateau with a predominantly grassy vegetation; the Highveld. Continuing north-east, we descend into the Limpopo valley, near the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The vegetation here is called the Lowveld, and it starts to look like a tropical savannah.


Fynbos features a lot of unique species and there are no less than 8700 of them, with 75% endemism (growing nowhere else). Because of this high biodiversity, botanists elevated the flora of this region to the status of a floral kingdom. A characteristic genus is Protea, with the Giant Protea or King Sugarbush as best known species, but there are 450 species of this family here.

The Cape Floral Kingdom is also the centre of the genus Erica. Heathers occur in Western Europe too, but the fynbos has no less than 722 species, 700 of which endemic. The plant family with most species in the fynbos is the Daisy family (Asteraceae). There’s also real forest in Cape Floral Region. When you descend from Table Mountain to the botanical garden Kirstenbosch*, you pass through it If you’re lucky you may find a very rare and protected Orchid here: Disa uniflora, or Red Disa, the ‘Pride of Table Mountain’. It grows on the forest floor, usually near open water, and the magnificent flowers appear in local summer, peaking in February.

Along the coast near Knysna is a well-known forest Tsitsikamma. A subtropical primeval forest has many species of trees, often with conspicuous roots, and lianas. This is where Sparmannia africana (Indoor Linden, African Hemp) grows wild.

The Karoo

Just north of the narrow strip of fynbos starts the Karoo, with the Little Karoo and the Great Karoo. In ecological sense this distinction is also recognized, only both regions are extended to the north, right up to the Namibian border. The eco-region along the west coast is called the Succulent Karoo, and the Little Karoo is the southernmost tip of that. More to the east is the Nama Karoo, which includes the Great Karoo.

The Succulent Karoo stretches along the coastal strip of southwestern Namibia and South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, where the cold Benguela Current offshore creates frequent fogs. It is bounded on the south by the Mediterranean climate fynbos, on the east by the Nama Karoo, which has more extreme temperatures and variable rainfall, and on the north by the Namib Desert.
The Succulent Karoo is notable for the world’s richest flora of succulent plants, and harbours about one-third of the world’s approximately 10,000 succulent species. The region is extraordinarily rich in geophytes, harbouring approximately 630 species.

Valleys suddenly start to bloom roughly the month of September and have carpets of flowers, mainly members of the Daisy family (herbaceous here) and Mesems (related to Mesembryanthemum). A species like Carpobrotus (Pigface or Hottentot Fig), well known from Mediterranean gardens and cliffs, is indigenous here.

South Africa is the prime country where many of our ornamental plants originally came from, for example, “Geranium” – its real name is Pelargonium – a genus which comprises 250 wild species here. There are also hundreds of wild species of bulbous plants, and dozens of them became world famous, like Clivia, Nerine, and other species of the Amaryllis family.

Also Crocosmia (Montbretia) has its roots here, as well as many species of Gladiolus. In warmer parts of the country you’ll encounter the Coral. Wood-sorrels (like Shamrock) are also very popular; 200 species of Oxalis are indigenous here, usually with yellow or pink flowers. Oxalis pes-caprae, the Bermuda Buttercup or Cape Sorrel (much naturalized in the Mediterranean) honours its name: it grows like a weed between the paving-stones in Cape Town.

Another conspicuous plant is Leonotis*, an orange Dead-Nettle, that will get up to 3 meters high, and has woody stems. It’s called Wild Dagga (Dagga is a Khoisan word, referring to a mild narcotic property, like Cannabis. Other famous genera are Helichrysum (Strawflower, Everlasting) and Gazania (Treasure Flower)

The Lowveld

The vegetation along the border with Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana starts to look like the African savannah.
There are groups of Sansevieria (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue or Snake Plant), of which you can squeeze the roots in order to get some drinking water. You’ll also get to see flat-top or umbrella Acacias.

The Candelabra Tree is a tall succulent Spurge, looking a bit like a columnar cactus. It’s locally common. Southern parts of the Lowveld will have elements of the Cape, like a tall Aloe with orange flowers on horizontal branches (Aloe marlothii, Bergaalwyn). More to north, from the Kruger Park onward, tropical species become more frequent, like the magnificent Impala Lily (Adenium), the Sausage Tree (Kigelia) and the impressive Baobab.