Table Mountain flora – Part 1: Nature’s botanical garden

Jul 12, 2012

“… a botanic garden, neglected and left to grow to a state of nature; so great was the variety everywhere to be met with.” 

WILLIAM BURCHELL, English naturalist, 1810, after climbing Lion’s Head.

I’m not your garden-variety plant lover. I appreciate vegetation as it occurs naturally in all its forms – jungle, shrubland, swamps, thickets – but I do not study plants or read plant books for the sake of knowing things like their flowering times or pollination strategies. And not ever will you find me pottering around the garden with spade or secateurs. But such is the diversity, quaintness and exuberance of Table Mountain’s flora that it’s virtually impossible not to be captivated.

Book volumes have been written about Table Mountain’s flora, and more await to be written. In this article – the first in a series on Table Mountain flora – we will take a brief look at diversity. I will not probe very deep, but merely skim the surface, cover a few salient facts and figures, highlight a quirk or two, keeping it distinctly unscientific. There is much to say on the subject, but sometimes less is more – more or less.

Let’s start by looking at how Table Mountain’s flora fits into the global scheme of things. The world is divided into six floral kingdoms, the smallest being the Cape Floral Kingdom, also known as the Cape Floristic Region, which comprises a coastal belt about 200 kilometers wide and 1000 kilometers long, stretching roughly from Clanwilliam on the west coast to Humansdorp on the southeast coast. Of the six floral kingdoms, this is the richest per area unit, boasting more than 9000 species, 69% of which are endemic i.e. they don’t grow anywhere else on the planet.

Table Mountain falls well within the Cape Floristic Region, offering a range of habitats to more than 1500 species. To put this in perspective, there are more than three times more species per square kilometre (or mile) on Table Mountain than in the Brazilian rainforest. Put another way, there are more or less as many species on Table Mountain – an area of about 57 square kilometers – than on the entire British Isles. Of the 2285 species that occur on the Cape Peninsula – the finger of land stretching from Table Mountain to Cape Point – 160 are endemic, the highest endemism for any area of the same size in the world. Table Mountain possesses the highest concentration of species within the Cape Floristic Region: 16% of the total number of species in only 0,08% of the total area. In one ten-square-meter patch on Table Mountain, botanists have recorded a staggering 121 species! More than any other attribute, it’s the remarkable diversity and endemism of Table Mountain’s flora that makes it so special.

Hiking on Table Mountain gives you the opportunity to experience the many different floral habitats, allowing you to smell the many fragrant species like Buchu, the Swamp Daisy and Wild / Mountain Sage, and chancing upon some of the unique flowers like the King Protea, which looks like an exploded artichoke. And there are always flowers on the mountain, in every season; the other day, I counted six species along the first 20-minute stretch of the India Venster trail – and that in mid-winter. A walk on Table Mountain offers many rewards, and this one of them.

Next up in this series: What exactly is fynbos and what habitats does it comprise?


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