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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Nieuwoudtville, South Africa

By Jim Bishop.

As some of you may know, I turned 60 this year. As part of the celebration, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to places I've always wanted to visit, including South Africa. Over the past 38 years of gardening in Southern California, I’ve become aware of how many plants we grow originate from South Africa. I first started growing freesias decades ago, but quickly learned that there are many other South African bulbs that do well here: Sparaxis, Ixia, Watsonia, Tritonia and more. In the late 1980’s, there was an episode of Nature on PBS about all the bulbs and daisies that bloom on years with good winter rains in the Northern Cape of South Africa. I'd dreamt of visiting there on a good year ever since.

With 20,300 species of flowering plants, the South African Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the six most signiificant concentrations of plants in the world. It is home to 10% of the world’s flowering plants, but only covers 1% of the planet’s land surface.

Since it takes some early planning to get to South Africa, the original plan was to visit mostly the Cape Town area and Garden Route of the southern portion of South Africa. However, in July and August friends on Facebook noted that the winter rains in the Northern Cape would likely result in a good year for blooms. The flower season there, much like our own deserts, can be very difficult to predict and only lasts about 6 weeks from late August to the beginning of October. Since it is unlikely that we’d be returning to South Africa anytime soon, I didn’t want to take a chance that we would miss a good bloom year. So just a few weeks before our trip, Scott rearranged flights and accommodations so we could spend a few days in the tiny town of Nieuwoudtville, which bills itself as “The Bulb Capital of the World”.

It takes most of day to drive from Cape Town to Nieuwoudtville. The mountain scenery along the way is incredible. Most of the wildflowers grow in the ditches beside the roads and we stopped several times to explore them. Just before arriving in Nieuwoudtville there is a steep climb up to the Bokkeveld Escarpment. It is similar to the climb out of Borrego to Warner Springs. At the top the scenery turned much greener and lusher. Nieuwoudtville is a very small town, just a few blocks of houses surrounding an old Dutch Reformed Church. A few of the houses have been turned into small inns and we were fortunate to be able to stay in a recently renovated one.

Very near town is the Nieuwoudtiville Wild Flower Reserve and we had time to visit it before dark. We weren't disappointed. The reserve has a large red rock outcropping surrounded by flat fields. The fields were covered with pale yellow and apricot bulbs at peak bloom mixed in with countless varieties of smaller bulbs and annual flowers. Most notable of these were the gazanias which look pretty much like they do here except these were all wild. As we got closer to the rocks there were plants with large succulent leaves, Brunsvigia, that were flat to the ground. Most had 6 very large leaves with small hairs along the leaf edges and a very large bulb below the soil. They grow in the wet season but send up an umbrel of flowers after the first rain of late summer or early fall. Seeds form as the umbrel dries and it is snapped off by winds and rolls across the fields dropping seeds. The flat leaves crowd out other plants, gather moisture from dew, and absorb warmth from the soil on cold winter nights.


On one side of the rock outcrops grow dense fields of Bulbinella nutas. Most are yellow, but in one small area near the rock outcrop they are orange (B. latifolia var. doleritica) . Oddly as if planted to coordinate their colors, most of the gazanias near the orange ones were also orange and yellow near the yellow ones. Beneath and around the bulbines grew numerous smaller bulbs and wildflowers in bright spring colors. On another day we drove along some dirt farm roads that had small spring ponds surrounded by large flowing swaths of dense yellow Bulbinella. After a bit of searching we found a large stand of very rare white bulbinella and once again most of the flowers blooming nearby were also various shades of white.

Yellow blooming Bulbinella nutans

There are two other main tourist attractions in Nieuwoudtville, the waterfall and the quiver trees. The 270 foot fall on the Doorn River is just a short walk from the parking area. Along the trail grew large Euryops that looked almost identical to the Southern California native Coreopsis gigantea.

The quiver trees or kokerboom, Aloe dichotoma, grow in large groups on dry north-facing rocky slopes. The name quiver tree comes from using the hollowed out branches to store arrows. I’ve seen countless photos of these over the years, but never imagined I’d visited where they grew naturally and be able to walk right up to them. They were spectacular.

Jim in Aloe dichtoma forest

We spent our last day in the Northern Cape driving to various fields and farms to observe the wildflowers. Fields separted by just a fence could contain plants that were totally different from the previous field. The biodiversity was overwhelming. Most notable was the Hantam National Botanical Gardens. Here we encountered porcupine dens, black and red grasshoppers, giant Artosis, Cotula microglossa, beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa), Nemesia cheiranthus, Gazania cheirantus, Lapeirousia, Babiana framesii and countless other flowers. But my favorite, with its yellow tulip shaped flowers with black centers and three of its six petal tipped with black markings was Hesperantha vaginata.

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