Home to more than 3000 species of flora, more than 10% of the plant diversity of southern Africa (surpassing the native flora of Switzerland or Germany and double that of Britain), the Maloti Drakensberg is a proverbial garden of Eden of rare and beautiful plants. 16% of its flowers occur nowhere else in the world
The Maloti Drakensberg region supports an amazing diversity of plants, many of them found nowhere else in the world.
There is something to be seen everywhere, but it is often the alpine plants of the remote higher altitudes that offer the most rewarding and remarkable experiences. These plants are often small, but exquisite. Although rare in distribution, they can be locally abundant. For example, the Basotho use Helichrysum trilineatum, amongst others, as fuel, collecting large bundles and transporting it home by donkey. These plants, although endemic to the high mountain region, are widespread in that habitat.
Interesting plants can be seen at any time of the year, but the peak flowering months are November to February.
Flowers: North and South, high and low
It is worth noting that the types of flowers you can expect to find at any location depend mainly on two things – the aspect (which way a slope faces) and the altitude (height above sea level).
North-facing slopes are exposed to more direct sunlight, so plants growing there must withstand drier and hotter conditions than plants growing on the south-facing slopes.
Also, the higher you go, the harsher the climate, resulting in three floral zones linked to altitude. The lowest is the montane zone, with grasslands, shrubs and forests. Next is the sub-alpine zone, consisting mainly of grasslands, followed by the unforgiving alpine zone at the summit, where only the hardiest of plants can thrive, adapted to strong winds, heat in summer, snow and ice in winter.
The interplay of aspect and altitude means that two sites with the same altitude, but different aspects, will have different plants; and two sites with the same aspect, but different altitudes, will also have different plants. This means you may find a wide variety of species within a relatively small area, simply by changing altitude or moving horizontally along the mountainside.
Enjoy magical montane forests
To stumble from a hot grassland walk into a cool forest, in a sheltered gorge or on a south-facing slope, is a dramatic and refreshing experience.
Here you will find forests of Yellowwood trees (Podocarpus latifolius, P. henkelii, P. falcatus), renowned for their fine yellow timber. Other trees include the Mountain Hard Pear (Olinia emarginata) with bright red berries, the Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense) with stunning pink flowers, the Cape Holly (Ilex mitis) and the White Stinkwood (Celtis africana).
In this sheltered world you will also find small plants such as the wild Orange Begonia and the striking purple Streptocarpus gardenii, a relative of the African violet, growing on damp rocks, and the little white granny bonnet orchids Disperis fanniniae.
Appreciate the wonders of the grasslands
At first the wide expanses of open grassland, beautifully coloured in season, may seem monotonous. But step out of your vehicle and start walking: within this sea of grass the plant variety is enormous. Throughout spring and summer different plants come into flower. Shorter flowers like the lovely lilac cushions of Barleria monticola emerge in spring when the grass is short, while late summer flowers are taller in order to compete with the grass. The high season for orchids is January/February.
Some of the grasslands are scattered with a variety of Protea species such as the widespread Common Sugarbush (Protea caffra) and Silver Sugarbush (Protea roupelliae), forming Protea savannas.
Keep a lookout for brilliant orange or pink Watsonias, magnificent Brunsvigias (tumbleweeds) and the delicate dangling pink or purple flowers of the Hairbells (Dierama). Deep blue Agapanthus cluster on cool, damp rocky slopes and white arum lilies thrive in marshy areas.
Discover high-altitude treasures
The most widespread flowering plants gracing the alpine zone are Erica (heather) and Helichrysum (everlasting daisies).
Spring (September to November) is a good time to see wild irises (Moraea spp.), including the large yellow Moraea huttonii found along streams. In summer, wetlands are lined with glowing patches of red-hot pokers, including the Lesotho Poker (Kniphofia caulescens) – a traditional charm against lightning.
The red Suicide Gladiolus (Gladiolus flanaganii) clings to the rocky basalt cliffs where it is pollinated by the malachite sunbird, while the Lesotho lily (Gladiolus saundersii), an alpine endemic, is traditionally used as a remedy for diarrhoea.
The rare Cloud Protea (P. nubigens) is found in a single site at Royal Natal National Park. The magnificent Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla), which is close to extinction due to excessive harvesting, is found only in Lesotho. You can see them in the Katse Botanic Gardens.
High-altitude tarns around Sehlabathebe are home to the Sehlabathebe “water lily” (Aponogeton ranunculiflorus) which is found here and nowhere else in the world.
Understand the issues
Sadly, the floral wealth of this region is under threat. There are too many domesticated animals to be supported on the present grazing land and livestock are being herded into previously untouched areas, causing grassland degradation, soil erosion and damage to alpine wetlands.
Traditionally many plants have medicinal or spiritual uses. In the past, harvesting by traditional healers for local use was sustainable, but now large-scale harvesting is causing a decline in many species.
The hope of ecotourism, and of community-owned ventures in particular, is that they will contribute to the livelihoods of rural communities, and in so doing, encourage rural communities to preserve the floral asset in their care.
Plants may not be collected and removed from the region without a collecting permit. Take only photographs.
Finally, we can grow a love for the beauty and value of our rich floral wealth by encouraging children to look for the special features of these flowers, such as their smell or shape or the fact that they’re not found anywhere else on this planet!