Garden, Gardens

The Secret Life of Plants

Sean Calitz



HL adventures into the quiet hamlet of Clanwilliam in the Western Cape to experience the annual explosion of spring wildflowers.

A combination of deep blue sky, rolling green fields, candy floss clouds and the incandescence of almost -neon yellow canola holds the promise of warmer weather.

It’s late August, and we’re headed for Clanwilliam in the foothills of the Cederberg in search of spring wildflowers en masse. But, this year, if the usually indicative N7 roadside is anything to go by, we’re left wondering where the daisies are hiding. Originally christened Jan Disselsvallei after a local botanist, the dorp was renamed in 1814 by the governor of the Cape Province, Sir John Cradock. He named it after his father-in-law, the fifth Earl of Clanwilliam.

This year, the town has celebrated 200 years with a number of events, not the least of which is its annual nine-day Wildflower Show in early spring. Each year, the neo-gothic ‘Blomkerk’ (flower church) sees hundreds of visitors flocking to view its display of more than 400 species from 30 plant families. Local volunteers lovingly arrange the flowers according to the four different biomes in the region: fynbos, renosterveld, strandveld and succulent Karoo. There are species here that are found nowhere else in the world, including Proteaceae cryophila (snow protea), yellow Sparaxisgrandiflora (botterblom) and pink Cyanella alba (pienk handjie). That’s if you want to view the Cederberg’s diverse botanical offerings in one fell swoop. But if strolling is your thing, you can experience the splendour in its natural habitat via guided walks from the nearby Moravian missionary settlement at Heuningvlei.

We take the road to Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat which snakes up over the Pakhuis Pass, just outside Clanwilliam, through rugged, almost lunar rock formations. Barren verges en route again leave us wondering if we’ve jumped the daisy-hunting gun.

The Bushmans Kloof team introduce us to their annual Clanwilliam cedar tree project, in association with CapeNature. Endemic to the Cederberg mountains, the aromatic, resilient Widdringtonia cedarbergensis is a highly endangered species, owing to centuries of over-exploitation and destruction by wildfires. In a community planting ceremony each May, saplings grown from seed at the on-site nursery are safely transplanted back into the wilderness.

We move on to the nearby Biedouw Valley. Bingo. The valley appears, awash in shades of canary yellow, electric orange and white, with occasional pinpricks of azure flax (Heliophila coronopifolia, or blou sporrie). Winter rains have transformed this normally parched landscape into a sea of daisies – among them Dimorphotheca pluvialis, or the Cape rain daisy; D.sinuate, the Namaqualand daisy; Ursinia cakilefolia, or glossy-eyed parachute daisy and arctotis, commonly known as the gousblom. There are thousands of delicate flowering bulbs such as pink kalkoentjies (Gladiolus venustus) and Moraea miniata (two-leaf Cape tulip).

The next day, we decide to look for the less conspicuous gems of this domain, and we visit Chris du Plessis of Elandsberg Eco Tourism about 20km outside of Clanwilliam. Together with his wife, Annette, he runs rooibos safari tours on Groenkol rooibos tea estate – the aromatic rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) is grown exclusively in the region.

We opt for his supremely informative fynbos tour instead. With more than 9000 species in this kingdom, he’s never short of subject matter. ‘I try to convey my passion for plants by talking about their secret lives,’ he says, and explains their fascinating climatic adaptations, staggered seed dispersal and germination mechanisms. The beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa), for example, employs insect mimicry to attract its pollinators through randomly dispersed beetle-like spots on its orange petals. The tortoise berry (Nylandtia spinosa) is a stiff, spiny shrub studded with pink flowers that develop into nutritious fruit – much loved by tortoises that disperse the seeds once they’ve had their fill.

Gardening expert Anne Paterson takes us on a short walking trail through some of the 350 indigenous varieties in the Ramskop Nature Garden, overlooking Clanwilliam dam. Born-and-bred in this town, Anne, together with her fellow enthusiasts, nurture this cultivated space to offer visitors a concentrated view of the special plants that inhabit some of the richest biomes in the world. And that’s no secret.

Clanwilliam Flower Festival, clanwilliamflowerfestival.co.za; Elandsberg Eco Tourism, 027-482-2022