By Brendan Cole
The unique flora of the Drakensberg is renowned internationally, especially amongst enthusiasts of alpine plants. There are approximately 2,500 species of plants found in this extensive mountain range, most are well documented. The Eastern Cape section of the Drakensberg is, however, little studied and the extent and diversity of plant life in this southern section of the Drakensberg is surprisingly little known to Botanists. There are no areas that are under special protection or conserved as nature reserves – as is common in the northern Berg. So it is up to landowners to recognise this unique floral heritage and to protect the land and its wild flowers and fauna. A key indicator of a thriving environment is the diversity of plants and animals found in any area. Gateshead and its surrounding property is an outstanding example of phenomenal plant diversity and testament to the love and care for this land by its owners!
A short hike recently this Spring revealed a great number of species of flowering plants that represent a veritable compendium of Spring-flowering plants in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg which we have recorded here.
One is greeted on the shores of the mighty Bokspruit near the Gateshead cottage, as one crosses its languid waters, by the dazzling sight of bright golden flowers of the beautiful Moraea huttonii – commonly known as the ‘Large Golden Vlei Moraea’. Of all the large-flowering Moraeas (or African Iris), this is certainly the most splendid. It is invariably found on gravely islands in the middle of stream beds or close by on river banks and is therefore easily identified from the other large yellow-flowered Moraeas (such as Moraea spathulata, or Moraea alticola). The flowers sweetly scented and are loved by bees, particularly and it is fascinating watching them force there way down between the large yellow tepals to imbibe in the sweet nectar of its deliciously scented blooms.
Another water-loving flower often seen along the streams in the valley is Haplocarpha nervosa – a member of the Daisy family that often grows in dense colonies wherever moisture is present around springs or stream banks. A lovely colony can be seen thriving in the dappled shade of the Poplar trees near the cottage on the opposite bank of the Bokspruit. Their large, bright yellow blooms are unmistakeable and create a lovely scene as one crosses the river to follow the trail into the mountains.
The path leading east up the valley is covered in Karoo-like shrubs typically found in these mountains, creating colourful thickets that line the way as one ascends along the course of the river. The most well known of these that comes into flower in the Spring is Leucosidea sericea – or Ouhout – which is widespread in these valleys. These small trees are a relation of the Rose and produce lovely, slightly scented, spikes of yellowish green flowers that catch the light most attractively as one passes through the valley. They are usually found in scrubland, and they grow abundantly here together with another daisy-family flower that grows into large handsome shrubs, Euryops tysonii. The name Euryops means large, attractive eye, and refers to the showy masses of flowerheads this genus is known for. This plant is common in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and can even be found in the gardens of local farmers as well as in Rhodes Village itself. These shrubs grow together with another daisy that forms large colonies, namely the strongly scented Helichrysum witbergense. As its name implies it was originally discovered in the Witteberg not far from here and is one of the local daisies that has a confined distribution in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, Lesotho and parts of the Northern Berg. The attractive globular flowerheads appear at the end of woody branches and their leaves are distinctive for being quite sticky.
Ouhout thriving along the Bokspruit
Euryops tysonii with its large spikey leaves and masses of bright yellow flowers
The strongly scented Helichrysum witbergense
Plants in the Drakensberg can easily be classified according to the habitat they prefer. The area is not just a monotony of grass, but distinctive habitats give rise to clearly definable groups of flora. Broadly speaking there are the wetland areas that provide a unique habitat for a range of plants such as those described above; then there are the ‘dryland’ areas, in other words large rocky outcrops and basalt sheets that would ordinarily be expected to be barren of all life but actually give rise to some of the most interesting flowering plants in the Drakensberg. Finally there are the well known grassland areas that are also diverse in the sense that there are wet-grassland areas and dry-grassland areas – each hosting unique groups of plants. All of these are well represented in the Gateshead area.
One should not avoid exploring the many beautiful rocky outcrops and exposed basalt sheets found in the mountains around Gateshead in search of interesting plants. The castle-like rocky outcrop to the east of the cottage is especially rich in plant life. One of the most curious flowers to appear in spring is the delightfully delicate Hebenstretia dura that produces a cluster of tiny white flowers at the end of twiggy stalks. The white flowers have two horn-like appendages with a bright orange mark in the centre and are easily recognisable against their stark rocky setting.
One is also sure to encounter the lovely succulent-like Cotyledon orbiculata, or ‘Pig’s Ear’ – one of the signature plants of the dryland areas of this region. It has distinctive leaves that are broad and green-grey with a reddish stripe along its margins. Its drooping flowers appear at the end of thick stalks and are bright orange and fleshy. Buds appear in Spring and are usually in full flower in November. Look for these amongst the cliffs and rocky buttresses in the higher areas on the farm.
One of the great flowering displays amongst the dry rocky areas in the Drakensberg is the ‘vygie’ like Ruschia putterillii. Once in full flower these succulents produce a mass of bright purple-pink flowers with bright shiny ‘petals’ that are conspicuous amongst the generally dry environments where they thrive. The hills around the Gateshead area have an abundance of these delightfully colourful flowers and one cannot help being drawn to their vibrant presence in the mountains.
Often found in grassy outcrops in rocky areas is the large, dazzling golden flowers of Helichrysum aureum. They grow in large clumps and can be seen from quite a distance. Like all Helichrysums they have brightly coloured, dry, papery bracts that last a long time after the flowering period is over, hence their popular name, ‘Everlastings’. The Gateshead area has a large colony of these beautifully vibrant flowers scattered across the slopes and summit area of the property and well worth looking out for.
Above: Helichrysum aureum overlooking the Bokspruit Valley with Gateshead cottage in the distance
One of the brightest displays is created by another spectacular daisy bush that grows exclusively amongst dry rocky areas – and often seen emerging out of cracks in basalt sheets – is Relhania acerosa. The plant can be encountered throughout the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and usually comes into flower in the early Spring in the lower lying areas amongst the valleys. This species is also well represented around Gateshead and plants can still be seen in flower in late October, many in their full glory. They also have dry papery bracts around the flowering heads which makes them a close relation to the Helichrysum. They have medium-sized, perfectly formed bright golden flowering heads and en masse create a truly spectacular sight – especially in early spring when there is generally little else of colour to entertain the eye in the dry expanses across this area.
On the summit areas of the mountains around Gateshead one can encounter a very special little blue daisy – Felicia caespitosa. This is a low-growing plant invariably found on bare rocky areas with upright flowers emerging from a mat of thread-like leaves. This flower is special because it is found only in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and nowhere else, in other words it is a highly local endemic species of Daisy. The plant was first discovered in 1904 by the intrepid explorer Ernest Galpin who trekked across the highlands of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg in that year on horseback with his wife in search of new species of plants. This little plant is still not rally well-known in botanical circles and well-worth looking out for.
The grassland areas around Gateshead have an abundance of beautiful flowers emerging in between the tussocks of grass dotting the hillsides with their attractive and brilliant colour in the Spring.
The densely flowered Gnidia polyantha appears in large colonies in the upland grass areas creating bright clumps of colour on the hillsides up there. This highly attractive plant produces a cluster of flowers at the end of the leafy stems surrounded by soft woolly leaves that last for some time. They are often seen on the roadside between Barkly East and Rhodes in the early spring, but at these higher altitudes they come into flower much later adding to the complex floral cornucopia in these remote hills at this time of the year.
Tucked in amongst thick grass one will often encounter two species of the delightfully beautiful Sebaea, namely Sebaea rehmannii with its dense clusters of bright yellow flowers, and Sebaea spathulata, which has large round clusters of beautiful white flowers. the latter is actually rarely seen in the mountains and is less common that most of the other Sebaeas found in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, of which there are about eleven distinct species. The latter is a great asset to the Gateshead flora.
Of all the grassland daisies there are none more attractive than Felicia rosulata. This striking flower is found everywhere in the mountains across the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and they are especially abundant around Gateshead. They are often found flowering in small groups, or as single flowers scattered amongst the grass. They are distinctive for having a large blue solitary flower emerging at the end of a tall stalk that emerges from a base of leaves spread flat across the ground arranged in a rosette. They are normally encountered in the higher areas of the mountains above 2000m.
Another large yellow-flowering plant, that is also related to the Rose, found amongst the grasses is Geum capense – of which there is a very large colony spread out everywhere in the hills around Gateshead. This is a handsome plant with large, broad crinkled leaves that lie close to the ground, producing a tall flowering stalk with a solitary yellow bloom at its apex. One can find them especially on damp turf slopes and gullies above 2000m, flowering from October to December.
There are few plants that create a more dazzling display of colour than Selago galpinii, with its mass of bright blue clusters of tiny flowers. The flower is fairly common in the hills and valleys of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and is well represented at Gateshead as well. This perennial herb is most frequently encountered in areas of rough rocky grassland.
One should be prepared for the spectacular show of Erica dissimulans in the rocky grassland areas around the summit area of the mountains around Gateshead. They are a haven for all sorts of insects – bees and butterflies especially – that are attracted to their nectar. These shrubs produce a mass of pinkish red flowers that are superb when seen together in great numbers. The plant is endemic to the Drakensberg, and one of many species of Erica worth seeking out in these mountains during the flowering season.
Finally, one of the most attractive little blue mountain flowers, seen everywhere in grassland areas around Gateshead this Spring, has to be Moraea stricta. This perfectly-formed little flower has beautiful blue-violet petals with a distinctive orange mark at its base – known as nectar guides which act as markers to indicate the path to its nectar for insects to follow! This lovely flower is found abundantly across the Gateshead property on the upper hillsides to the summit area. One’s efforts to seek them out are well rewarded!
This is just a limited selection of flowers appearing in the Spring in the Mountains around Gateshead. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the amazing butterflies on the wing this time of year as well as the many birds that populate this area – not least of all the grand Lammergeier which has been seen in pairs around the rocky crags around the summit area of the mountains around Gateshead….
For a complete gallery of flowers recorded at Gateshead this Spring, please visit the Gallery page of this website.