With 60% of fynbos flowering in spring, it might seem that these hot, dry and windy late summer months offer only slim pickings when it comes to seeing flowers on Table Mountain. Here’s the good news, however: the mountain is bursting with flowers right now – but I hope you like the colour red.
Summer is the season for some of our most spectacular flowers, not least thanks to the presence of an extraordinary butterfly called the Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia). Most insects have a thing for white and yellow flowers but this extravagantly patterned brown, yellow and blue butterfly is obsessed with red, even to the extent of landing on your red T-shirt or cap. And given the general lack of pollinators on our mountains, a number of plants ranging from irises to orchids take it in turns to send up dazzling red flowers to take advantage of the tireless Table Mountain Beauty.
The Table Mountain National Park forms part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom. There are only six floral kingdoms in the world, of which fynbos is the smallest and the only one found entirely within a single country.
Fynbos, Dutch for “fine-leaved plants” or Afrikaans for “fine bush”, describes the unique and beautiful floral species endemic to a small part of South Africa’s Western Cape province.
Several species have come and gone already: several red-flowered ericas (heathers) are past their prime, as are scarlet crassulas and summer snake flowers. But there are still thick stands of red disas, our most famous orchid and the symbol of Western Province Rugby, crowding shady stream banks. Blood-red cluster disas have also sprung up now, their nectarless flowers impersonating the food-rich snake flower, and not too far behind is a real gem.
The glorious Guernsey lily, crushingly rare on Table Mountain, is due to flower later this month and into April. Such is its allure that I have an American client coming out specifically to see its amazing crimson flowers. By the way, it’s neither a lily nor is it from Guernsey: it was among a crate of Cape bulbs that was washed up on the Channel Islands after a Dutch ship ran aground and it flowered on Guernsey Island, leading to its unusual name.
Other plants to look out for now are March lilies – and you don’t even have to go hiking to see them. The best displays of this wonderful pink flower are along Union Avenue, the section of the M3 that runs past Newlands Forest! And speaking of forests, if you’re in the Kalk Bay mountains in the next week or two, hike into the pockets of indigenous forest there to see the bizarre paintbrush lily, another bright red flower (I told you to get used to red) that pops out en masse from the forest floor.
It’s a great time to be hiking Table Mountain. I’d recommend any route that involves a forest and water section to catch the last of this year’s red disas: try Kasteelspoort on the Atlantic side, or the ever-impressive Myburgh’s Waterfall Ravine in the wild south-west corner of the mountain. Skeleton Gorge goes up from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and gives you access to the Smuts Track and several disa hotspots.
Hiking up Table Mountain, being on the summit and enjoying the views of Cape Town is a memorable experience. Many people choose to hike up the mountain and take the cable car down, which takes between five to 10 minutes.
But it’s not all about colours. One of the great secrets about the fynbos is that although there is very little to eat up in the mountains (why do you think our baboons hang out in Scarborough?), there is plenty to use. Restios (reeds) make great thatching material; wabooms (proteas) were used for wagon parts while the Khoisan-named gona bos provided rope. But most interesting are the medicinal uses of fynbos plants – and there’s an easy way to test to see if a plant has a place in the old Cape medicine cabinets: smell it.
But that’s for another day.
Dominic Chadbon, the Fynbos Guy, is a hiking guide who specialises in birds and botany. English-born, he came to Africa in 1991, working as a safari guide in Botswana before coming to Cape Town and instantly falling hopelessly in love with Table Mountain.