On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, I found myself blown away, surprisingly enough, by the plants. Given the stiff competition — Table Mountain, Robben Island, District Six, Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, the plants must be pretty stunning and indeed they are.
I had the good fortune to go in October, spring in the Southern Hemisphere and the flowers were in full bloom, very different flowers than I have seen anywhere else in the world. Did you know that the small tip of the Cape Peninsula (not even all of South Africa) is home to one of the 6 floral kingdoms of the world? The other 5 are the size of continents or bigger! It also has the most biodiversity per square inch of any place in the world. It represents less than 0.04% of the Earth’s surface, but is home to 3% of the world’s species of flowering plants. It has been designated a UNESCO protected area, but sadly, many of the estimated 9000 plant species in the region are under threat.
With the plants of this region under threat, we are losing far more than fascinating blooms. They have adapted to grow with little water in nutrient-poor soils. If you needed to develop a plant that could grow in sand with no fertilizer, little water, and bloom like that, could you do it? Well, these plants have been experimenting with how to do exactly that for thousands and thousands of years. Adaptations like this could be incredibly useful as new regions of the world become more arid, but there is so much we may never know about the secrets of some species before they are lost.
What we do know is dwarfed by what we don’t know, but what we do know is still fascinating. For example, these plants rely on fire every 15–20 years to germinate seeds and to allow smaller species to thrive without competition from the larger species. However, fire alone is not enough, the seeds also need smoke to germinate. Companies even sell “pre-smoke-treated seeds” to people who would like to try growing these plants at home.
On top of Table Mountain, I encountered this amazing plant that is cold to the touch even on the hottest sunny day.
At Cape Point Nature Reserve in the southernmost part of Table Mountain National Park, I enjoyed more Fynbos plants and other signs of spring such as baby ostrich and bontebok calves.
At Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, I heard more amazing stories of plant adaptation in one of the free guided tours of the gardens. For example, Kirstenbosch is known for a special variety of bird of paradise. It must be manually pollinated because although there are songbirds in the garden they are not the right song bird for this task. Bird of paradise needs a song bird that lands on the large perch petal and is large and heavy enough to pull down the purple lever, exposing the pollen and collecting some on its breast to take to other flowers. Conserving plants is also about preserving the very specific pollinators (birds, insects and others) they have adapted to need.
We are allowing so many plant species to go extinct without fully learning their secrets. Plants, like the ones in the Cape Floristic region, have been working hard on solutions to some of our biggest environmental challenges, but we may let them leave the earth without understanding the lessons they have to teach.