Exploring South Africa’s Small But Mighty Cape Floral Kingdom

South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom (or Cape Floristic Kingdom) is superlative in so many ways: it is the richest in the world in plant biodiversity, and the smallest in size. It covers just 78,555 square kilometers (30,330 square miles) in Western and Eastern Cape provinces, but has over 9,000 plant species.

The ratio of size to diversity mean it’s got the highest known concentration of plant species on Earth: 1,300 per 10,000 square kilometers. By comparison, the South American rain forest has 400 species per 10,000 square kilometers. It occupies just 0.04% of the Earth’s surface but has 3% of its species — and nearly 20% of Africa’s flora.

The Cape Floral Kingdom is also the only one of the world’s six floral kingdoms to fall within the borders of a single country. Earth’s other five floral kingdoms all cover huge areas, such as all of Australia, or most of the northern hemisphere.

The Cape Floral region is so unique that it is has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and conserving it is a national priority for South Africa. 69% of the species in the Cape Floral Kingdom are endemic, occurring nowhere else on Earth, and some of them are disappearing in the wild as human development reduces their habitat.

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this fascinating and diverse plant kingdom when you visit South Africa.

This slideshow originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.

Strawberry spiderhead

A member of the protea family, this form of the strawberry spiderhead is now extinct in the wild. It once grew in Faure, a hamlet 16 kilometers southwest of Stellenbosch, according to Kirstenbosch Gardens. Farming and urban sprawl are responsible for its extinction in the wild. Its Latin name is serruria aemula var. congesta. The plant is also known as sandplain fynbos.


Located at the foot of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is one of the great gardens of the world, and indigenous plants are grown there. Here you’ll get to see most of the Cape’s fynbos all in one place.

From the gardens, several trails lead up the mountain slopes and these are used and loved by hikers and joggers. The Skeleton Gorge trail is one of the easier and more popular routes to the summit of Table Mountain.

Sections of a wild almond hedge planted in 1660 are still visible at Kirstenbosch, grown by the first settler, Jan van Riebeek, to mark the perimeter of the Dutch colony. The gardens’ famed Camphor Avenue was planted in 1898.

Now occupying 36 hectares (89 acres), Kirstenbosch is ranked No. 3 of Cape Town attractions by TripAdvisor. Set aside a day to visit, go on a guided walking or motorized tour, have tea in the Kirstenbosch tea room or dine in the famous Moya restaurant, and commune with the resident guinea fowl. If you’re lucky, you may get to see newly hatched chicks.



Among the easiest members of the protea family to grow, the mimetes cucullatus is colorful all year round, and it has lots of names including common pagoda, red mimetes, red pagoda ( English ) and rooistompie (“red stump” in Afrikaans) or just plain stompie. The word stompie often refers to the discarded, burning end of a cigarette in South Africa.

Sour Fig

Khoisan women traditionally ate sour figs during pregnancy, believing it would help make for easy birth and healthy babies. Carpobrotus deliciosus is commonly known as suurvy, sweet Hottentots fig, perdevy, ghaukum or ghounavy. It’s an omnipresent native of the Eastern and Western Cape coast, extending into KwaZulu-Natal. Chewing the leaves of carpobrotus edulis gives instant relief from the pain of oral thrush or candida, and is considered effective treatment, according to Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Humans, tortoises and other Southern African animals eat sour fig fruit, and it’s made locally into traditional jams, preserves and dried fruit.

Bottle Heath

Bottle heath or erica retorta earned its name from the shape of its flowers. There’s a lively online discussion at ISpotNature.org between plant enthusiasts living in the Hermanus/Onrus area about spotting bottle heath growing in the wild — if you consider a golf course “the wild.”

Houwhoek Heath

Erica massonii or Houwhoek heath or sticky heath or firewheel heath is pollinated by sunbirds, and one of the amazing things about it is how little information is available online. It has showy, sticky red flowers with green tips, according to Kirstenbosch.

What is fynbos?

Fynbos is a type of vegetation that covers about 6.7 percent of South Africa in the Cape Floral Kingdom — one of the richest areas in the world for plant biodiversity. Of the 9,000 plant species found here, a majority are native fynbos vegetation.

When you first look across an expanse of fynbos, you may not be impressed by what looks like scrub and bushes. Look a bit closer and you’ll see a diversity of species found nowhere else in the wild on Earth

South Africa’s national flower, the king protea, is the most famous species of fynbos, along with heathers and ericas.

 Bladder heath

The bladder heath or erica halicacaba is a rare species that grows wild only in the mountains of the Southern Cape Peninsula. It’s also known as the gooseberry heath for its gooseberry-shaped flowers. It’s considered rare due to its limited habitat — rocky ledges at mid-to-high altitudes from Table Mountain to Paulsberg in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Many plants grow in inaccessible places such as steep south-facing cliffs near Cape Point, or west-facing cliffs at Noordhoek and above Hout Bay. The plants are in areas not generally affected by fires, according to PlantzAfrica.com.

Adderley Street Flower Market

The Adderley Street Flower Market is a Cape Town institution — it has been around for more than 100 years. Sellers at this market, typically of Malay origin, belt out encouragement to passers-by way of sales pitches. The trademark wit of this boisterous bunch is best appreciated if you understand Afrikaans, but there is always a wink and hug on offer for the perplexed, according to CapeTownTravel. The Adderley Street market offers not only great variety, but great value. I recently bought a huge bunch of commercial-grade proteas and fynbos for R100 (US$8.43). Located between Strand and Darling streets, the market is walking distance to Greenmarket Square and other attractions.

What’s the big deal with World Heritage, anyway?

World heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and that should be protected for future generations. UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is the body that designates world heritage.

Examples of world heritage include the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon in the U.S., the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, There are 1007 natural and cultural places on the World Heritage List in 161 countries.

A country may get financial support from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites, not to mention tourists.

The convention to protect world cultural and natural heritage was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. Countries that ratify the convention recognize that the protection of world heritage is the duty of the international community as a whole.

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