FIELD GUIDE Terrain and Flora

Terrain and Flora

South Africa’s flora has charmed visitors and intrigued botanists for years. Many species are widely distributed, but each region has produced distinct characteristics. In the more arid west, plants tend to be small and low-growing, flowering briefly after the winter rains, while further east, open grassland and bushveld dominate. Lush subtropical coastal forests grow along the East Coast.

Savannah Woodland

Large tracts of the interior are covered with tall grasses and low trees, most of them deciduous, fine-leaved and thorny. The Kruger National Park is an excellent example of several transitional types occurring between sparse shrub and savannah; here shrubs grow densely and larger tree types include marula, mopane and baobab. The many acacia species are characterized by podbearing trees and shrubs with clusters of small, yellow flowers.


In southern Africa, true desert is confined to the Namib. The semi-desert Great Karoo region covers about one-third of South Africa, and its flora has evolved to withstand aridity and extreme temperatures. Many succulents, including the aloes, mesembryanthemums, euphorbias and stapelias, store water in their thick leaves or roots. The seeds of daisy-like ephemeral plants may lie dormant for years, only to germinate and flower briefly when the conditions are favourable. Trees tend to grow along seasonal river courses.


Dense evergreen forests thrive in the high-rainfall area around Knysna. They produce lovely rare hardwoods such as stinkwood and yellowwood, two types that also occur along the subtropical coastal belt of KwaZulu-Natal. Knysna’s temperate forests have a characteristic undergrowth of shrubs, ferns, fungi and creepers such as the wispy “old man’s beard”. Mature trees may reach a height of 60 m (195 ft), with a girth of 7 m (23 ft).

Highveld Grassland

Mountain flora, zoned according to altitude and increasing severity of the environment, rises from dense heath to mixed scrub and grasses. A relatively small subalpine belt, 2,800 m (9,000 ft) above sea level, is confined to the Drakensberg region. Characteristic flowering plants here are helichrysum (“everlastings”), sedges and ericas. In many areas, annuals make brief, colourful spring appearances. Among the proteas growing in this region is the rare snow protea on the high peaks of the Cederberg.


The term wetlands embraces all freshwater and most saline aquatic habitats other then open sea. This watery environment creates very harsh conditions for plants to grow in, and those that flourish – such as water lilies, rushes and common reeds – have cleverly adapted to cope with waterlogged soil.


Brackish swamps, saline estuaries and lush plant growth are characteristic of the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Mangroves anchor themselves to their unstable habitat with stiltlike roots, while higher up on the banks grow palms and the broadleaved wild banana of the Strelitzia genus. A good example of typical East Coast vegetation can be seen at Kosi Bay, where swamps surround lakes that are overgrown with water lilies and reeds. Dune forests and grasslands are dotted with wild palms.


The comparatively small Southwestern Cape is one of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Its so-called fynbos includes some 350 species of protea, as well as pelargoniums, ericas, reeds and irises. Most are endemic to the area, and are well represented in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

FIELD GUIDE Terrain and Flora

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t King protea, a fynbos flower.

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