In order to help the unfamiliar reader identify the flowers, birds and beasties that are most commonly found on Table Mountain, I have concentrated on the four major habitats – the summit plateau and rocky upper slopes, the fynbos-covered lower slopes of the front table and western (Atlantic) side, the forests which clothe the eastern flanks and the mountain streams. All are part of the mountain fynbos biome, but each is home to particular plants, birds and animals.
A stroll around Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a wonderful ‘potted’ introduction to the flora and wildlife that you are likely to see elsewhere on the mountain. This is thoroughly recommended if your knowledge is patchy but you are interested in identifying at least the main species. Free birding checklists are available to the public and the bookshops have a large selection of specialist guidebooks for sale. The Tokai Arboretum is also of interest if trees are your thing. This National Monument boasts 274 tree species and 15 species of fungus and is a wonderful shady retreat on a hot day.
The Cape Floral Kingdom
South Africa is the only country in the world to have an entire floral kingdom – the Cape Floral Kingdom – within its borders. Although tiny, the kingdom is incredibly diverse with more than 2 500 species of plants, 90 of which are endemic. The dominant flora is fynbos (fine bush), consisting predominantly of protea, ericas (which Europeans will know as heathers), restios (reeds) and geophytes (lilies).
Fynbos species are well adapted to drought and to the shallow, sandy, nutrient-poor soils that result from the weathering of the parent rock, Table Mountain sandstone. They are renowned for their ability to regenerate after, or withstand, fire. Most proteas have an extra thick, waterproof layer around the skin to minimise loss of moisture through evaporation. The Silver Tree has a thick layer of hairs that lie flat, protecting the leaf from air circulation and water loss in hot weather.
Ericas have a curled leaf, which creates an enclosed micro-habitat from which little moisture is lost and the leaves of the restios are reduced to papery leaf-sheaths. Many other typical species of the kingdom are succulents, which store water in their stems, or bulbous – the geophytes – storing water in their bulbs.
The summit plateau and rocky upper slopes
The effect of the Table Mountain tablecloth in bringing moisture even if there is no rain allows flowers to thrive on the summit and upper eastern slopes of Table Mountain throughout the year. A walk across the summit plateau of the main table will take the hiker past large stands of evergreen restios, which thrive in the peaty bogs. Over 100 species are found on the Peninsula. Amongst the most conspicuous on the summit are tussocks of tall green reeds lined with bronze leaf-sheaths that are known as Rocket Reed (Chondropetalum mucronatum).
Lichens and moss colour the rocks, and fields of pretty daisies and ericas provide a kaleidoscope of colour, particularly in spring. By day, the almost artificial looking white, papery flowers of the Snowy Everlasting open up to enjoy the sunshine of the Christmas period. Yellow Everlastings and Cape Daisies are also common and the striking, tall, salmon-pink flowers of the gladioli-like Table Mountain Watsonia are widespread.
Ericas, the most widespread of which is the Fire Heath (Erica cerinthoides), provide colour for most of the year. The bright red tubes of the Fire Heath are one of the first to recover after fire. The red shiny tubes dangling down from branch ends of the bushy Red Heath (Erica coccinea) can be seen year round. Other common species include Pink Hairy Heath (Erica hirtiflora) whose small flowers, evident between November and April are, surprisingly, pink and hairy, and the Tassel Heath, with its distinctive inward curling leaves and red tassel-like, downward pointing flowers are commonly seen on the mountain from March to December.
Amongst the lilies found on the summit are the beautiful pale blue Drip Disa (Disa lonicornu), which survives only on inaccessible rock ledges and the rare Guernsey Lily (Nerine sarniensis) whose scarlet blossoms enliven the rocky slopes between March and May. The famous Pride of Table Mountain, the Red Disa, is discussed later, since it is found only around pools and streams. The third group that makes up the fynbos biome are the Proteas – a family comprising a wide range of species, from Sugarbushes to the beautiful Silver Tree.
An egg-shaped cone surrounded by sickle-shaped leaves clearly distinguishes the highly conspicuous female Sickleleaf Conebush – one of several sugarbushes found on both the upper regions and on the western and northern facing lower slopes. Both male and female bushes are evergreen and can grow to a couple of metres high on a single stem. Although rarer, the instantly recognisable flowers of the pincushions, such as the large bushy Tree Pincushion (Leucospermum conocarpodendron) and the bright Orange-headed Nodding Pincushion (Leucospermum cordifolium), are seen in summer when they attract the long-tailed Cape Sugarbirds that feed on their nectar.
Amongst the larger shrubs to be found in this area are South Africa’s national flower the King Protea (Protea cynaroides), which has large pink or creamy-yellow flowerheads, and the Fountainbush (Psoralea pinnata), which is widespread on the poorly drained summit. Deep green thin leaves cluster on its stems and small, delicate blue flowers are seen in the summer. Those who prefer to go up the mountain under their own steam will find a vast number of scratchy bushes through which to beat.
Avoid the diamond-shaped, serrated leaves of the Blisterbush (Peucedanium galbanum) if at all possible as it can cause severe skin irritation. The distinctive leaves and the small yellow flowers clustered in the form of a ‘ball’ make it easily recognisable – as does the irritation you will incur if you are unfortunate enough to have a brush with it. If you do come into contact with one of the bushes, keep the affected area out of the sun.
Regular mountain users regard the prickly Climber’s Friend (Cliffortia ruscifolia) with ambivalence. Found growing on the arid rocky faces of the northern slopes and in other inaccessible places, it has spiny leaves that may scratch as you scramble up the lesser-used routes, but the anchor provided by its deep root system is a boon. The absence of forest trees is a characteristic of fynbos so there are few trees in the upper reaches.
However, several Protea species resembling trees, such as the large, bushy Tree Pagoda (Mimetes fimbrifolius), which can be identified by its large cylindrical flowerhead and yellow/pinkish leaves, are widespread. Specimens can reach up to five metres (16.4ft) high. Unfortunately, various alien wattle species are raging rampant and are now the focus of extensive clearance programmes. There has also been considerable felling of alien pine trees in recent years so, for the moment, unsightly dead trees cover large tracts of the slopes where these have been cleared.
Forested eastern and southern flanks
Indigenous and planted forests dominate on the wetter, eastern slopes of the mountain – a legacy of the earlier colonial days when stone pines and gums were planted extensively throughout the Cape Peninsula. Cecil John Rhodes cleared much of the indigenous vegetation when he purchased the Groote Schuur estate as his Cape Town home in 1891 and a large chunk of this is now the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Much of the northern section is now scrubland used for grazing.
A few stands of indigenous forest have survived in Orange Kloof, Constantia, Tokai and in the gorges on the eastern flanks where you are likely to see Real Yellowwood, Mountain Cypress, Wild Olive and Red Alder. Stands of Silver Trees (Leucadendron argenteum) – also a type of Protea – are found here and in abundance on the slopes of Lion’s Head.
A range of Protea, including the King Protea (Protea cynaroides), conebushes and pincushions, are widespread on the main table, in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and throughout the southern Peninsula. The King Protea favours the wetter eastern slopes and ravines and you will see fine specimens at the top of Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge.
The northern forests
Small patches of forest remain on Devil’s Peak but these slopes have been mainly cleared of trees. In spring the lower slopes beneath the Twelve Apostles explode into a mass of purple and yellow as the Pyramid Watsonia and Tree Pincushion bloom. The distinctive Tree Pincushion sprouts from a small twisted tree, hence the name Kreupelhout, or crippled wood. Brightly coloured sunbirds and long-tailed sugarbirds can be seen feasting on the nectar. The pale pink flowers of the Belladonna Lily can be seen in abundance on the lower slopes between February and April each year.
A number of colourful orchids, including the Cape’s most famous flower, the Red Disa (Disa uniflora) can be found along the watercourses and sheltered kloofs. Commonly known as the Pride of Table Mountain, the Red Disa is the emblem both of the Mountain Club of South Africa and of the Western Province sports teams. Once common, the Red Disa population was decimated by collectors and is now endangered and protected, but the bright red flowers can be seen in the ravines and on waterfall cliffs between January and March.
Botanical Society of South Africa
- Kirstenbosch – A Visitor’s Guide to South Africa’s Famous Botanical Garden, Colin Paterson-Jones and John Winter, Struik. A useful introduction and overview.
- South African Wild Flower Guide 3: Cape Peninsula, Mary-Maytham Kidd, the Botanical Society of South Africa, Kirstenbosch.
- Wildlife of the Cape Peninsula,Duncan Butchart, Struik.
- Fynbos – SA’s unique Floral Kingdom, Richard Cowling and Dave Richardson, Fernwood Press
- Natural History of Table Mountain, Anton Pauw & Steven Johnson, Fernwood Press
- The Cape Floral Kingdom, Colin Paterson-Jones, Struik. This is the book to get hold of if you are seriously into the plants. Names and scientific names for the beautifully drawn illustrations.