Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cape Town Winter 2009

Greetings from Cape Town,

Way back in 2006 we experienced a series of fires on Table Mountain. The flames came dangerously close to homes. Ashes drifted through the air, starting other fires and creating a huge mess. Helicopters roared during the daylight hours dumping water onto hotspots. The devastation was incredible with acres of burned trees and plants, dead animals, and homeless birds.

Yet there was hope. Fire causes the release of seeds from the Protea family of plants and is a natural event in the fynbos (fine bush) ecosystem. I have a photo of a seed whose structure is simply incredible – looking like an umbrella, obviously evolved to take flight and soar to another, hopefully receptive, location. The flowers that next spring were incredible.

We took the dogs on a walk through that area this morning. The pines that had been scorched had died and most had fallen in the winds. Pines are not indigenous to the area. They were initially planted by the early white colonizers to provide masts for the sailing ships. So, it is ok that they are going.

As we looked up past the cable car station to the top of Table Mountain, we could see a few remaining pines and acres of what looked like scrub brush. Yes, there were some tiny white and yellow flowers, but you really needed to look closely to see anything else.

Looking closely soon became the name of the game as our dog walk was interrupted time and again with the call “Look at this!” “This” included the sugarbirds with their long tails and curved beaks, adapted for dipping deeply into the protea flowers. Also blooming were the tiny white flowers of the oxalis, several varieties of Erica (heathers), and a yellow daisy-like flower on a small shrub.

But the most striking flowers were the protea. (The genus Protea was named in 1735 by Carolus Linnaeus after the Greek god Proteus who could change his form at will, because proteas have such different forms.) They also bloom at different times of the year. The pictures I am including are only a few varieties of the winter bloomers. We have yet to get to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden to see some of the other, even more spectacular varieties.

Very few of these plants are more than two feet tall – they’ve only been growing for a few years – yet they are already demonstrating the amazing diversity present within the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The spring bulbs and iris-family plants are not on show yet but their green leaves are present and promising quite a display in August. More on that later, obviously.