During the hot, dry summer months of the Cape Floral Kingdom, we don’t see many spectacular flowers, although flowers there are indeed – mostly those whose small size reduces their heat stress. Geophytes (bulbous plants) are supremely adapted to these conditions – they simply lie low underground in a resting state – a bit like hibernation. Most produce no leaves that can lose precious water through transpiration, and certainly no flowers that would require energy and other resources.
But by autumn life starts to return, stimulated by late summer or autumn rain. The Overstrand had good rain in February, measuring close to 100mm in places. It was the signal for the most spectacular show of our indigenous bulbs.
I was reminded of these underground treasures by Carol who sent me a photo of a superb Brunsvigia orientalis or ‘candelabra flower’ growing wild in suburban Gansbaai.
Brunsvigia orientalis by Carol Rollings
These flowers are such a surprise. What appears to be barren sand, suddenly comes to life with the emergence of an egg-like shape above ground. The main stem rapidly elongates and forms an umbel of secondary stems, from the tips of which spectacular round red flower heads unfurl. Soon the barren earth is transformed into a scarlet fairy forest.
The flower head forms a huge sphere, up to 600 mm in diameter, with between 20 to 80 flowers. These are soon followed by the 3-sided seed capsules. When the seeds are dry, the inflorescence breaks off from the main stem and is rolled away by the wind – much like a ‘tumbleweed’ – scattering the seeds as it rolls.
The leaves appear only after the flower head has dried and broken off. There are generally six large tongue-shaped leaves spread flat on the ground. The margins are often fringed. Leaves start to die down from about October, having dome their work of feeding the bulb underground which lies dormant again during summer.
Despite its exotic looks, Brunsvigia orientalis is indigenous to the south-western Cape coastal belt. The species name orientalis arose from the mistaken belief that these flowers came from the orient.
Although most of the flower’s natural habitat has been transformed into urban housing, they can still be seen in all their glory in protected areas and coastal nature reserves. For this reason they are classified by the IUCN as ‘least concern’.
Travellers up the West Coast have probably marvelled at the autumn displays of another species of Brunsvigia – the pink B. bosmaniae near Nieuwoudville.
Another of my favourite Autumn-flowering geophytes is the appropriately named Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis is after the name given to a beautiful mythological shepherdess, while belladonna means “beautiful lady”. The appearance of the tall, flower stalk without any leaves gave it the common name “naked lady”. It is also often known as a “March lily”, in reference to its time of flowering.
Like the Brunsvigia, the bulb is protected underground during the hot, dry summer months. Towards the end of summer, long stems first appear, bearing large clusters of scented pink or white flowers. Up to twelve trumpet-shaped flowers can be borne per stem. The plant is indigenous to the south-western Cape and the flowering time is late summer – February and March.
Amaryllis belladonna is a garden favourite but can be found growing wild, particularly in the rocky southwest area. It often grows in large clumps between the rocks on hillsides, with the delicate blooms creating a sharp contrast to the starkness of the rocks. The green strap-like leaves appear once flowering is over, and they produce carbohydrates to store in the bulbs in preparation for the next flowering season.
This photo (by the author) shows a cluster of pink-and-white “beautiful ladies” growing on rocky substrate just off the cliff path in Kwaaiwater.
There is still some mystery as to what pollinates this beautiful lily. One botanist suggested a hawk moth, but it was also noticed that large carpenter bees visited the flowers during the day. On the Cape Peninsula, at least, it seems that bees are the main pollinators of the March lily.
These spectacular autumn flowers (and many others besides) fulfil an important ecological role in nature, but at the same time they also delight all of us who behold their splendour.