Another taste of the Drakensberg

This article was first published in our newsletter in summer 2010. It is the second article describing a trip made in February 2010. You can find the first article ‘A Taste of the Drakensburg’ here.

 

‘Shrubs With Altitude’

by Karin Proudfoot

The summit of Ben Nevis is not noted for its tree and shrub population. Yet at the same altitude (1,344m) in the Drakensberg there is a wealth of woody plants large and small, even up to 2,500m above sea level. Alright, so the climate is very different, with high summer rainfall and higher average temperatures, but the average for the warmest month is just 22ºC, while winter can bring snow and frost to the peaks, and strong winds. Even so, it was only when we went up into Lesotho, at an altitude of around 3,000m, that the landscape took on the bleak and treeless appearance that we associate with mountains, where only tough alpine plants survive. Below that level, it was the overwhelming greenness that struck me, something I had not expected.

 

The commonest trees are proteas (as might be expected in South Africa), chiefly Protea caffra and silver-leaved Protea roupelliae, which can grow to 7m tall on mountainsides up to 2,400m, where we found their attractively gnarled shapes could be relied on to add a picturesque foreground feature to our endless photographs of mountain views. Other species are the shorter-growing Protea subvestita, whose narrow flowers have beautiful pink bracts edged with long silky hairs, and Protea dracomontana, a low shrubby variety.

On more familiar ground, we spotted a shrub which was identified, after much debate as to whether it was a buddleja or a salvia, as Buddleja salviifolia (thus satisfying both camps), with long, velvety leaves, white below, flowering in August to October. I was disappointed not to find the slightly smaller Buddleja loricata, which I grow, and which is supposed to occur in the same region. A more familiar friend was Phygelius capensis, spotted on our first day growing alongside a mountain stream, rather different from the sunny well-drained site often recommended by gardening books. A very pretty indigofera, I. hedyantha, was a regular sighting; it grows 60-90cm tall, with soft red flowers held above the dainty foliage. There was even a bramble, Rubus ludwigii, alongside the mountain paths, somewhat superior to our native version, with thornless stems and attractive pinnate leaves with deeply serrated edges to the leaflets, which are white beneath. However the fruits did not look at all appetising, being small with a whitish bloom.

A more unexpected find was a group of tree ferns, Cyathea dregei, usually associated with New Zealand, but also indigenous to the Drakensberg. They made an exotic sight growing in rolling grassland below Cathedral Peak. Also surprising were some grey-leaved shrublets, of the type normally associated with hot, dry spots, here revelling in moisture. These included Sopubia cana, with narrow silver leaves and bright pink flowers, parasitic on grasses, and Lotononis galpinii, with small rounded silver foliage and violet-blue flowers.

There were inevitably other attractive shrubs which I have been unable to identify from my photographs, such as an evergreen with long clusters of small green and red berries, and a deciduous shrub with lobed, heavily veined leaves, the young ones being a rich dark red edged with green.

I had expected to see kniphofias, eucomis, agapanthus and other herbaceous plants, but to find so many different shrubs came as a complete surprise, as did the wonderful grasses, a whole new subject in themselves.

Click here to enjoy a gallery of these plants and the beautiful South African landscape.