Hundreds of species of orchids make their home only in South Africa. The country houses 54 genera and 479 species, 65 percent of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Just in the swathe of South Africa that orchids can be commonly found there are more orchid species and growing specimens than throughout all of Europe. The Western Cape alone contains enough unique species to classify as its own plant kingdom, making it one of the densest concentrations of plant biodiversity on the planet.
When going on a South African safari tour, make sure to include the Cape floral region and the diversity-rich orchid beds of eastern South Africa during your trip if you love plants or the sheer spectacle of hillsides and forests in bloom.
History of South African Orchids
While most species have small, seemingly unimpressive flowers, the orchids of South Africa were a subject of fascination to early European botanists of the late 17th and 18th centuries because of their unique adaptations. Collectors and horticulturalists would extract samples from South Africa’s orchid fields and send them back to Europe for study. Britain, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands all had an intense interest in cultivating these orchid species in their herbaria and studying their intriguing characteristics.
Later, English botanist John Lindley began to describe and categorize the various species of South African orchid. In the period between 1830 and 1840, Lindley wrote The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants, which became a foundational text for botanists across the world.
Other famous researchers of orchids include German botanist Rudolf Schlechter, who travelled throughout South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar and other countries discovering new species and genera. The work of Schlechter and others continues, as books like Orchids of Southern Africa are constantly published and revised based on the latest research.
Seeing Orchids in South Africa
As mentioned above, the South Western Cape of South Africa is the best place to view orchids blooming in full splendor. Species can be found here growing on soil as well as on trees and upon rocky surfaces. Many of these species have tiny, hard-to-notice flowers, but one of the most famous orchids also hails from here.
Disa uniflora, commonly known as the “red disa” or even the “Pride of Table Mountain” is a prized orchid notable for its large, showy blooms. A deep red hue and a tall plant stalk ensure that these flowers will be noticed by pollinating insects — although humans appreciate its beauty, too! Vivid carmine colors and intense pinks are also possible depending on the petal size and shape. The disa’s iconic image has led it to become a common image in iconography throughout the region. It can be found on the logos of the Mountain Club of South Africa, the Western Cape Gymnastics Association and the Western Province Rugby Team.
The red disa was also depicted on the Pro Merito Medal, one of the highest military decorative honors a South African soldier could receive for their “exceptionally meritorious service and particular devotion to duty.”
Those interested in learning more about South African orchids, including their conservation and upcoming viewing events, can visit the South African orchid council website.
You should also make sure to book a South African safari tour on the Western Cape to see these incredible orchids in the wild!
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa