Veld & Flora Feature



Follow the Eastern Cape’s plant signals

Discover an exciting and special plant world along short trails around Grahamstown’s historic Signal Hill




Follow the
Eastern Cape’s
plant signals


Above: A lookout from Mountain Drive, on the Rietberg above the town, reveals a panorama of crisscrossing vegetation types – this view looks south. Photo by Tony Dold


STRETCHING INLAND FROM the Eastern Cape’s magnificent beaches lies the fascinating Albany biodiversity hotspot. Almost at the hotspot’s centre is Grahamstown/Makhanda where, within walking distance of the cathedral in the High Street, you can find a feast of exciting plant species in many different vegetation types.

Tussock grassland, reedveld, forest and grassy fynbos occur to the south. Valleys covered in bush clumps becoming dwarf succulent thicket lie to the north. Travel north-west and you will soon pass into the semi-desert Nama Karoo shrubland.


Above: As petals on the tierhout or tarwood fall away in early summer, pinky red sepals are left concealing this small tree’s fruits. Photo by Tony Dold



As many as 2 000 plant species are found in the greater Grahamstown region. This is about half the total of those in the full Albany hotspot. This wide variety of plants is thanks to four major biomes converging here – the Cape flora or fynbos, subtropical flora or subtropical thicket reaching down from the Maputaland-Pondoland region, plants of the Karoo and of Afromontane grasslands and forests.

For a quick outing to see some of this crisscrossing of different vegetation groups in beautiful natural areas, start at Grahamstown’s Dassie Krans, the high point on the western side of Mountain Drive, part of the Rietberg. Get your bearings in the landscape by walking up from Mountain Drive to the top of the hill and look down from near the signal masts. From here, the steep Dassie Krans is right below you.

Above: The Suurberg cushion bush or rabbit‘s ear are ancient trees and grow along rocky quartzite ridges in the grassy fynbos. Photo by Tony Dold



Back on Mountain Drive itself, look for the sign to the forest entrance and walk a few hundred metres down the path into the forest until you come to the base of Dassie Krans. Here you will see many young Outeniqua yellowwoods (Podocarpus falcatus). The municipal library in Hill Street contains an enormous beam of one of the yellowwood trees that was cut out from here for building by 19th-century settlers. Other trees include the Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense), tierhout (Loxostylis alata) and assegai (Curtisia dentata).

On the forest floor are attractive herbs such as plectranthus (Plectranthus ecklonii) and the paired, purple-flowered twin sisters (Streptocarpus rexii). You will also see forest grasses such as the forest stipa (Stipa dregeana) and forest panicum or bosbuffelgras (Panicum aequinerve). Look out, too, for orchids such as fringed stenoglottis (Stenoglottis fimbriata).

Fern Kloof, further east along Mountain Drive towards Signal Hill and the Toposcope, is another attractive forest site with many species of trees and herbaceous species, as well as ferns. Look for a sign pointing southwards into the forest.


Grassy Fynbos

As you emerge from the forest, you will notice boekenhout (Cape beech, Rapanea melanophloeos), a fire-resistant tree common along the margins (ecotone) of forest and grassy fynbos. Walk towards the sign pointing up the fynbos slope and take time to admire the ancient trees growing along the rocky quartzite ridges, the Suurberg cushion bush or rabbit’s ear (isiqwane, Oldenburgia grandis).

The pink-flowered Grahamstown heath (Erica chamissonis) is abundant in spring. At other times, different erica species may be found, such as fire erica (E. cerinthoides), a small woody plant with elongated tubular red flowers, E. demissa, a large shrub with white flowers, and E. nemorosa, which has small pink flowers.

Some of the dominant woody fynbos species of this area are the pink king protea (Protea cynaroides), the blue-flowered legume shrub, narrow-leaf fountain-bush (Psoralea glabra), and the local buchu (false buchu, Agathosma ovata), which has a sharp citrus aroma. A common dwarf shrub is purple buttons (knoppies, Disparago ericoides), which has very small and spiky reduced leaves.

Other shrubs include:
Aspalathus argyrophanes, which is sometimes called Cape gorse because of its superficial similarity. A major difference, however, is that gorse is thorny but Aspalathus species can be either spiny or unarmed 
• Jakkalsstert (Anthospermum aethiopicum)
• Gonna (Passerina vulgaris)
• White bristle bush (blombos, Metalasia muricata)
• Feathery kanniedood (Athanasia pinnata) is an everlasting that looks like a shrubby daisy with many erect stems ending in a mass of heads of yellow flowers

Above: The glorious king protea is a dominant woody species in the grassy
fynbos of the Rietberg. Photo by Tony Dold


Bulbs include the grass-like, blue-flowered aristea (Aristea anceps) and the graceful hanging pink harebell (Dierama pendulum).

In the open grassy fynbos, you could see herbs such as the magenta daisy (idambiso, Senecio speciosus), African potato (inongwe, Hypoxis hemerocallidea) and various everlastings (impepho, Helichrysum odoratissimum; silver bush everlasting, H. petiolare; H. anomalum; and H. cymosum). You might also spot some of the occasional vygies, such as the trailing ice plant (Lampranthus spectabilis).

Cape reeds, such as kanet (Rhodocoma fruticosa), Restio sejunctus and little golden curls (Elegia filacea) occur here, but are outnumbered by grasses in this grassy fynbos. These include:
• Trident grass (Tristachya hispida)
• Wire grass (Merxmuellera stricta)
• Fescues such as munniksgras (Festuca scabra)
• Black-seed grass (Alloteropsis semialata)


Above: The fire erica is an isolated small, woody plant with elongated tubular red flowers – numerous other herbaceous species emerge with it in the grassy fynbos after fires. Photo by Rob McNeil


Pioneer shrubs in the grassy fynbos are the first signs (precursors) of forest forming. They include:

• Bush tick-berry (bietou, ulwamfithi, Chrysanthemoides monilifera)
• Tree fuchsia (umbinza, Halleria lucida)
• Monkey apple (umbongisa, Diospyros species)
• Wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina)


Above: The slopes of the Rietberg are home to thick stands of yellow-flowered rush iris (Bobartia orientalis). Photo by Roy Lubke



You can find thick stands of the yellow-flowered rush iris (Bobartia orientalis) along the slopes of the Rietberg. Rush iris is particularly associated with ridges or outcrops of Witteberg quartzite.

With the rush irises, you are likely to find many species of grass and herbs as well. Grasses include trident grass, spear grass (pylgras, Heteropogon contortus) and Panicum eckloniana. Herbs include idambiso, African potato and various everlastings.

This type of vegetation often gives way to grassy fynbos. The Oldenburgia trail into Featherstone’s Kloof, below Signal Hill, begins in grassy fynbos as it approaches the forest on the south-facing slopes. Moving up the steep, drier, north-facing slope with its tussock grassland and rush iris reedveld, you approach small patches of forest and wonderfully rich grassy fynbos patches at and over the summit of the slope.

Adapted extract from ‘Plants and vegetation of the Grahamstown region’ in Guide to the Natural and Cultural History of Grahamstown/Makhanda edited by Roy Lubke & Irene de Moor (WESSA, R300; order from:

Roy Lubke ( is associate professor emeritus of botany at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
Tony Dold is curator of the Selmar Schonland Herbarium.
Craig Peter is associate professor of botany at Rhodes University.

This article was featured in Veld & Flora in the December 2022 edition.

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