Article and photographs by Zoë Poulsen
As winter arrives at the Cape, temperatures fall and the winter rain starts it can be tempting to spend all your time tucked up inside away from the cold. Winter is the time to make the most of those beautiful sunny days in between the rain, perfect for getting out and about without the summer heat. Now is the time to experience the beauty that is winter in this part of the world.
Above: The rugged and scenic beauty of the Du Toits Kloof Pass between Paarl and Worcester on the N1.
Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (NBG) is located next to the small town of Worcester, an easy 1.5 hour drive from Cape Town and closer still for those based in the Winelands. It is a scenic drive along one of the most beautiful sections of the N1, travelling through the rugged mountains of the Du Toitskloof Pass. At this time of year huge waterfalls can be seen tumbling down rock walls from high above. While travelling through the pass from the Cape Town side, one can see the vegetation change from the Mediterranean climate fynbos to the more arid climate adapted Worcester Robertson Karoo.
Top: Aloidendron ramosissimum Above: Ruschia maxima
Karoo Desert NBG showcases the rich diversity of unique and extraordinary flora that come from the more arid parts of South Africa, including the Richtersveld, Succulent Karoo and Klein Karoo. The garden is 154 hectares in size, of which 11 hectares are cultivated and the remainder is natural vegetation. There are two hiking trails that allow visitors to explore the wider landscape beyond the more formally cultivated areas of the garden.
Above: Flowers and open seed capsule of Cheridopsis pillansii
The shorter Shale Trail is around 1km in length with the main winter highlight being the orange and yellow flashes of colour in the veld from flowering Aloe microstigma. The Grysbokkie Trail is 3.4 km long and will take visitors steeply up into a kloof above the gardens and ascends from the Worcester Robertson Karoo vegetation up into the Breede Valley Renosterveld above. Those who make the climb are richly rewarded by the views from the top of Beacon Hill (526m) over Worcester and the surrounding landscape.
Above: Pelargonium echinatum
Winter is a time when many plant species from the arid and semi-arid vegetation types that are represented at Karoo Desert NBG come into bloom. This is particularly true of the huge variety of different Aloes that are grown here. The huge and striking quiver trees (Aloidendron dichotomum, Aloidendron ramossissimum and Aloidendron pillansii) produce many bright yellow inflorescences between June and August that are often visited for nectar by sugarbirds and sunbirds. The blooms are pollinated by ants and bees.
Above: Euphorbia dregeana
Also worth looking out for is the Giant Mountain Vygie (Ruschia maxima) with its delicate pink flowers. This plant blooms most of the year and makes a great waterwise addition to arid and semi-arid gardens. In the higher reaches of the garden the pale yellow blooms of Cheridopsis pillansii can be seen in contrast to the silver leaves of this plant. This plant is one of several species named after botanist Neville Pillans (1884-1964), succulent enthusiast and eminent collector of Stapeliads. Pillans was formerly a member of staff at the Bolus Herbarium at the University of Cape Town.
Above: Nymania capensis
Visitors to the garden are often intrigued by the strange shaped pink seed heads of the Chinese Lantern Tree (Nymania capensis). These allow the seeds to be wind transported away from the parent plant, where they can be blown into the shelter of a nurse plant, allowing germination of seeds once rain has arrived and conditions for growth are suitable.
Top: Aloiampelos tenuior Above: Euphorbia caurulescens
Here we offer just a taster of what this extraordinary garden has to offer during these winter months of colour. As with all our National Botanical Gardens, visitors to Karoo Desert NBG enjoy free entrance throughout the year. Make the most of your membership and enjoy exploring South Africa’s rich plant diversity as showcased in our stunning gardens.