Feast your eyes on the Cape’s spectacular wild orchid season
DEC 18, 2020 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Jenny Potgieter, Petra Broddle and Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Summer’s wild orchid extravaganza
Above: A midsummer treat – see the stunning red disa (Disa uniflora) blooming along mountain rivers and streams. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Legend has it that a queen named Disa once presented herself to King Sveas wrapped in a fishing net and nothing else. Botanical legend has it that seeing the unusual markings like a fishnet on the petals of an interesting, then unknown Cape orchid brought Queen Disa to mind when Swedish botanist Peter Bergius (1730-1790) was naming it.
Nearly three centuries later, the Western Cape’s famous red disa or pride of Table Mountain (Disa uniflora) has long been enthroned as the province’s official flower. It appears in many logos, from the Mountain Club of South Africa to the Western Province Rugby Union.
Many of South Africa’s orchid species bloom most profusely after fire – (left) vlei disa (Disa racemosa) flowers in a seep in Table Mountain National Park after the 2015 fires; (right) black-haired disa (Disa atricapilla) blooming in the same seep. Photos: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Choose your challenge
Summer is wild orchid season in the Cape so challenge yourself this festive season to look for the Cape’s signature orchid. You can choose the tough way or the gentle way.
Red disa flower from January to February at higher altitude so going tough means a long, hot midsummer climb into the mountains – preferably on Table Mountain itself.
Or do your red disa-watching much more gently from December to January at Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay. Enjoy a short and easy walk through the beautiful afrotemperate forest in Disa Kloof. The very end of this trail is currently closed after fire damage but you will still be able to spot red disa growing on the cliffs above you. If you have binoculars, bring them for a better view.
Above: The intensely coloured blue disa (Disa graminifolia) blooms among fynbos in late summer. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
World’s largest plant family
As the world’s largest and most diverse plant family – with a mind-blowing 26 000 species – orchids have long fascinated naturalists. Around 470 of these orchid species are indigenous to South Africa.
Many orchids make their homes in wetlands or along stream banks in the Cape floristic region’s fynbos and renosterveld. Some cling to wet, moss-covered cliff faces high in the Cape mountains. They benefit from clouds of further moisture driven by the powerful southeaster winds and swirling around the high peaks.
Above: Early blue disa (Disa purpurascens) blooms in Table Mountain National Park. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Food for bees
One of the most common disas to see in the Cape floristic region is the vlei disa (Disa racemosa), which flowers after fire from October to December. This elegant beauty is easily identified by its bright pink flowers. Growing in seeps in fynbos, it can be found from sea level up to 2 000m.
The vlei disa’s flowers are pollinated by carpenter bees, as are those of late summer’s blue disa (Disa graminifolia). Unlike many South African orchid species, the blue disa does not depend on fire to prompt the flowering process.
Be careful not to confuse blue disa with its close relative, the early blue disa (Disa purpurascens). As its common name suggests, it flowers earlier. It also has an upcurled lip to its flowers.
Above: A shield orchid, Ceratandra atrata, blooms after fire in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
If Queen Disa was trying to say, “Now you see me, now you don’t!” that would be especially apt for certain Cape orchids. Some of our most elusive orchid species bloom only in the year or two after fire. Then they become dormant for up to 20 or 30 years until the next fire comes along.
The delicate yellow blooms of Ceratandra atrata are only seen after fire on wet rocky outcrops and stream banks in fynbos vegetation. One of the shield orchid family, these plants are distributed patchily but are quite common where they do grow – and you will often see them next to the snake flower (Tritoniopsis parviflora). Both are pollinated by oil-collecting bees.
Above: Green wood orchid (Bonatea speciosa) becomes more strongly scented as the evening draws on, attracting pollinating hawkmoths. Photo: Jenny Potgieter/www.inaturalist.org
The spectacular large green-and-white blooms of the green wood orchid (Bonatea speciosa) can grow close to a metre in height. They are hard to miss, whether on forest edges or in coastal scrub and savanna along South Africa’s southern and eastern coasts. As evening draws in, the flowers give off a strong scent, attracting pollinating hawk moths.
At this time of year, always keep an eye out for orchids while you are hiking but remember that orchids are among South Africa’s protected plants and it is illegal to pick or collect them without a permit.
NB: Orchid-viewing suggestions are subject to lockdown regulations at the time.
To help conserve orchids and other threatened species through monitoring, volunteer with SANBI’s Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflower Programme (CREW), supported by the Botanical Society of South Africa.
Left: We have seen one of the most spectacular spring seasons in years but CREW members have not wearied of botanising – at J.N. Briers Louw Nature Reserve (from left): Rupert Koopman, Hedi Stummer, Dewidine van der Colff and Kay Loubser. Photo: Petra Broddle. Right: Red disa flowers have distinctive markings like fishnets – and their name was chosen to allude to a Swedish legend in which Queen Disa is said to have presented herself to King Sveas wearing only a fishing net. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
OUR REFERENCE PICK
Orchids of South Africa: A Field Guide by Steve Johnson & Benny Bytebier (Cape Town, 2015)
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