Virtual plant pleasures

When you are not in the field this summer, you can find your plant fix exploring SANBI’s new, free-access e-Flora – a digital plant encyclopaedia that puts South Africa in the ranks of global pioneers. MARIANNE LE ROUX, JANINE VICTOR & RONELL KLOPPER get you started

Photos by Graham Grieve

Virtual plant pleasures

When you are not in the field this summer, you can find your plant fix exploring SANBI’s new, free-access e-Flora – a digital plant encyclopaedia that puts South Africa in the ranks of global pioneers. MARIANNE LE ROUX, JANINE VICTOR & RONELL KLOPPER get you started

Photos by Graham Grieve
Virtual plant pleasures are now about more than scrolling through magnificent online images, such as this Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense) at Oribi Flats in KwaZulu-Natal – the e-Flora of South Africa puts facts and figures at your fingertips, too.


Until recently, you had to be able to access academic libraries to get your hands on the fullest published information on plants. Now digital technology means you can find it all for free at your fingertips and in the comfort of your own home through SANBI’s e-Flora.

Scroll through the e-Flora and you will find everything from plant descriptions, images, habitat and flowering times to distribution maps, elevation data and chromosome numbers.

This project has put South Africa shoulder to shoulder with a consortium of global pioneers, finding new and better ways to share botanical information. Its roots go back a couple of decades to 2002 when the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation was born.

Delving into plant species – how a close look at Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense) appears in the e-Flora of South Africa. Photo by SANBI 


The first target of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation — to develop a global plant checklist by 2010 — was successfully achieved. Next, botanists were challenged to create an online flora of all the world’s plant species by 2020.

A flora is a type of plant inventory that records all the plant diversity in a specified geographic area. World Flora Online contains information on the world’s 390 000 or so plant species.

South Africa’s digital botanical treasure chest of botanical knowledge is captured in the e-Flora of South Africa. It contains details of our country’s more than 20 000 indigenous plants and contributes these to World Flora Online.


Our goal was simple with the e-Flora of South Africa project – to make it easier for people to learn about plants and help protect them. Having accurate and easily accessible information about plant species is essential for identifying, assessing and safeguarding botanical diversity and ecosystems.
It is also a vital tool to help us protect South Africa’s incredible variety of plants – 6% of all the plant species in the world are found right here and more than 3% of these plants are found nowhere else on earth.

Each step forward like this brings us closer to a world where every plant’s beauty and importance is recognised and safeguarded for generations to come.

Where to start – access South Africa’s e-Flora data via the Biodiversity Advisor homepage. Photo by SANBI


SANBI’s Biodiversity Advisor holds the e-Flora of South Africa online. Inside you will find pages dedicated to different plant species. These pages show and describe how the plants look, where they live and how to tell them apart. They also provide distribution maps and references to other plant publications.

The best part? You can access all of this plant knowledge for free.

Just start exploring the website – or if you want to download data, create a free account on the website and you are ready to go.

    There are three simple ways to find what you are looking for:

    1. Search by name: Use the search bar to find a plant by its name, whether it is the scientific name or a common one.
    2. Browse the list: Check out the list of plant species in the ‘repositories’ if you are in the mood for a bit of browsing.
    3. Detailed search: If you want to get super specific, the detailed search function in the ‘search by theme’ section has got you covered.

    How you can get involved

    The best way to get involved is to start exploring and using the e-Flora on the Biodiversity Advisor today. SANBI has released the e-Flora in an open beta version and everyone is invited to try it out.

    Contact us via the ‘!Report Error’ button (create a free account to use this function) with your input on any suggestions on how to improve the user experience or to point out errors. Even better, use the e-Flora data to identify your plant photographs posted on iNaturalist. If your picture captures the plant’s diagnostic characteristics and so helps others to make accurate identifications, it could become rated as research-grade quality and find its way into the e-Flora of South Africa.

    Whether you are a plant enthusiast or just curious about the world of plants, the e-Flora is your digital key to unlocking the secrets of South Africa’s amazing plant life. Explore, learn, and help us make it even better!

    The e-Flora of South Africa is also a visual journey – the image gallery on a species page puts it in focus as here with the Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense). Photo by SANBI



    About 400 people have worked so far on the e-Flora of South Africa. They include all SANBI’s scientists and technical staff, who worked together to create the e-Flora. We were also assisted by external experts, volunteers and the generous authors and publishers of scientific publications who granted SANBI permission to use their work in our e-Flora.

    We also liaised with 50 other global organisations as a member of the World Flora Online consortium. Through this, South Africa’s valuable plant data is shared with World Flora Online to make it easier for researchers, conservationists, citizen scientists and enthusiasts to access critical taxonomic information.

    Here is how we did it:

    1. We started by digitising using modern technology to gather plant information from taxonomic revisions and monographs with the permission of copyright holders to access their valuable content. We also searched for appropriate references and literature on various online resources such as the International Plant Name Index, Plants of the World Online, Biodiversity Heritage Library, TROPICOS, Google Scholar, ResearchGate and so on.
    2. To ensure that we were compiling material that was as up to date as possible, we verified the names listed in the South African National Plant Checklist.
    3. We digitised printed materials, enhancing their computer readability through optical character recognition software.
    4. Using Microsoft Word, our team reviewed and extracted descriptions using a custom-designed tool, tailored specifically for the e-Flora project.
    5. Some species have multiple descriptions so the most recent and/or thorough one is placed first. Each description is linked to its source, ensuring transparency, accuracy and attribution.
    6. When a description originates from a synonym, that description appears under the accepted name, with the synonym acknowledged in the source reference.

    The e-Flora is constantly growing. We are currently working on adding family and genus descriptions.

    The database will also be maintained and updated as new plant discoveries are made. Ultimately, it will also include plants that are not indigenous but that have become naturalised in South Africa.

    Armed with this knowledge, we can better protect the diverse plant life that sustains our planet.

    The flowers of the Cape chestnut typically appear from July to March and can range from white to deep pink. The tree often has two flowering seasons at the coast – this was photographed at Mtunzini in Zululand.

    This striking Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense) stands out from the forest at Smedmore Top in Pondoland.

    The Cape chestnut’s fruits appear from January to May. The knobbly capsules split into sections, revealing seeds that are eaten by monkeys, olive pigeons and Cape parrots.


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