South Africa Highlands


The vegetation of the Natal Drakensberg is dominated by extensive grasslands. On account of the variation in altitude from 1,280 to nearly 3,500 m (4,200' to 11,480') there is a wide range of plant communities and three distinct vegetation belts have been identified.

Those accustomed to the rich floral wealth of the western Cape are often disappointed by the apparent absence of flowering plants. However, to date more than 1,600 flowering plants and 72 fern species have been recorded in the Natal Drakensberg. Many species are obscured by the grasslands or grow in protected places and are therefore easily missed. However, spring is full of surprises when the brown grass is brought to life with numerous plants bursting into flower.

The montane belt covers the vegetation from the valley floors to the lowermost basalt cliffs at the edge of the Little Berg between altitudes of 1,250 and 2,000 m (4,100' to 6,560'). It consists mainly of grassland dominated by redgrass (Themeda triandra) with scattered protect stands which form protect savanna. The dominant species are common and silver sugarbushes, while the lip flower sugarbush, P. simplex and P. dracomontana also occur.

Flowering species you are likely to encounter in the montane belt are the beautiful white Anemone fanninnii, the dark pink Graderia scabra, ox eye daisy (Callilepis laureola), blue scilla (Scilla natalensis), watsonia (Watsonia densiflora) and various everlasting (Helichrysum) and Agapanthus species.

Yellowwood (Podocarpus) forests are limited to protected valleys and kloofs and south , south east and east facing slopes. The forests are mixed in character, comprising some 20 species. These include Outeniqua and real yellowwoods, as well as white stinkwood, white candlewood, red pear and assegai. Species occurring along the forest margins include oldwood, sagewood and tree fuchsia.

Oldwood and sagewood also form dense scrub communities in gullies and stream beds where they are protected from fires. A species characteristic of the area between the Clarens Sandstone and the lowermost basalt cliffs is the mountain cypress which grows between 3 and 4.5 m (10' and 15') high. The Clarens Sandstone and the lowermost basalt cliffs are the habitat of the krantz aloe, Natal bottlebrush and the mountain cabbage tree.

The sub-Alpine belt extends from the edge of the Little Berg (approximately 2,000 m/6,560') to just below the Drakensberg summit. Five major grassland types have been identified in this belt with the redgrass (Themeda triandra) grassland being the most extensive.

Shrubs and trees of this belt consist mainly of mountain cypress, oldwood and sagewood.

The climax community of the sub-Alpine belt comprises fynbos dominated by Passerina fliformis, Philippia evansii, and mountain cypress. Other species occurring are Protea dracomontana and the lip flower sugarbush. This community is best developed on the steep valley and escarpment slopes at the head of major rivers.

Flowering plants include Albuca tricophylla, Aster perfoliatus, the dainty Nemesia denticulata and the pineapple flower (Eucomis). A large number of orchids can be seen flowering in the summer. Among them you might spot Satyrium longicauda one of the most common ground orchids, the pink flowering Disa versicolor and the lime green Eulophia foliosa.

The Alpine belt occurs above altitudes of 2,865 m (9,400 feet) and is dominated by ericas and helichrysums interspersed with grasslands consisting mainly of Festuca, Danthonia and Pentaschistis species.

The ground on the escarpment plateau is often boggy in the wet summer months, providing an ideal habitat for species such as the redhot poker (Kniphofia northiae and K. caulescens), the Alpine iris (Moraea spathulata), the bell shaped Dierama igneum and the yellow Cyrtanthus flanaganii. The alpine forbs are seen at their best between summer and early autumn while several orchids can be seen flowering during January and February.

Donald Killick's Field Guide to the Flora of the Natal Drakensberg is a useful guide for identifying the 239 most common species occurring in the Berg. Also useful is Betty Hardy's Drakensberg Flowers, a pocket guide to 110 common flowers of the Little Berg.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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