With an incredible variety of habitats, and plants that change almost in the blink of an eye, Namaqua National Park is the ultimate destination for flower season. Annelise le Roux, author of Wild flowers of Namaqualand: A botanical society guide explains what makes this park so remarkable. By Arnold Ras
The flower display in Namaqualand is one of nature’s greatest spectacles. But rather than a once-in-a-lifetime visit, it’s something that deserves to be seen every year because, say the experts, every year is different. And there’s no better place to see it than Namaqua National Park.
The park is unique in its representation of central Namaqualand – stretching from the sea through the Coastal Plain with sandy plains and Heuweltjieveld to the Kamiesberg in the Namaqualand Klipkoppe, explains Annelise le Roux, botanist with 40 years’ experience of the region.
“It offers an incredible variety of vegetation and habitats. Not only does the landscape change every few minutes, but at a time scale of every week, different aspects of the vegetation are on display. Often I walk in a patch and think, ‘It cannot be more beautiful’, and five minutes later an even more spectacular site awaits me. It is not just the beauty that excites me, but also how these plants have adapted to survive extreme climatic conditions.”
Like most things on earth, the thousands of floral species found in the arid and diverse Namaqualand need water to survive. “Water is a very restrictive factor. Every little landscape feature, be it a cool, south-facing steep slope or warm north-facing slope, a rocky or non-rocky patch, soil types, geology, fog, distance from the sea, almost anything, is important in catching and retaining moisture. Every landscape feature therefore has its own moisture conditions. These small micro-habitats have led to many different species colonising these different habitats.”
Equally, rainfall influences the type and amount of flowers visitors will see every year and germination conditions vary dramatically between species. “The Namaqualand flowers need winter rain, but different species need different amounts of rain before they flower. Also, each species require enough rain at very specific temperatures to germinate. For example, the bittergousblom (Arctotis fastuasa) needs temperatures below freezing during rain to germinate while pietsnot (Grielum humifusum) needs relatively warm temperatures with rain to germinate. Each winter the rain falls in different places, in different amounts and at different times, ensuring different species will germinate and produce flower displays at different places. It is thus not possible to predict when and where in Namaqualand the flower season will be.”
The result is that Namaqualand delivers wonderful surprises – even to seasoned botanists like Annelise. Earlier this year she made an exciting discovery when she found a new Massonia species in the Knersvlakte. “The most exciting thing to me is to find the really special species, the very rare and endemic species only recorded once or twice before. It is not easy, because every year has different climatic conditions and the species are triggered to only react to very specific conditions, and then they flower for maybe a week or two. You have to be in the veld at a specific place at a specific time with lots of luck to find them. There are many species I am still looking for. I have found a few unknown and new species.”
Asked about her favourite Namaqua flower, Annelise says: “the daisy, of course”. “At a glance, most of the daisies on the circular route [in the Skilpad section of Namaqua National Park] look like Namaqualand daisies. There are, however, three species that look very similar: the real Namaqualand daisy (Dimorphotheca sinuata), the glansooggousblom (Ursinia cakilefolia) and the berggousblom (Ursinia calenulifolia). The challenge, of course, is to be able to distinguish the different species. Between the daisies there are many bulb plants worth hunting for like suring (Oxalis namaquana) and the perde-uintjie (Babiana curviscapa). My personal favourite is the pietsnot (Grielum humifusum).”
Annelise’s book, Wild Flowers of Namaqualand, is a picture guide to nearly 600 species found in the area. Its origins – and her love for the region – can be traced back to her university days.
After one of her professors could not stop talking about Namaqualand, then student and now revered botanist Annelise decided to investigate for herself. And after 40 years she is still hooked on the area’s floral beauty. “When we started to study Namaqualand vegetation, there was very little known about the plants of this area. We struggled to identify the plants. We wished we had a book to help us. The idea of a field guide was born mostly to help myself because I cannot remember all the plant names. After 40 years I am still working on the flora and learning about this wonderland every day. And something like this needs to be shared with others.”
We whole-heartedly agree with Annelise’s sentiment: “Namaqualand is never boring, always offering something new, not only to tourists but also offering the locals of the region an opportunity to see more of their own natural heritage.”