Flowers of Africa

With the exception of South Africa, the African continent as a whole is not noted for its flowers. It is characterized instead by the vast extent of certain kinds of rather monotonous types of vegetation, such as for example the savanna plains of central Africa, the bush veldt and the karoo of the south. Nearly half the continent north of the equator is occupied by the Sahara desert, the largest barren area in the world, and there are similar deserts on a smaller scale in south-west Africa, and in Somalia on the eastern coast. Equatorial rain forest and tropical forests cover less than a quarter of the continent, and the climate of the central African highlands is comparatively cool, although that area lies on the equator.

The high mountain vegetation is very interesting and unusual because of the peculiar conditions which prevail. Very strong sunlight and heat prevail during the day and frost during the night, and there is little seasonal change, so that no dormant period exists. Apart from the usual low and cushion-forming plants typical of mountain regions there are giant plants of Lobelia and Senecio species on several of the highest African mountains. They possess special adaptations to protect them from damage during a daily temperature fluctuation which may be as much as 18 degrees Centigrade. Lobelia telekii on Mount Kenya protects its growing point when young with its leaves, and later with a mass of long hairy bracts. The twelve feet tall Lobelia deckenii grows on Kilimanjaro in company with several different Senecio species. Among them is the rather low growing Senecio brassica whose woolly leaves, folded over the tender tip of the plant, look very much like a white cabbage. Senecio keniodendron grows up to eighteen feet in height, and while during the day its leaves spread out to catch the sunlight, at night they fold closely together to make a warm woolly coating for the stem, which protects it from freezing as the air temperature may drop to minus five degrees Centigrade.

The African forests contain many interesting trees with fine flowers, including the sausage tree, Kilegia africana, whose bat-pollinated blooms open at night. In arid sandy areas one finds the famous baobab, Adansonia digitata, with its swollen trunk and deciduous leaves shaped rather like those of a horse chestnut. The pendulous flowers with a huge boss of stamens are white and beautiful but have an unpleasant smell, and the fruits, like foot-long furry marrows are only relished by the baboons. The spectacular Flamboyant tree, with its brilliant red, orchid-like blooms, is not found wild in Africa itself, but is a native of Madagascar. Here it was discovered still growing wild in 1932 in a forest reserve on the west coast. It has been cultivated in SE Asia for a very long time and is now grown extensively in many other tropical countries.

Although Africa has no true lilies there are many other members of the lily family, notably the red-hot pokers (Kniphofia) and the aloes, of which there are over 300 species. In the plant communities of Africa aloes hold much the same place as the agaves do in America. Some cactus species have, unfortunately, been introduced to Africa and proved themselves to be a nuisance, but their native Old World counterparts, the euphorbias, have developed in Africa very much in the same way to resist heat and drought and may easily be mistaken for cacti when not in flower. Certain members of the milkweed Family (Asclepiadaceae) also bear a remarkable resemblance to cacti, with swollen prickly stems. The most curious of all are the Stapelia species which have furry, mottled flowers which smell of carrion and attract quantities of flies which pollinate the blooms.

Among the many curious African plants which have found a way of surviving long periods of drought unharmed are the small ‘stone plants’ of the genus Lithops. When dormant these look exactly like mottled split pebbles and produce surprisingly large and colourful flowers from the fissure when the conditions are right. The welwitschia, a native of the Namib desert, and generally considered to be one of the ugliest and strangest plants in the world, is another of nature’s freaks which can hang on to life under the most trying conditions for several hundred years. It produces only two leaves, which continue growing from the base throughout its life, even after the tips have withered and died. Although it is a flowering plant the fruits look like the cones of a conifer, and the great botanist Sir Joseph Hooker who studied the welwitschia in great detail considered it to be a missing link between the two.

Most of the beautiful flowers of Africa are found in the southern part of the continent, and especially in the region of the Cape of Good Hope, the homeland of the world-famous proteas. The Cape Peninsula alone, which is hardly larger than the Isle of Wight, has many more flowering plants than the whole of Britain. A great many of these are well suited to cultivation, not only in Africa but also in more temperate regions of the world and have become well known and loved for their beauty and garden value. Most of the pelargoniums and geraniums which bring such cheerful summer colouring to window boxes and flower beds all over Europe and America have been developed from wild African ancestors, and so have the Coleus species, whose wonderful leaf colouring is so valuable for indoor and greenhouse displays. The saintpaulia, or african violet, is a native of Tanzania, and during this century has become one of the most popular of all the house plants, especially in the United States. The Streptocarpus species are also African in origin. One of the finest cultivars is constant nymph, which will flower for months on end in a cool greenhouse.

The ever popular busy lizzie (Impatiens holstii) and several other members of the same genus grow wild in tropical Africa, and both the so-called house linden, Sparmannia africana, an attractive indoor shrub with white flowers, and the sky-blue greenhouse climber Plumbago capense, were discovered in South Africa. Many of the finest daisy-flowered garden plants, both annuals and perennials such as Venidiurn, Arctotis, Gazania, Dimorphoteca and Gerbera species are South African wild flowers. So also are the colourful mesembryanthemums, including the hottentott fig which will grow on the south coast of Britain and is widely planted round the Mediterranean coasts.

Many other excellent plants have spread around the world from South Africa as garden flowers, pot plants or for use in the florist trade. The large sophisticated modern gladioli have smaller and more dainty ancestors in the Cape Province and the striking agapanthus with its huge umbels of blue flowers is another native. The pretty lachenalias, or Cape cowslips, are rather like yellow bluebells. They are not hardy, but the striking late autumn flowering Nerine bowdenii can be grown out of doors, at least in southern England. The amaryllis lily, the so-called Scarborough lily (Vallota speciosa), the Clivia and Crinum Powellii, are all African flowers of very high quality. The extremely long lasting chincherinche (Ornithogalum thyrsoides) is exported from South Africa as a cut flower to Europe, but it is a poisonous plant whose presence in grazing lands or in dried hay can cause the death of cattle and horses.

Another florist’s flower from this region which has conquered the world is the arum lily, Zantedeschia. It grows in swampy places and in spite of its exotic appearance it is hardy also in Britain, especially if planted in water. In Australia it is now naturalized and threatening to become a weed. The rarer pink arum, which is a little smaller, is a native of Natal. The very beautiful and dainty South African heaths of the genus Erica are famous, and over 550 different species occur in the Cape Province. Unfortunately many of them have become very rare in the wild, and are restricted to single localities where they are now protected. The more common sorts are cultivated as pot plants and exported to Europe.

African tulip

Spathodea campanulata

Family Bignoniaceae

The brilliant scarlet flowers of this African jungle tree always attract attention and it is planted extensively in gardens and parks for its ornamental value. The large flowers are carried at the tips of the branches in dense clusters and are pollinated by birds and bats. The trees grow about 60 feet high and the freshly cut wood has an unpleasant smell of garlic. In Tanzania and Kenya it is often called flame of the forest and in some African countries it is associated with witchcraft.

Blood lily

Haemanthus multiflorus

Family Amaryllidaceae

All the fifty members of this genus are at home in tropical Africa. Some can be seen growing close to the Victoria falls. It is a rainforest flower which blooms only once a year with large heads of tightly packed flowers and protruding stamens. The strap-shaped leaves arising from the large bulb remain at ground level.


Aloe davyana

Family Liliaceae

This is quite a common plant of the South African high veldt, where it flowers during the chilly winter months. Most of the 330 Aloe species are natives of Africa and Madagascar and a few are also found in Arabia. Many have been introduced as garden plants to the Mediterranean countries. They vary tremendously in size, some being only a few inches high, while others reach tree-like proportions. The leaves are usually fleshy and rather spiny and may be mottled or marked in various ways. The flower spikes carry a number of tubular flowers, and may be either simple or branched. The flowers themselves, although usually some shade of pink or red, may also be white or greenish or yellow.

Aeonium caespitosum

Family Crassulaceae

All the aeoniums have thick rosettes of regular succulent leaves which are highly decorative in themselves, and once a year. They produce large heads of densely packed yellow flowers. They are found both in North Africa and the Canary Isles and are often grown as garden plants in Spain, Portugal and southern Italy where the climate is mild enough for them to survive. Although they can withstand prolonged drought, they are sensitive to frost. In northern countries therefore they must be grown under glass, although they can be stood out of doors during the summer.

Cleome luderitziana

Family Cleomaceae

The cleomes are distributed all over the world in tropical and temperate regions and there are about 150 distinct species. Several of them have become specially adapted to desert regions by virtually dispensing with leaves. The beautifully poised and coloured flowers are succeeded by long upright seed pods, very like those found in the Family Cruciferae, to which they are fairly closely related. The pink or white spider flower, Cleome spinosa, is a native of South America, but is often grown in English gardens as an annual. In Europe the Cabbage White butterfly will select it as a food plant for its larvae.

King protea

Protea cynaroides

Family Proteaceae

More than a hundred different proteas are natives of South Africa and of these the king protea has the largest flower head, which can measure more than ten inches across. All the proteas are shrubs and the coloured leaves of the flowers are not petals but supporting bracts surrounding the cluster of small individual blooms in the centre. The evergreen leaves are rather tough and able to withstand long periods of drought. Cultivated proteas are grown in gardens all over South Africa and the king protea is the national flower. They have also been transplanted to parts of Australia, the Pacific coast of North America and to the Scilly Isles in Britain where they have become acclimatized and flourish.

Flame lily

Gloriosa simplex

Family Liliaceae

Although it belongs to the same botanical Family as the aloes, this striking plant is totally different in habit and appearance. It is the national flower of Rhodesia and particularly interesting because it is the only liliaceous plant which is a climber. In the wild it scrambles over shrubs, clinging on with tendrils at the tips of its leaves. Although normally the flowers are red and yellow, at high altitudes they tend to be plain yellow. It is not hardy outside the tropics but is often grown elsewhere as a greenhouse plant. Five separate species are recognized which resemble each other closely.

Bird of paradise flower

Strelitzia regime

Family Strelitziaceae

Few flowers are more strange and exotic looking than this South African native, which is also known as the crane flower because of its resemblance to a crowned crane. It grows wild along river banks and in open scrubland and is also now cultivated for the cut-flower trade in both Africa and America. The boat-shaped buds split along the top and the orange and dark-blue flowers emerge one by one over a period of days. They are pollinated by sunbirds and sugarbirds who transfer the pollen from flower to flower on their breast feathers. The Strelitzia Family is closely related to the bananas, and the larger tree-like species are often called ‘wild banana’ in South Africa.

Gold daisy

Gazania krebsiana

Family Compositae

The low growing gazanias are very typical of South Africa, and their brilliantly coloured flowers and silvery leaves make them very attractive garden plants for sunny climates. In northern countries they can be rather disappointing if there is a lack of sun, because the flowers will only open properly in sunshine. They have been in cultivation since the middle of the eighteenth century, and many beautiful hybrids have been raised with yellow, orange, red, white and brownish flowers with bands of contrasting colour round the central disc. They are only half-hardy in Britain and seldom survive the winter out of doors.

Geranium madarense

Family Geraniaceae

Although the Canary Islands are geographically fairly close to Africa, their flora is quite distinct and more akin to that of the Mediterranean countries than to the neighbouring continental land mass. There are many endemic plants, found nowhere else in the world and among them is this very attractive and robust herbaceous geranium whose numerous pink flowers rise from a large rosette of spreading divided leaves. It has recently been introduced to English gardens, and will survive normal winters in the south. In Cornwall and on the Scilly Isles it is reliably hardy.

Shimmering daisy

Dorotheanthus bellidiformis

Family Aizoaceae

Like the gazanias, these shining flowers respond to the sun and occur in many colours including purple and crimson. Seedsmen often list them under the name of Mesembryanthemum criniflorum and they are easily grown as half-hardy annual plants, which spread out more or less flat on the ground. Some grow in Namaqua-land in South Africa where it is one of the common wild flowers. The leaves are thick and fleshy and able to withstand extremely hot and dry conditions. The very fine seeds are scattered by the wind.


Pachycarpus schinzianus

Family Asclepiadaceae

This is a spring flowering plant from the Transvaal high veldt, and is one of thirty allied species which all contain a milky juice in their leaves and stems. The plant grows about eighteen inches high. The flowers are rather intricate and have cup-shaped outer corolla surrounding the smaller, coloured petals. They are an inch and a half wide and are pollinated by flies. Several other members of the same Family are very like cacti in appearance.

Flame gold-tips

Leucadendron discolor

Family Proteaceae

These shrubs belong to the same Family as the proteas but carry male and female flowers on separate plants. Some male proteas consist of a large boss of red anthers which turn yellow when the pollen is ripe. The female flowers have green stigmas, and the flowers are surrounded by petal-like yellow bracts. The plant is a shrub, reaching about six feet in height and it is cultivated for its flowers, which last well in water. All the Leucadendron species need a warm climate and they are not hardy in Britain except in the Scilly Isles.

17. October 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Flower Garden | Tags: , , | 3 comments

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