Flowers of the Wolkberg Part 1
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
This article will be a very brief introduction to the flowers of the Wolkberg, a spectacularly scenic region of South Africa not far from where I live. The Wolkberg or 'Cloud Mountains' run from a bit southwest of the town of Haenertsburg to southeast of the town of Tzaneen. To the west they grade into the Strydpoort Mountains and to the south into the Transvaal Drakensberg. They're actually not distinct from either of those ranges. The Wolkberg mountains are very rugged, rising to about 2100m/7000' in the peak of Iron Crown, south of Haenertsburg. They feature many cliffs and deep gorges, but also gentle slopes and plateaus. The climate gets cooler with altitude and wetter from the west to the east. The drier parts are covered in savannah and scrub while the wetter bits feature high-rainfall grassland, forest, and 'fynbos' heathland at the highest altitudes. The high grasslands endure dry but frosty winters, frequent fires in late winter or early spring, and heavy rainfall in summer. The moist, eastern slopes and high peaks are often clothed in cloud and mist.
Sadly, much of the natural vegetation of the Wolkberg has been destroyed, primarily by turning it into commercial plantations of pine and eucalypt trees. But the more rugged bits are still fairly unspoilt, though cattle and goats are kept and roam even into the higher parts. Some of the region is formally protected, as the Wolkberg and Lekgalemeetse Nature Reserves, but even here there is some human disturbance. People gather wood and poach medicinal plants even in the reserves.
The region has always been, and in its most inaccessible parts remains, botanically extremely diverse. This is due to the many separate peaks and ridges and the unique and complex geology of the mountains. The grassland, woodland and savannah contain the most species, while the forests, though low in diversity, host species found nowhere else. The mountains have given their name to what is recognized as the Wolkberg Centre of Plant Endemism. That is to say, it is a region with a significant number of plant species found nowhere else. The centre stretches west and south of the Wolkberg proper, to include the Strydpoort Mountains and the Transvaal Drakensberg as far south as the town of Carolina. Additional nature reserves in this larger region include the Ohrigstad Dam Nature Reserve and the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve which has some of the most majestic scenery in all of South Africa.
Most photos I include here, however, were taken in the Wolkberg proper. The region as a whole is estimated as having about 2 500 flowering plant species, of which more than 130 occur practically nowhere else. It is very likely that more species are waiting to be discovered. Because of the ruggedness of the region, there are many parts so far but poorly sampled by botanists.
The flowers of the Wolkberg belong to many different families, but prominent among them are the Daisy Family, the Iris Family (and other bulbs), and the Euphorbia, Milkweed, Acanthus and Sage families. The euphorbias are interesting and highly diverse succulents, while the others include many attractive flowers, while the sage family features many fragrant species. The grassland hosts many plants that produce extensive below-ground growth in the form of bulbs, corms, rhizomes, tubers and woody rootstocks. These can survive winter frost followed by fires, and resprout fresh, tender shoots and leaves in the spring. (Strangely enough, grassland bordering timber plantation is threatened by not being burned often enough, since the forestry folks don't want their trees to burn down. But this causes the unburnt-grassland to be slowly invaded by shrubs and trees.) A wonderful plant, not strictly speaking a flowering plant, is the Wolkberg Cycad, a still-remaining link with the time of the dinosaurs. It is growing rare only because of being slowly removed by plant collectors – our cycads are all very sought-after. But I've seen them growing in their hundreds and thousands in a totally inaccessible valley cut off by deep cliffs and gorges.
For now I just share with you some photos of the most beautiful flowers of the Wolkberg. I will, I hope, in later articles say a bit more about some of these. For now, if you're particularly interested to know more about any of these, just ask me below and I'll tell you its story.