The following information has been drawn from David Britow's Best Walks of the Drakensberg, 2003, Struik Publishers, Cape Town (by kind permission of the author and publishers). This is tremendous and highly useful reading for any avid Drakensberg hiker and can be found in bookstores, ordered from Getaway magazine or www.struik.co.za (this will open a new window)
The flora of the Drakensberg is broadly described as being Afro-montane in the Little Berg foothills and Afro-alpine on the summit. On a local scale the vegetation is affected mainly by altitude (height) and attitude (angle to the sun). With altitude it is not only the low winter temperatures but also the greater temperature range that cause the consequent stresses on the things living there. With regard to attitude, north-facing slopes are hotter than south-facing ones, and also experience high evaporation. Therefore on north-facing slopes of the Little Berg you'll find open grass with scattered protea bushes while on the south-facing slopes there's usually forest or dense bush. On the summit things are much the same, but here marshes are prevalent and affect vegetation more.
There are three major vegetation zones, each with a
number of characteristic species and/or plant communities(some though are common to more than one). The montane belt includes
both the grasslands (Protea savanna) and temperate (yellowwood) forests of the lower slopes
The main grasses here (and indeed pretty much throughout eastern South Africa) are the red oat grass (Themeda triandra) and tussock grass (Festuca costata). The former is a sweet grass and excellent for grazing while the latter is sour and poor for grazing. For hikers the most important grasses are the steekgrasse of the Aristida genus (especially the ones whose seed pods work their way into your socks and drive you mad). In moist areas the diversity of species increases, and tree ferns (Alsophila dregei) and Berg cycads (Encephalartos ghellincki,) are found along stream banks or in marshy areas. Click here to see pics of the grasses cycads - opens in a new window.
The forests are characterised by two species of yellowwood: the real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) and the larger Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) with its spiky-looking, shorter leaves. Other common trees of the forests read like nature's picnic basket: wild pear, wild peach, African holly, assegai wood, forest olive or ironwood, white stinkwood (Celtis africana) ... the list goes on, but it is harder learning to identify trees than birds - it's not a hobby but a calling. On the forest margins and along river banks the four most common species are easier to identify: ouhout (Leucosidea sericea) (the Zulu intshishi) with its dark, shaggy bark and small serrated silvery leaves, mountain taaibos or nana-berry (Rhus dentata) with its tri-foliate leaves, sagewood (Buddleja sa/viifolia) with its woolly, droopy leaves, and the common spikethorn (Maytenus heterophylla) with, yes, long thorny spikes. Click here to see pics of the trees - opens in a new window.
The sub-alpine belt extends from near the top of the forest zone, coinciding with the tops of the Little Berg gorges, to the base of the Escarpment cliffs, including the Little Berg plateaux. There are fewer species here, mainly open Themeda grassland with Leucosidea-Buddleja scrub along the rivers and in rocky areas. Protea dracomontana is a small protea bush that grows, sometimes in quite dense patches, on top of the Little Berg. Protea nubigena ('in the clouds') is represented by one known community within the Royal Natal National Park. Small Rhus bushes are also found near streams.
Many bulbous plants, mainly watsonias and irises, burst into flower every spring, while in late summer the delicate ground orchids show themselves, and then later still the bright yellow dollars and tiny pink thimbles of the everlastings. Higher up the dominant grass is sour Festuca tussock with less sour Themeda oat. Sour grasses survive the harsh winter conditions by withdrawing their nutrients into their roots, hence the word 'sour' to describe their poor nutritional value. There are species of 'spear grasses' that hikers in this zone will come to know, namely Heteropogon contortus and the giant variety Trachypogon spicatus. Flowers that growmainly along the bases of the cliffs are the crinkly pink Guernsey lily (Nerine sarniensis), and the little blue bonnets of Wahlenbergia undulata. Click here to see pics of the various bulbs and flowers - opens in a new window.
In the summit alpine zone there are no trees or anything growing taller than one metre. Tussocky grasses, low heaths and small everlastings are what you will find. These plants, of which the genus Helichrysum is dominant, are important in Zulu and Xhosa lore, harbouring the power of the 'shades' (dead ancestors) whose spirits are released through the burning or boiling of the flowers. This is done when a child is born, when seeking guidance or when something needs to be blessed. In marshy areas in summer you will see irises, orchids and red-hot pokers in their hundreds of thousands. Sparse grass cover is provided by Danthonia distica, Festuca caprina, Poa binata, caterpillar grass Harpechloa flax and June grass Koeleria cristata, which offer frugal grazing to the herds of sheep, cattle, goats and horses of the hardy Basotho herders.
The mountain ranges of East Africa are like ecological islands in a sea of grassland or savanna (grassland withscattered trees). They are connected by a common thread of species and communities, both Afro-montane and Afro-alpine. As the climate of Africa has warmed and dried over the past 10 million years or so, the mountain flora has ebbed and flowed like vegetable tide up and down the mountains and into the surroundingsea of savanna. Around 15 million years ago (mya) the whole continent was covered in tropical forest; by 2.5 mya this had shrunk to 50 per cent and it is less than 5 per cent now.
We are currently in a warming cycle, where even the glaciers on top of Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzoris are retreating, and are expected to disappear within a hundred years. The montane and alpine vegetation is confined to only the highest peaks, stretching from Ethiopia all the way to Table Mountain. But, whereas in East Africa the plants are huge because of extremely high rainfall and a year-round growing seasonnear the equator; further south they get progressively smaller: everlastings and lobelias, which in the Drakensberg are less than half a metre tall, reach five metres high on Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the like! Also, in the tropics there are only a handful of fynbos species, while in the Western Cape there are thousands, so many in fact that the south-western Cape is the tiniest but richest of only seven floral kingdoms covering the whole world.
It's an interesting phenomenon that has allowed these
plants to migrate along the African mountain
In the Drakensberg (as indeed most of the rest of Africa) there is one more force which plays a major role in shaping the area's vegetation. And that is fire. It's a natural force and the open grasslands and savanna have adapted over millions of years to cope with random, sporadic fires. Many have fire-resistant bark, or rootstocks that re-coppice after severe burns, or even seeds that germinate only after they have been scorched by flame and smoke. That's all natural, but then along comes 'man' who starts burning the veld far too often and upsets the whole balance. Burnt too often, some species just cannot cope and slowly they disappear from the scene. Others take their place. Things are never the same. The whole Drakensberg is protected, not so much for the animals, or even the Bushman art, as for the vegetation. It's the main catchmentarea for a dry country, and the plants determine how much and how good the water is that flows down from the mountains. So park managers do rotational burns of the veld, supposedly to keep it young and healthy - but not all ecologists agree with the practice.
I have long been intrigued by the use of indigenous plants for food and medicine, but must confess I have been too timid to try unless I have been shown something. However, I have had the fortune to meet the 'white witch of the Magaliesberg', Margaret Roberts, who has been an inspiration to learn. If you'd like to follow this path, get hold of her books which are mines of information about the uses of many local plants. For instance, the humble agapanthus has magical properties, and its leaves can be used as a poultice for tired feet. Jelly made from aloe leaves relieve stings, burns and blisters, and the pulp is applied to snakebites. So be brave, and give it a go.
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