It’s been burnt by countless fires, over-grazed by generations of livestock, commandeered as a military camp and used as a cricket pitch. Urban development has nibbled away at its edges, reducing it to 40 hectares (100 acres) in size while alien grasses continue their relentless smothering sprawl.
And still Rondebosch Common survives, an unassuming home for 240 species of plants and dozens of indigenous birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. You wouldn’t think it if you take a walk around it in Cape Town’s dry and windy summer – the common is brown and seemingly lifeless – but take a stroll during and after the winter rains and it’s a different story.
Listed as a National Monument, Rondebosch Common protects a number of critically endangered biomes – principally Cape Flats Sand Fynbos and Renosterveld. These vegetation types once covered the area on which Cape Town grew but are now reduced to pitiful scraps scattered across the peninsula.
Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is what used to cover the low-lying plains that connect the Cape Peninsula with the mountains of the Cape Winelands and Overberg regions. Drive across it now and all you’ll see is weed-ridden wasteland and choking forests of alien trees. If you’d taken an ox wagon across the Cape Flats 200 years ago, you’d have been travelling through carpets of flowers and great stands of sugarbush proteas, their pink and white flowerheads dripping with sweet nectar.
Renosterveld is the term given to the vegetation that grows on clay soil rather than the sandy soil that fynbos loves so much. Named after the black rhinoceros – the renoster – that used to browse its shrubs, the renosterveld comprises very different plants to fynbos and contains many geophytes – extravagantly flowering plants that spend most of their life underground as a bulb. Unfortunately, the clay soil upon which renosterveld sits is also suitable for grasses – both native and alien. Consequently, around 95% of this unique vegetation has been lost to the plough; the sliver of renosterveld that remains on Rondebosch Common is perhaps the last on the Cape Flats.
Now enter the winter rains. Around May, Cape Town’s annual rain begins to arrive from the Atlantic Ocean, sending temperatures plunging and soaking the land. Rondebosch Common responds by erupting into flower – by June there are already flowers and the intensity of the floral display continues through July, August and into September before running out of steam. Orchids, irises, geraniums, hyacinths, daisies and lilies – plants of every description keep coming in wave after wave, much like the rain-bearing cold fronts that sweep across the common.
Choose a sunny day to visit; many flowers on Rondebosch Common open only in full sunlight, and a good number of them in the afternoon only. Any time in winter is good – and unlike Mountain Fynbos which reaches its floral peak in September and October, the lower-lying Cape Flats Sands Fynbos and Renosterveld are at their colourful best in mid-winter July and August.
There is a convenient running/cycling track around the entire circumference of the common as well as numerous paths that criss-cross it. Keep an eye out for wildlife too; I’ve seen mole snakes there as well as unusual birds such as orange-throated longclaw and – soaring above me – an African fish-eagle.
There is one piece of not such great news about Rondebosch Common however; it is under attack. Not from property developers or road builders but from alien plants, particularly kikuyu grass, a non-native species that has overwhelmed much of the common and its indigenous plants. The giant pine trees are also alien and should not be there; little natural vegetation survives under their deep shade and blanket of pine needles.
Ironically, it is probably plants – invasive aliens – that will ultimately destroy the common’s flora. Kudos then to those volunteers who spend time digging up and hacking back the alien stuff to ensure enough survives for us to at least get an insight into what this landscape looked like before the buildings arrived. And it was a place of flowers.