Stroll around Table Mountain on a fine day and it’s hard to believe you are in a tough environment – floral-wise. The views are sensational but it’s windy up there with little shelter or shade. It freezes in winter and roasts in summer – the kind of place ideal for hardy shrubs and stringy reeds: the fynbos.
Even so, you’d think that summer’s scouring winds & blistering heat would keep even the fynbos at bay but take a walk on Table Mountain now and you’ll be in for a floral treat.
At first glance, summer fynbos seems a little drab. But what are those dabs of colour – red and blue – scattered throughout this blasted heath? On closer inspection, they turn out to be … orchids.
Orchids? On Table Mountain? Yes, all over it and loads of them too. In fact, South Africa is home to more orchid species than North America and Europe combined, and a quarter of them are found on the Cape Peninsula.
The most famous is the Red Disa (Disa uniflora) – familiar to many locals as the symbol of Western Province Rugby. You’ll find them growing next to streams and on wet mossy walls. Its bright red colour is a reminder that the Pride of Table Mountain Butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) is about, an insect obsessed by red and a vital pollinator for many plants. (It’s the only known pollinator of the Red Disa.) Wear a red cap in high summer and prepared to be dive-bombed.
Other plants get in on the act. On the Table Top in summer you’ll see Erica abietina – Red Heath – in full flower alongside Autumn Painted Ladies (Gladiolus debilis), their nectar – and pollen – positioned at the end of a pink landing strip marked with red ‘arrows’.
Also attracting the attention of the butterfly is Tritoniopsis triticea, an iris rich with nectar. But look a little more closely at some of those irises … some of them look a little odd, and they turn out to be another orchid, a Cluster Disa (Disa ferruginea). This wily plant impersonates the iris, duping the hopelessly-addicted Pride of Table Mountain Butterfly. For the butterfly however, the orchid has no nectar reward – a high risk but energy-saving pollination strategy.
And then suddenly a flash of impossible blue stands out in the dry reeds. And the strangest-looking flower appears – hooded, daubed with lime green and sporting extravagant side petals; it can only be the Blue Disa (Disa graminifolia). Its wide opening accommodates tubby carpenter bees, but once again you’re looking at the less-generous side of nature. This sugar-free orchid is another impersonator, luring the bees into thinking it is one of summer’s nectar-bearing blue flowers such as Agapanthus or Cape Scabious (Scabiosa Africana). No-one said Nature had to have good manners.
Most of these flowers and several others can be seen on Table Mountain at the moment; Watsonia tabularis comes in lovely salmon pink and the bright orange flowers of the Water Heath – Erica curviflora light up the mountain’s wetlands. And everywhere swifts and swallows dart through in the summer sky, picking off flying insects with audible snaps of the beak. White-necked ravens patrol the cliff faces and the occasional buzzard drifts overhead – summer on Table Mountain.