Planning a hike but keen to avoid a fashion faux pas? Step into the fynbos anytime between November and April and you’ll soon see what everyone’s wearing for summer: red.
The Cape Mountains in high summer are the haunt of Aeropetes tulbaghia – a large, flappy and very pretty butterfly known as the Table Mountain Beauty. And unlike most insects which make a – ahem – bee-line for white, yellow and other pale-toned flowers, this insect is obsessed with the colour red. Wear a red hat or shirt and you’ll be buzzed by them, urgently checking you out for nectar deposits.
Not surprisingly, the fynbos responds by sending wave after wave of red flowers for us to feast our eyes on, each politely taking their turns to flower.
Among the first on the scene are Scarlett Crassulas (Crassula coccinea). Their outrageously lurid flowers are certainly red enough for the Table Mountain Beauty but early summer means strong winds and tough flying conditions for the butterfly and the wave of red slows a little during December.
The Iris family has plenty to say in summer. Numerous species come into flower, bursting out from underground bulbs to give us some of the fynbos’ most extravagant flowering displays.
But nature isn’t always so well-mannered. With so much hard work going on, there is always someone looking for an opportunity. Shortly after the above Iris has flowered and been pollinated by the Table Mountain Beauty, an Orchid – the Cluster Disa (Disa ferruginea) – comes sneaking out of the sand. Its flowers resemble that of the nectar-laden Iris that has just finished flowering, and the butterfly simply can’t resist more. Trouble is, although the Cluster Disa is indeed hoping for the attentions of the Table Mountain Beauty, it has no nectar reward, hoping instead to trick the butterfly into a free pollination service.
Not all Orchids are so mean: the incomparable Red Disa (Disa uniflora) is an Orchid of generous size and dazzling colour. It thrives in shaded mountain streams and wetlands from late January to March; the Table Mountain Beauty is its sole pollinator.
As summer cools and calms into autumn, a different set of flowers appears. Waiting patiently below ground are bulbs whose flowers appear in March and April, in modest numbers during most years but prolifically in the first one and two years after fire. Several of them are among the oddest-looking fynbos flowers but they all have that common theme: red.