There are an estimated 5 400 plant species in the Northern Cape that occur in six large biomes: the Nama Karoo Biome, Succulent Karoo Biome, Savanna Biome, Grassland Biome, Fynbos Biome and Desert Biome.
More than 30% of the plants found in the Northern Cape are endemic and most of these occur in the Succulent Karoo along the West Coast of South Africa. Many of these plants are rare or threatened, with a very limited distribution.
The Richtersveld, at first impression, appears to be a lonely, harsh and arid lunar landscape of various shades, with little plant life. On closer inspection, however, and especially during the winter, it is full of beautiful miniature gardens of colour as the flowers display their splendour. Growing in between pebbles or in rock crevices, these highly specialised plants survive and evolve in their own niches.
A rare wonder, endemic to the Richtersveld, is the giant quiver tree (Aloe pillansii) that is restricted to small populations and is highly endangered. You will also find the halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) in this mountain desert, a rare species and perhaps the most intriguing of all the stem succulents.
A tree aloe that is a typical landscape feature of the Northern Cape is the kokerboom, or quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma). This tree aloe is found growing mainly on the rocky habitat of the hills along the Orange River. In places it occurs in dense “forests”, and good examples of these occur just south of Kenhardt and between Pofadder and Pella. The Doringberg hiking trails near Prieska pass by these gentle aloe giants, and close to 4 000 trees can be seen in the Kokerboom forest on the Kokerboom hiking trail near Kenhardt.
Necessitated by the harsh climatic conditions, the kokerboom has adapted in order to survive. Low air humidity, low soil moisture and intense sunshine levels have made it necessary for it to absorb every available scrap of moisture. It therefore has a superficial root system enabling it to absorb moisture quickly.
Namaqualand, part of the Succulent Karoo, boasts a bulb flora richer than that of any other arid region and provides a springtime display of annual flowers that draws thousands of admirers and photographers. Some 5 000 diverse and fascinating plant species exist in this special region.
Unlike the rest of the Northern Cape, the rainfall in Namaqualand is remarkably reliable and this is the fundamental explanation for its unparalleled diversity of leaf succulents, bulbs, a high numbers of minute succulents and the regular displays of spring flowers. Annual plants, mostly of the daisy family, are largely responsible for the impressive fields of colour. During spring, dwarf succulent shrubland mesembs (vygies) with succulent leaves and crassulas are dominant, and bulbs are abundant.
The high floral diversity of this intriguing place, and the fact that 50% of the species are found nowhere else in the world, places Namaqualand in the unique position of being the only desert hotspot of biodiversity.
Visit Goegab Nature Reserve near Springbok and the Namaqua National Park west of Kamieskroon for spectacular springtime floral shows.
The Nieuwoudtville area is the most popular destination to see the many endemic bulb species of the Succulent Karoo, but travelling further into the Roggeveld can reveal areas equally rich in bulbs and succulents. Autumn (March to April) is the time to see brilliant shows of amaryllids, kwaslelie (Boophone haemanthoides), the star-like flowers of hessea (Brunsvigia bosmaniae) and paint-brush heads of Haemanthus.
Spring brings forth fields of daisies and exquisitely beautiful irises and orchids, and one of the glories of Nieuwoudtville is the rooikatstert (Bulbinella latifolia var. doleritica). New species are still being discovered – a new clivia species was discovered in the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve.
Other places to see are the Nieuwoudtville Wild Flower Reserve; the Glen Lyon Reserve; a dense quiver-tree forest on the farm Gannabos on the road from Nieuwoudtville to Loeriesfontein; and the serene and misty Nieuwoudtville Waterfall.