Cape Town’s indigenous plantlife | Local flora and conservation efforts

Cape Town is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world, and is at the centre of the world’s smallest and richest plant kingdom. The Cape Floristic Region contains over 9000 plant species, and 70% of these are found nowhere else on earth (i.e. they’re endemic)! Table Mountain National Park alone has more recorded plant species than the entire British Isles – and new species are still being discovered.

Because of the unique richness of its indigenous flora (species that occur in an area naturally, and were not brought in by people from other areas), the Cape Floristic Region is recognised as a World Heritage Site and a biodiversity hotspot.

What is indigenous flora?

The term ‘indigenous’ is applied to any plant that originates in a particular area. In the context of Cape Town’s flora, this means a species occurred here naturally before humans started introducing new species from other parts of the world. Non-indigenous plants have been brought to the city for food, shade or other purposes, or have accidentally arrived through transportation via ships and other means. Another word for ‘indigenous’ is ‘native’.

The six floral kingdoms of the world. Source: Friends of Tokai Park

Why is it important to protect our local native flora?

The Cape Peninsula, where the city of Cape Town is located, is unique even for the highly diverse Cape Floral Kingdom. This is because the region has a wide range of topography, from flat plains and gentle hills and steep ridges, as well as geology, soils and even micro-climates.

All of these factors determine where plant species grow. Over hundreds of thousands of years, indigenous plants have developed different structures to adapt to these different environments and compete for limited space, nutrients and water. Because of the diversity of conditions, the Cape Peninsula has over 20 different vegetation types with unique assemblages of species. For example, the species growing on the top of Table Mountain are different to those growing along the coastal sand dunes and plains.

sickleleaf conebush

Sickleleaf conebush growing above the Blockhouse Trail. Photo by Tony Rebelo

Endangerment and extinction

Unfortunately for the native species of Cape Town, the city has rapidly expanded and sprawled since the start of the 20th century. Most of the vegetation types are now threatened, meaning many endemic plant species are facing risk of extinction. Already 39 plant species in South Africa are confirmed to be extinct, with many of these being from Cape Town.

Hundreds more are evaluated as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild. Many critically endangered vegetation types in Cape Town are conserved in very small areas. For example, the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos vegetation type has only 1% of its area protected, with 86% of the land already transformed and developed.

The historic vs. current extent of vegetation types in Cape Town. Source: City of Cape Town bioregional plan

It is important for Capetonians to recognise the uniqueness of the flora that surrounds them. While most of the large mammals that used to roam the peninsula, including lions, quaggas and hyenas, no longer reside here, there is still an opportunity to conserve many of the plants that call Cape Town home, and that cannot survive in the wild anywhere else.

It is part of the city’s cultural heritage, and adds to the intrinsic beauty of the peninsula’s scenic mountains, coastlines, wetlands and plains. All species also play a role in supporting insects, birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They too are at risk of local extinction if their ecosystems fall apart or disappear. In addition, many indigenous plants are of medicinal value. There has also been much research demonstrating the mental and social benefits of urban green spaces on the communities living within cities.

So what can you do? I’ll go into more detail below, but in short, you can:

  • Join efforts to remove invasive alien plants
  • Buy indigenous plant species from local nurseries
  • Contribute to citizen science by monitoring and documenting species with your phone
  • Join a local ‘friends of’ group
  • Visit the national parks

Endangered plants native to Cape Town

At present, there are at least 150 plant species native to Cape Town that are threatened with extinction. Many of them have interesting stories regarding conservationists attempting to rescue and re-establish them in their native habitats. Two examples are Erica verticillata and Diastella proteoides.

Erica verticillata (Whorl heath)

A re-introduced whorl heath at Tokai Park. Read more about its interesting conservation story

The whorl heath used to be widespread on the Cape Flats but was thought to be extinct by 1950. Horticulturalists have since discovered nine surviving plants in three different Botanical Gardens around the world.

From these individuals, botanists have planted populations of the species near wetlands in Rondevlei, Lower Tokai Park, Princess Vlei and Kenilworth Racecourse. This restoration has been successful so far, but the populations need to survive three fire cycles to be officially recognised as critically endangered rather than extinct in the wild. Research on these populations is ongoing.

Diastella proteoides (Cape Flats silkypuff)

The endangered Cape Flats silkypuff. Read more about its conservation story

The Cape Flats silkypuff is another species that was once widespread in the low-lying areas of Cape Town. Over 80% of its historic extent has been lost, and the species is now classified as critically endangered. One population, however, has been growing successfully at Lower Tokai Park, and played a part in turning the land from a pine plantation to a conservation area in the late 1990s.

The Cape Flats silkypuff is a flagship for ecosystem restoration in Cape Town, as its conservation has helped other threatened species growing in Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.

Conservation projects

The good news for the flora of Cape Town is that numerous conservation groups actively work to monitor populations of threatened plants and to restore habitats that have been damaged or invaded by competitive alien plant species. These range from large, government organisations such as SANParks and SANBI to small volunteer groups protecting their local parks.

Our header image! Devils heath growing on Table Mountain. Photo by Marian Oliver

FynbosLIFE – Indigenous flora education & nursery

One important group that has been increasingly active over the last few years is the indigenous plant nursery FynbosLIFE. They grow indigenous plants from all of Cape Town’s vegetation types, both for local gardeners wanting to provide a home for indigenous species and attract native wildlife, as well as for large-scale restoration projects.

What I love about FynbosLIFE is that they make sure to cross-pollinate their plants sustainably, and also sort their stock by vegetation type. So if you live near Devil’s peak, for example, they will tell you the plants suited for your garden there, as opposed to someone living in Fish Hoek.

Recent projects they have been involved in include the restoration of the Liesbeeck river in the Rondebosch area, and the slopes of Upper Tokai Park which provide important breeding habitat for the endangered Western Leopard Toad.

Friends of Tokai Park – restoration projects

The Friends of Tokai Park have also been instrumental in restoring the 100-plus-year-old pine plantations of the Tokai area to their indigenous, historic condition. Their restoration projects have allowed over 500 indigenous plant species to re-establish in the area since the late 1990s. Numerous species now grow here and nowhere else in the world.

Further conservation efforts

Many community-based restoration projects have also been conducted in recent years across Cape Town. One example is the Princess Vlei restoration project that began in 2018, and has involved school children and local communities in the planting of indigenous fynbos and wetland plants.

How can you help protect indigenous flora?

The variety of conservation actions in Cape Town means anyone can get involved, no matter their level of experience or their specific skill sets.

common sugarbush cape town

Common Sugarbush, or protea repens, growing in Franschhoek. Photo by Tony Rebelo

Join efforts to remove invasive alien plants

People who prefer physical work can help with the removal of invasive alien plant species that occur on the urban edge and in green spaces all around Cape Town. One group that does weekly removals of these is the Friends of Tokai Park.

This work is important because alien species outcompete native plants for water, light and soil nutrients, and also increase fire risk around the urban edge.

Buy indigenous plant species

People who enjoy gardening can buy indigenous plant species from nurseries that sell them, like FynbosLIFE. They make gardens look beautiful, but also attract native bees, butterflies and birds into gardens that otherwise would not visit. Supporting these nurseries also helps fund their larger conservation projects.

Contribute to citizen science by monitoring and documenting species

Just being observant and curious about the natural environment while in Cape Town can also assist in its conservation. Contributing to citizen science projects like iNaturalist can connect amateurs with expert scientists, and help monitor populations of threatened species, or the spread of invasives.

This happened to me earlier this year in the relatively small urban greenbelt and wetland area in Kirstenhof, when I uploaded photos of an unfamiliar plant I noticed growing that turned out to be Psoralea filifolia, a species not officially recorded on the Cape peninsula since the 1830s (you can read the story here!).

Many other threatened species turn up in unexpected locations like lawns and undeveloped plots of land, and are just waiting to be identified.

An endangered Psoralea filifolia growing along the Westlake River in Kirstenhof. Photo by Tim Kirsten

Join a local ‘friends of’ group

Most local beaches, wetlands, mountains, rivers and parks in Cape Town have a ‘Friends of’ group that people can join. While not all of these are conservation-focussed, they are all made up of people passionate about their local green spaces. Why not join your local group and see if you can get them to be more conservation-conscious?

At the end of the day, it is up to the local communities living among the threatened ecosystems of Cape Town to take stewardship of them. Those that live closest and use these spaces frequently care the most about them, and want to ensure they survive for future generations to appreciate them.

Visit the national parks

Visit Table Mountain National Park, Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens or other nature reserves around Cape Town. The entrance fees will contribute towards the funding of continued conservation of Cape Town’s plant and animal life. And you’ll get to see some of our incredible native species!

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