21 beautiful plants endemic to Table Mountain

Table Mountain is home to around 1 500 indigenous plant species within a 57km² area – that’s more than the entire United Kingdom of well over 240 000km²! Due to its staggeringly high biodiversity (“species richness” or the number of species occurring there), Table Mountain is a major tourist attraction and is rightfully regarded as one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

This article will highlight 21 of Table Mountain’s most remarkable plant species, including what makes them so special and how to see them.

Endemic plantlife of Table Mountain

Many species found on Table Mountain are endemic, meaning that they occur only here and nowhere else in the world. The vast majority of these species grow in Fynbos, a local shrubland vegetation type. Fynbos comprises four main groups of plants: Proteas (Proteaceae), Ericas (Ericaeae), Restios (Restionaceae), and Bulbs (Geophytes). It is no wonder that Table Mountain is a hotspot for hikers and botanists alike in search of unique and exciting flowers.

With so many species here, it is unsurprising that some of them often get confused with one another since they can be rather tricky to tell apart. When observing plants, it is always ideal to take note of as many details as possible. This includes what the flowers look like from the top and the side, the leaves, stems, and full plant in its natural habitat – especially when photographing them for later identification. Naturally, the more clues you have the easier identifying the species becomes.

So without any further ado, here are some of Table Mountain’s most precious flowers and how to see them.

21 native plants to look out for on Table Mountain

These are some of the most striking and identifiable native plants to look out for on Table Mountain!

Red Disa

Disa uniflora

Red Disa

Photo by Tony Rebelo

Any South African will instantly recognise the Red Disa for its selection as the Western Province Rugby emblem. It also appears on the logos of several other sports teams and clubs. This stunning bright red orchid is perhaps the most well-known of its kind – and it’s no secret why. There is no other flower quite like it.

The Red Disa is not only fairly common on Table Mountain, but actually has a much broader distribution range spanning all the way from the Cederberg to Hermanus in the southwestern Cape where it loves to sit on the banks of cool streams and waterfalls.

What is perhaps most astounding about the species is the fact that it is pollinated exclusively by the Table Mountain Pride Butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) and is thus completely dependent on the butterfly to fulfil its pollination duties.

Drip Disa

Disa longicornu

Drip Disa

Photo by Tony Rebelo

As a close relative of the Red Disa, the blue Drip Disa is arguably one of Table Mountain’s most fascinating flowers. Occurring in small local clumps, each plant bears just one sizeable “gunmetal blue” flower with green veins appearing on the middle sepal.

The Drip Disa shows off these stunning flowers in December and January. The species is a fond lover of damp mossy rock ledges – always found on South-facing cliffs which get fed a constant supply of moisture by the southeasterly clouds. This is where it gets its common name “Drip Disa” from.

It has a small distribution range from Table Mountain to the Hottentots-Holland Mountains. Unfortunately, the species is under heavy threat from illegal collecting and picking which has caused a significant decline in the species’ numbers in recent years. This has resulted in the Drip Disa being Red Listed as Vulnerable to extinction.

Peninsula Conebush

Leucadendron strobilinum

Peninsula Conebush

Photos by Tony Rebelo

Found only on the northern half of the Cape Peninsula – mainly on Table Mountain – the Peninsula Conebush belongs to the Protea family (Proteaceae). In its natural habitat, it is a large woody shrub with shiny green-leathery leaves that are often tipped in red or pale yellow.

The species is dioecious, meaning that it has separate male and female plants. The female plant bears a rock-hard ovoid cone that contains the seeds within. These cones are only stimulated to release their seeds after wildfires in order to encourage successful germination. As most parts of Table Mountain have gone for many years without fire, it is easy to spot the old plants standing out in the landscape. Sometimes the woody branches are even covered in tufts of grey lichen. The male plants have much smaller yellow flowering structures that release the pollen.

Because the Peninsula Conebush relies on wildfires for new growth, unfortunately the recent lack of wildfires has partly resulted in the species being Red Listed as Vulnerable (VU) to extinction by SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme. The Peninsula Conebush is also threatened by invasive alien plant species which compete with it for crucial resources like water and space.

In Latin, “dendros” means “tree”, while in Greek “strobilos” means “cone” – hence its scientific name: Leucadendron strobilinum.

Devil’s Heath

Erica abietina subsp. diabolis

devils heath

Photo by Tony Rebelo

The Devil’s Heath gets its name from Devil’s Peak, since it only occurs from here to the lower saddle where it joins up with Table Mountain. This is suggested in the subspecies name “diabolis” – Latin for “devil”.

The species shows off dense bunches of pretty pink flowers on small shrubs from June to August. Unfortunately, it is believed that its population is slowly decreasing and so it has been Red Listed as Critically Endangered (CR). It is found within such a small area that a single major event such as an intense wildfire could potentially harm the population beyond recovery – that is if the plants have not had enough time to reach full maturity since the last wildfire. Despite Fynbos relying on fire for its survival, sometimes too frequent fires can be more damaging than helpful.

Berry Heath

Erica baccans

Berry Heath

Photos by Tony Rebelo

The Berry Heath is yet another Cape Peninsula endemic found across the entire Cape Peninsula from Signal Hill to Cape Point. However, it is perhaps most common on the lower sunny slopes of Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, and Devil’s Peak.

As a tall sturdy shrub, the Berry Heath becomes engulfed in small rose-pink flowers mainly between summer and winter. Some hikers have noted the similarities between these small globular flowers and berries, and so this is how the Berry Heath got its name. From the scientific name Erica baccans, “baccans” translates to “berry” in Latin.

With an astounding 104 species of Erica on the Cape Peninsula alone, identifying them can get a bit overwhelming at times. Be that as it may, the general robust nature of the woody Berry Heath shrubs and their pink berry-like flowers are quite distinct in comparison to other similar Erica species.

Heady Capegorse

Aspalathus capitata

Heady Capegorse

Photos by Tony Rebelo

The Heady Capegorse often finds itself standing out tall above the rest of the Fynbos, as it should. It is a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and during its peak flowering season it’s hard to miss the vibrant yellow balls of flowers suspended atop the tall green shrubs. This is mainly from September to October, but sometimes continues throughout late summer and autumn.

The Heady Capegorse only occurs on sunny sandstone slopes from Table Mountain to Silvermine and is quite rare to come across. Thus, it is always a treat when one does stumble upon it.

It is Red Listed as Vulnerable due to past threats such as competition for resources with invasive alien plants like Gums (Eucalyptus), Pines (Pinus), and Australian Wattles (Acacia), which have led to a slight population reduction over the years. This means that it may face the threat of extinction sometime in the future if it is not monitored very carefully and frequently. However, as it stands, the species is not immediately threatened and several healthy populations still remain.

Sticky Diamondeyes

Staavia glutinosa

Sticky Diamondeyes

Photos by Nick Helme

This extra terrestrial-looking plant looks like something straight from Mars! As with most Fynbos species, the Sticky Diamondeyes flower heavily relies on wildfires to stimulate new regrowth. Since parts of Table Mountain have gone for many years without fire, this species is unfortunately very rare. It is found only on Table Mountain and nowhere else.

Here it prefers to grow on damper South-facing slopes that do not receive as much sunlight. It is currently known from no more than five different locations on Table Mountain and is an absolute treasure to come by. Luckily it does not follow a particularly strict flowering routine and so it can be spotted during most spring and summer months.

Peninsula Sissy

Brachysiphon fucatus

Peninsula Sissy

Photos by Tony Rebelo

As its name suggests, the Peninsula Sissy is a Cape Peninsula endemic and although it is rather rare across most of its range, it is far more common on Table Mountain than on any other part of the Cape Peninsula. On Table Mountain, it tends to enjoy more shaded rocky slopes and ridges (for the most part, at least).

While flowering, generally from June to October, it lights up the landscape with its countless bright pink flowers. The flowers are characterised by four small petals and completely shower the small shrubs in luminous pink. Due to its colour, the species is extremely easy to spot when in flower and has a reputation for – quite literally – brightening up any hiker’s day!

Peninsula Sundew

Drosera cuneifolia

Peninsula Sundew

Photo by Tony Rebelo

You may have heard of the Venus Flytrap, but have you heard of our native carnivorous Sundews? This intriguing plant has leaves that are covered in short tentacles; each one tipped with a sweet but sticky blob of digestive enzymes.

Insects are attracted to the sweet substance, but get stuck as soon as they land on the sticky leaves. The plant then dissolves the insect and absorbs its nutrients right through the leaves!

The Peninsula Sundew is most common on Table Mountain, but occurs elsewhere on the Cape Peninsula too; namely at Silvermine. There are about 10 different species of Sundews on the Cape Peninsula. It is generally easiest to distinguish The Peninsula Sundew from these other species by its significantly larger size. However, more importantly, the flower stalk of this species ascends straight out of the centre of the plant.

In a very similar species, the Shepherd’s Crook Sundew (Drosera aliciae), the flower stalk comes out of the side of the plant and then bends upwards near the base; like an upside-down shepherd’s crook or staff! On the other hand, the Small Sundew (Drosera trinervia) is significantly smaller in size – usually not larger than a R2 coin. Meanwhile, the Peninsula Sundew frequently reaches as much as 4cm in diameter in the right conditions.

The Peninsula Sundew can be found anywhere in damp sunny areas. In fact, it is not at all uncommon to find it growing right alongside the path.

Rock Spoonfig

Erepsia forficata

Rock Spoonfig

Photo by Tony Rebelo

The Rock Spoonfig is a small but robust Vygie flower endemic to Table Mountain. It bears deep pink (or sometimes pale to white) flowers in spring and summer. The Rock Spoonfig will do anything in its power to claim the sunny rock crevices along cliffs and ridges for itself.

The Vygie family (Aizoaceae) is incredibly large and consists of no less than a few thousand different species. Because of this, Vygies have gained a reputation among botanists for being notoriously difficult to identify. On Table Mountain, there are two other species that can appear to be very similar to the Rock Spoonfig. These are the Pulpit Tentfig (Ruschia promontorii) and the Redstem Tentfig (Ruschia rubricaulis).

However, as a general rule these two species creep and crawl along the ground while the Rock Spoonfig does not. Instead it is a small but more upright shrub. Despite being quite rare within its small distribution range of Table Mountain, the Rock Spoonfig is not considered to be in any danger of extinction.

Mossy Bell

Roella muscosa

Mossy Bell

Photo by Nick Helme

At first glance, the Mossy Bell can easily be mistaken for a common moss when not in flower. This is acknowledged by its scientific name, Roella muscosa, where “muscosa” means “mossy” in Latin. It is actually very far from being any sort of moss – rather belonging to the Lobelia family (Lobelioideae). This becomes clearer once the petite flowers begin to emerge.

Although it is known exclusively from the Table Mountain plateau, the Mossy Bell is not currently believed to be in danger of extinction.

Despite the pale blue flowers looking very similar to other closely related species, the Mossy Bell can be readily identified by the dense green carpets or mats that it forms – usually between small rocks and boulders in very dry, sunny spots.

It is mostly found flowering between December and January. This dainty perennial is a must-see for any hiker planning on exploring the Table Mountain plateau.

Tree Pagoda

Mimetes fimbriifolius

Tree Pagoda

Photos by Tony Rebelo

Usually taking the form of a small tree, the Tree Pagoda is also in the Protea family and another endemic of the Cape Peninsula. This mysterious species probably gets its common name from the way its flowers are arranged up the branch tips; giving it the appearance of the eccentric Buddhist pagoda buildings of East Asia.

Although it is far more common around Cape Point and Silvermine, the Tree Pagoda is nonetheless often sighted on Table Mountain too. It has been observed flowering all year round with its peak flowering period occurring in the springtime.

The Tree Pagoda is the only species of Pagoda (Mimetes spp.) that becomes a large tree-like bush, thereby making it distinct from any other similar-looking species like the Common Pagoda (Mimetes cucullatus).

Over the past few centuries the species has had to endure extensive harvesting for firewood. This has caused a severe reduction in its population numbers over time and is thought to be the reason why it is no longer as common as it once was on Table Mountain. Despite this and its already very limited natural distribution range, the Tree Pagoda is still going strong and so it is not believed to be in any danger of extinction.

Peninsula Puffbush

Pseudoselago peninsulae

Peninsula Puffbush

Photo by Tony Rebelo

As hinted by the word “peninsulae” (meaning “from the peninsula” in Latin) in its scientific name Pseudoselago peninsulae, the Peninsula Puffbush is yet another Cape Peninsula endemic. This elusive flower is pretty rare to come across and is easily missed due to its minute white flowers, which admittedly don’t exactly scream “Pick me!”. Nonetheless, it is most often spotted in semi-sheltered rocky places.

The Peninsula Puffbush is distinguished from its close relative, the Fine Puffbush (Pseudoselago gracilis), by its flat and softly hairy leaves. In contrast, the Fine Puffbush has extremely narrow leaves which are leathery to the touch and devoid of hairs. The Peninsula Puffbush flowers from October to December and so is usually seen during this time period.

Mountain Red-hot Poker

Kniphofia tabularis

Mountain Red-hot Poker

Photos by Tony Rebelo (left) and Matthew Fainman (right)

From just the name “tabularis” (Latin for “table”) one might understandably presume that Kniphofia tabularis, the Mountain Red-hot Poker, is endemic to Table Mountain when in fact it is found all the way from Tulbagh to the Kogelberg Mountains of the southwestern Cape too.

Being both much like and closely related to the typical Aloe flower, the Mountain Red-hot Poker has several tall rocket-like flower spikes, each one holding many small bright orange flowers. These long flowers protrude from a basal tuft of notably long leaves.

The Mountain Red-hot Poker loves to grow in damp but sunny areas – often (but not always) on damp cliffs. On Table Mountain the species is relatively common around the Table Mountain plateau, ranging from Platteklip Gorge to Maclear’s Beacon. It is easier to spot when flowering during the warmer summer months from December to January.

Kloof Amphithalea

Amphithalea imbricata

Kloof Amphithalea

Photos by Tony Rebelo

Want to make a botanist jealous? Naturally, the Kloof Amphithalea will have any botanist jumping with joy. You may find it surprising that this striking flower is actually a member of the Pea family. This is arguably one of the rarest plants on Table Mountain. Thankfully it is immediately recognisable and impossible to mistake for anything else – that is as long as it is flowering.

The Kloof Amphithalea proudly extends high above the other Fynbos plants, boasting its strong purple flowers amidst silvery-grey foliage. It is found on Table Mountain and sometimes even in the Hottentots-Holland Mountains where it flowers most profusely between December and March.

Woolly Tinderleaf

Hermas lanata

Woolly Tinderleaf

Photo by Tony Rebelo

Precisely three species of Tinderleaf are known from Table Mountain and the Woolly Tinderleaf is undoubtedly the most fascinating among them. Believe it or not, this odd species is actually a member of the Carrot family (Apiaceae)!

This particular species is unique with its large grey-felted leaves. This is how it got both its common name and its scientific name, Hermas lanata, where “lanata” translates from Latin to simply mean “woolly”. The Woolly Tinderleaf was thought to have been endemic to Table Mountain. However, it may be that it also grows in the Hottentots-Holland Mountains – albeit extremely rare (enough so to stop us from finding it all these years)! If this turns out to be true and it does also occur in these mountains after all, it would not be particularly surprising since the species is a master of hard-to-reach rock-shaded cliffs and kloofs.

It is mostly spotted along the Table Mountain plateau between the Cable Car and Maclear’s Beacon. Unfortunately, the Woolly Tinderleaf is estimated to be declining in numbers due to increased human disturbance in its natural environment. It has thus been Red Listed as Vulnerable.

Beard Capegorse

Aspalathus barbata

Beard Capegorse

Photo by Tony Rebelo

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the rarest of them all? As unwelcoming and vicious as it may look, the Beard Capegorse is a hidden gem of Table Mountain and a proud member of the Pea family.

This rare endemic species has many long hairs lining its leaf edges or margins. In addition to its narrow sharp-looking leaves, this is also how it can be told apart from its sibling, the Heart Capegorse (Aspalathus cordata). The Heart Capegorse does not have these hairs and has slightly broader leaves too. These fine hairs are probably what gave the Beard Capegorse (Aspalathus barbata) its name, where “barbata” translates from Latin to “bearded”.

Unfortunately the Beard Capegorse is Red Listed as Vulnerable due to competition with invasive alien plant species and a lack of fire to stimulate new growth.

Fynbos Aloe

Aloe succotrina

fynbos aloe

Photo by Tony Rebelo

The Fynbos Aloe is far more common on the southern half of the Cape Peninsula, but it is very rarely found on Table Mountain too. This is partly what makes it such an exciting find on Table mountain. In fact, there are only a handful of records from Table Mountain – most of which are from the eastern slopes between Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch.

In the wild it naturally occurs from the Cape Peninsula to Hermanus along the southwestern Cape coast. Here it grows on rocky outcrops and cliffs to avoid being burnt by intense wildfires.

The Fynbos Aloe is one of very few Aloe species that actually occur in Fynbos. It has a large clustered rosette of leaves which are well-known for turning ever so slightly purple when they dry out. This is what makes it separable from other similar-looking species.

This Aloe has a very short flowering period ranging from July to August and although it has its own set of challenges on Table Mountain, it is not believed to be in danger of extinction.

Table Mountain Watsonia

Watsonia tabularis

Table Mountain Watsonia

Photos by Tony Rebelo

Bearing stunning salmon-pink or orange flowers standing tall in the Fynbos, the Table Mountain Watsonia is difficult to miss when in full bloom in December and January. The flower is an icon of Table Mountain.

This is noted by its scientific name, Watsonia tabularis, where “tabularis” simply means “table” in Latin, referring to the place where it grows – on Table Mountain of course! Despite this, the Table Mountain Watsonia is not just found on Table Mountain, but actually occurs across the whole Cape Peninsula from Table Mountain to Cape Point.

Because of its salmon-orange flowers, the Table Mountain Watsonia can only really be confused with one other species on Table Mountain – the Wax Watsonia (Watsonia meriana). Most other Watsonia species (especially on the Cape Peninsula) have deep pink flowers.

The Table Mountain Watsonia is unique because it always has several smaller leaf-like structures clasping its main flowering stem which are inflated and often filled with water. This plant is widespread on the Cape Peninsula and does not face any threats.

Mountain Painted Lady

Gladiolus monticola

Mountain Painted Lady

Photo by Tony Rebelo

Like many other species, the Mountain Painted Lady is also endemic to Table Mountain. Nonetheless it is thankfully not threatened with extinction due to it being fairly common in the rockier sandstone areas where it occurs.

Its gorgeous pale orange-beige flowers, appearing mainly from December to March, easily blend in with the landscape and so can be completely missed by the untrained eye. Sometimes it is confused with the Autumn Painted Lady (Gladiolus brevifolius), which has smaller pink flowers in autumn (March to May).

Of the two-part scientific name, Gladiolus monticola, “gladiolus” is translated from Latin as “thin sword” (in reference to its narrow grass-like leaves), while “monticola” simply means “from the mountain”. Definitely an appropriate name!

Square-stemmed Restios

Restio tetragonus & R. quadratus

Square-stemmed Restios

Photos by Tony Rebelo

Restios make up the fourth crucial component of Fynbos, with the family (Restionaceae) consisting of over 400 species in the Western Cape alone! The two Square-stemmed Restios, Restio tetragonus (left) and R. quadratus (right), both occur on Table Mountain, but are found in other parts of the Western Cape too.

Despite both species being extremely similar in terms of looks, there is one surprisingly unique trait that these two reed-like species have in common – something that you may have already picked up from their scientific names – they have perfectly square stems! Of course with “tetra” and “quad” both meaning “four” in Greek and Latin respectively.

Their uniquely square stems make them instantly recognisable to anyone out on a hike, and a nice surprise to stumble upon. The tricky part is telling the two similar species apart. Even the most patient botanist might develop a headache trying to distinguish these two species from one another. It is said that R. quadratus generally has a more dense and bushy appearance than its sibling R. tetragonus.

iNaturalist: a plant identification tool

Identifying plants can sometimes get very tricky, especially within the incredibly biodiverse and species-rich Cape Floristic region. This is where iNaturalist, a community-based biodiversity platform, comes in handy. iNaturalist is an extremely useful tool that allows one to directly interact with experts in different fields. Users upload their own photographs of a species they have observed as an observation, which is then identified by the community.

This data recorded by iNaturalist is used by researchers across the globe. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) also uses this data in their local conservation research. iNaturalist can be accessed via the website or downloaded as an app for both iPhone (iOS) and Android. If need be, tutorials for how it works can be found online. I personally highly recommend using iNaturalist and I can be found on the platform with the user name @jeremygilmore 🙂

A big thanks to professor Tony Rebelo and the other photographers for letting us use their stunning shots!

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