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Gardening Columns

South African Wonders

First published on on January 1, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

Forget Paris or Cancun. If I had a free plane ticket to anywhere in the world, I'd visit the Cape Province of South Africa to see firsthand the wealth of unique plant life that has made this region a favorite of plant explorers for centuries. At least that's how I feel right now, as I sit here in the depths of winter, poring over the photos in seed and nursery catalogs. Bird-of-paradise, clivia, lily-of-the-Nile -- all these striking plants are native to South Africa. 

Horticultural Wonders
The Cape Province is located in the southern and southwestern part of Africa. This area about the size of Indiana is considered to have the world's highest density of plant species, many of which are endemic there. (That is, they occur there and nowhere else on earth, except in cultivation.) The number of plants having the word "cape" in their common names or "capensis" in their botanical names hints at the horticultural abundance of the region: cape primrose, cape leadwort, cape honeysuckle, cape myrtle, to name a few. Also, the word "kaffir," now considered a racial slur in the region, has nonetheless remained in botanical circles and identifies a plant as native to the Cape Province: kaffir lily, kaffir plum. (The Latin form of the word,caffra, can be found in several botanical names as well, such as Erica caffra, a type of heath.)

The climate of Cape Province is similar to that of the Mediterranean region: sunny, hot, and dry in the summer, cool and rainy in the winter. Soils are very nutrient-poor and sandy. You'll need to mimic these conditions as closely as possible if you want to try your hand at growing the region's plants.

The best place to start is with annual flowers, or, more correctly, perennials that can be grown as annuals. Consider the group of plants often referred to as South African daisies, which includes osteospermums, gazanias, and arctotis. These colorful flowers can all be grown as annuals as long as you provide them with full sun, well-drained and relatively nutrient-poor soil, and good air circulation. The striking gerbera daisy, often used in cut flower arrangements, is another good choice, though its sparse flowering habit makes it best for a cut flower garden rather than the front border. These plants can be dug up and overwintered in a cool, sunny greenhouse, if you are lucky enough to have one, but it's easier to start with new plants each spring.

Other plants of South African origin are best grown in containers so they can spend summers outdoors and be brought indoors when the weather cools. These include orange clivia (Clivia miniata), plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), and peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum). They prefer a cool, sunny spot for their winter indoors.

Tender South African bulbs, including gladiolas and calla lilies, can be dug up in the fall, stored over the winter, and replanted in spring.

Hardy Plants
Some South African native plants are hardy enough to outdoors year-round, including red hot poker (Kniphofia spp.) and crocosmia, both hardy to USDA Zones 5 to 7, depending on variety. 

January is midsummer in South Africa, situated as it is in the southern hemisphere. Forget heading to Florida for the winter, I think I'll dream of a winter sojourn in Cape Province. I've read that bird-of-paradise grows wild on riverbanks and in clearings. What a sight that must be!

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