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Prepare to be dazzled

David Shipp reveals how the spectacular annual flowering of a South African desert – and work being carried out to preserve its fragile biodiversity – filled him with inspiration for this summer’s Palm House Parterre display

22 l KEW Summer 2010 For just a few weeks in spring, the abandoned wheatfields become a fiery blaze of colour

FIELD WORK

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Driving north towards Springbok across the flat quartz Knersvlakte desert, named after the gnashing teeth of settlers as they bumped across the rocky plain by ox and cart, I passed a roadside billboard proclaiming: ‘Welcome to Namaqualand’. Even before I’d reached this point, the flowers on either side of the road had become more prolific. But now, myriad daisy and succulent flowers in shades of white, yellow, orange and mauve had blurred into an ever-changing tapestry, springing up among the rocky scrub. After months of planning, I was finally here – I had arrived in Namaqualand.

The seed of inspiration for this visit was sown in winter 2007 while watching the BBC programme Africa’s Desert Garden. It revealed the transformation that happens every spring in Namaqualand, when this arid desert receives enough winter rainfall to promote an explosion of flowers and seed-setting, before the plants go dormant under the scorching summer sun.

Namaqualand forms roughly half of the intriguingly named Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot, which boasts the world’s richest succulent flora and an astonishing array of bulbs and annual plants. The vast arid region of the Succulent Karoo (covering 102,691 km2) stretches along Africa’s Atlantic coast from the north of Cape Town into Namibia. It encompasses the Namaqua National Park and several reserves famed for their spring flowers.

Around 40 per cent of the 6,356 plant species growing in the Succulent Karoo are endemic, growing nowhere else in the world. Many species are highly specialised for the local conditions they grow in; 75 per cent of the endemic plants are succulents. It is one of only two arid ecosystems in the world to have ‘hotspot’ status, which means it has high levels of plants that grow only in that

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