The Eastern Cape Province is situated on the southeastern South African coast, characterized by rugged cliffs, rough seas, and dense savannahs and forested areas called the Wild Coast. The area experiences a diverse range of climates which directly impact the landscape. These range from the lush forests of the Wild Coast to the fertile Langkloof and the southern Drakensberg Mountains near Elliot to the dry and desolate Great Karoo.
The prominent feature of the Eastern Cape, the second largest province in the country, is a spectacular coastline adjacent to the warm, temperate waters of the Indian Ocean. With a low population density, long stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches, rocky coves, secluded lagoons, and towering cliffs are found for 100s of kilometers. And, as one might expect, several major port cities developed here.
The long coastline and large area of the province, covering considerable east-west and north-south distances, results in a mosaic of varied vegetation. Near the coast, the northern tropical forests intermingle with the more temperate woods of the south, resulting in high diversity forest habitats with many endemic species. These include members of the Proteaceae; South Africa’s national flower is the King Protea. These seemingly woody flowers, referred to as sugarbush in Afrikaans, are broadly shaped, spiky, and develop in a range of colors that attract pollenators. The genus was named by, who else, Carl Linnaeus after the Greek god Proteus. Proteus is said to have changed his form at will, and the plants named after him display such a wide array for forms that Linneaus thought it appropriate.
South Africa is the only country in the world that hosts an unique plant kingdom within its borders–the Cape Floral Kingdom. Approximately 10% of the global biodiversity of the world’s flowering plant species are found in the country. Nevertheless, South Africa comprises < 0.5% of the area of the African continent, it is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s floral diversity. The biome isn’t known particularly for its diversity of trees, but arborescent forms are common in some areas, including area around Knysna. Here, the forest is comprised of tall stinkwoods, black ironwoods, and yellowwoods.
Although not fully explored, the Cape Floristic Kingdom is known to contain 9,000 species, 69% of them are endemic. Currently, 1,435 of these taxa are identified as threatened, making this biodiversity hotspot an UNESCO World Heritage site. One particularly curious tree-like architecture is that taken by the growth strategy of the Euphorbia. There are over 2000 species in the genus and 7500 taxa in the family Euphorbiaceae. The taxon is identified by its succulent growth form that looks similar to the northern hemisphere cactus family. You may know the genus from a favorite plant bought at Christmas time, the “Christmas cactus, or Poinsettia!
At the other end of the climate and vegetational spectrum is the dry and rather desolate Great Karoo desert which is similar to the typical South African savannah. Here, the vegetation is dominated by grasses and more-or-less scattered shrubs; where ground water may be more available, Acacia thorn trees grow. This is the setting in which we’ve spent 7 months in 2013 on a Fulbright Scholar award from the U.S. Department of State.
The Karoo desert is a vast expanse of dryland area ranging from large sheep farms and few inhabitants to moderate-sized towns, such as Oudtshoorn, the largest in the Little Karoo. A global industry began here at the turn of the last century with the wholesale farming of ostrich. In fact, it is the home of the largest ostrich population in the world which, during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, supplied most fashionable women with “boas” and their homes with ostrich feather dusters! Today, the ostrich are raised for their lean meat, packaged, and shipped worldwide. And, to be honest, we prefer ostrich filets and steaks to many cuts of beef.