The stunning flora of KwaZulu-Natal

The landscapes of this region are spectular, from the Usutu river on the Mozambique border in the north, to the Umtamvuna river on the border of the Eastern Cape in the south; from the Indian Ocean on the east to the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in southern Africa on the west. Within 160 km the topography ranges from sea level to over 3000m, with moisture catching escarpments deeply incised by rivers , more rivers than any comparable area in southern Africa.

The warm Mozambique current brings sub-tropical conditions to the northern coastal areas, whereas frost and mist can be found in the Natal midlands and snow and ice on the mountain peaks. Rain falls mostly in summer.

The plant life matches this varied landscape with its richness and diversity of species, from the sub-tropical abundance of the swamp forests, the mangroves and some of the highest forested coastal dunes in the world, to the evocative dry sandforest and bushveld, lakes and wetlands, grasslands, mistbelt forests and to the montane species clinging to the slopes of the Drakensberg. The flora of KZN is rich from several perspectives. It is home to over 6 000 vascular plant species and 1 258 genera (70% of the genera in southern Africa).The region is home to almost two thirds of South Africa's tree species--over 750 species. It has 11 times as many tree species as the whole of Europe.

Approximately 16% of the flora is endemic and 11% is rare and threatened. Southern Africa* has the highest known concentration of threatened plants in the world (Hilton-Taylor 1996) and is the most species-rich temperate flora in the world with over 24 000 species. (*The area to the south of the Kunene, Okavango and Limpopo Rivers excluding Mozambique.)

(With thanks to Elsa Pooley's Trees of Natal and Rob Scott-Shaw's Rare and Threatened Plants) In the many protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal are to be found pristine examples of these plant communities, from the Themeda and Festuca grasslands of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park to the huge canopy trees of the Ongoya and Nkandla forests, from the Acacia savannahs of Zululand with their fever trees and umbrella thorns to the Lala palm covered coastal plains of Maputaland with ancient dunes greened with sandforest and wetlands holding vast reedbeds and primeval swampforests. In these areas are wonderful and rare plants, some with strange growth forms, others with brilliant flowers in colours that overwhelm the senses. A floral kingdom that has to be experienced!