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Cape Floral Region, South Africa
The seeds of the pincushion protea need to be patient. This bright pink South African flower stands out amidst the green surrounding it – but it’s been a long wait to get to this point.
When a seed falls from the pincushion protea, this is just the beginning of its journey of life.
In what is quite a remarkable natural process, ants gather up these seeds. They carry them off and bury them in holes under the ground.
The seeds then lie patiently underground for days, for weeks, for months, and even for years. They are waiting for fire.
Sometimes it may be five or six years until a fire rushes through the bush. The seeds will wait. But once the flames scorch the ground above them, the seeds are activated and they start to grow.
When they reach the surface, they find there are few other plants to compete with and plenty of nutrients in the soil from the dead ones.
I’m fascinated by the story and I listen in awe as Sean Privett tells it to me.
We’re sitting in a jeep, looking at an early blooming pincushion protea here in the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve on the very southwestern point of South Africa. Sean is the reserve’s botanist and he has an ability to make plants interesting.
“In nature, everything fits together and there’s a role for everything,” he tells me.
“That irritating fly or that ant that comes in and eats from your sugar bowl – in nature, they have a role and have a place. So I think that’s what we’re trying really to get out of this – for people to understand that the complexities of nature are also the fascinations of nature.”
Grootbos is the kind of place where it’s not too hard to make things interesting, though.
On the edge of Walker Bay, about two hours drive from Stellenbosch, this nature reserve is part of one of the most biologically diverse parts of the world.
The Cape Floral Region makes up less than 0.5% of Africa’s landmass but has 20% of its plant species.
“It’s not only that there are so many plants but two thirds of them are found nowhere else in the world,” Sean explains.
“I grew up in Cape Town and I got to know the flora near Cape Point really well and I thought I knew the vegetation and then I went 60 kilometres north to another area and I knew nothing.”
“You start all over again! And then I did a big study in that area and I came here thinking I knew the flora and I knew nothing again!”
“So it’s just amazing. Just the distance from here where we are now to 20 km across the bay is completely different, new species, lots of rare and threatened plants. So I think that’s what makes it exciting, especially if you’re interested in plants.”
“It’s just an amazing diversity over very short distances.”
I can see the diversity as we drive around the reserve. The sun is shining down and we bump along tracks while Sean points out different plants that we’re passing.
We also see lizards and birds and evidence of some bigger animals. Every so often we stop and jump out of the jeep to look at something up close.
Like the king protea. What a beautiful flower, I think to myself. You can see why it has become a national emblem here in South Africa.
There is nobody else out exploring in Grootbos this afternoon and it’s nice to have the solitude and feeling you’ve got this all to yourself.
It is the backyard of the 5 star luxury accommodation closer to the shore (and somewhere I would highly recommend staying if you’re looking for a special experience).
By way of contrast, there are hundreds of people around me when I head up to Table Mountain in Cape Town later in the week.
Although the views from the top are the main attraction, I mention it because Table Mountain is part of the same Cape Floral Region and it alone has more than 2,000 species of plants.
I ask Sean Privett, as a botanist, what he thinks about the chances of protecting this area in the future. I don’t imagine Table Mountain is under much threat but all this land here in Grootbus with its views to the ocean must be prime real estate.
“What’s interesting is the mountains are typically safe because you can’t do much on a mountain,” Sean answers.
“You can’t farm a mountain, you can’t grow pine trees on a mountain, so the mountain is safe. But what we call the lowlands, the areas near the coast, the flatlands – those areas where it’s easy to plough, the coastal areas where everyone wants to live, they want a holiday house, they want to see the sea…”
“Some habitats are well protected but some other habitats are really very endangered – critically endangered. And if we don’t do work very quickly and very cleverly we’re going to lose vast habitats and we’re going to lose species.”
You could be glib at this point and say that, if there are so many species, maybe we could afford to lose a few. But don’t forget the story about the ants and the pincushion proteas.
If the ants’ food source disappears, so do the ants, and then the protea goes as well. Everything is connected.
Sean tries to show his visitors this fascinating interconnected web of food chains and mutually beneficial activities in the floral world.
It makes the landscapes seem even more alive, more than just a sea of green and speckled colours.
The vistas on this tip of South Africa are incredible on their own but there’s clearly more to them. Dig a little deeper and you might just find some seeds… waiting for their moment.