Flora in the Cradle of Humankind | Nature’s colour palette

Uniquely spanning across two of Africa’s major biomes – the bushveld savanna and the grasslands – the Cradle of Humankind stars hundreds of diverse plant species, colouring the landscape like a year-round canvas. Wild flowers, succulents, grasses, and medicinal flora can be found here, among the rocky slopes, outcrops, and dolomite and shale plains.

Plants are a true gift, attracting different species of fauna, insects, and birds. They make up a special part of the environment which allows people a space of peace and rest. Here is a small selection of the rainbow you may come across when visiting the Cradle.

Red-hot poker (Kniphofia)

Also known as the torch lily, because of its fiery colouring, the red-hot poker is indigenous to South Africa and can easily be mistaken for its close relative, the aloe plant, due to the similar blossoms.

Red-hot pokers are perennials that grow from rhizomes. They produce dense, erect spikes with elongated inflorescence (flower clusters). The flowers are small and tubular, coming in shades of reds, oranges, yellow, gentle lime and cream.

Unlike the aloe, these plants do not have succulent leaves. Instead, they produce long, narrow, tapering leaves which come together in bunches. Red-hot pokers are loved by nectar-feeding birds like sunbirds and sugarbirds and are said to taste like honey. An infusion of their roots can be used to soothe the symptoms of some chest illnesses.

Blood lily (Scadoxus puniceus)

The African blood lily or snake lily is a bulbous plant that lies dormant in winter.

As spring dawns and warms up the soil, the bright, scarlet flowerheads make their way to the surface. They appear like red brushes (awarding them another name, paintbrush lily), composed of a mass of tiny flowers, each with a yellow anther. The plant has large glossy leaves and can reach 50cm in height. Blood lilies bloom through spring and summer, before going back to sleep for the colder months.

Sunbirds and weavers in particular love these flowers, and the berries are a treat for the monkeys. The dormant bulb is poisonous, however, small doses have been used in traditional medicines to treat gastro-intestinal ailments and assure safe pregnancies.

Falling stars (Crocosmia aurea)

Despite their delicate bright orange, star-shaped blossoms, falling stars are hardy plants that can hold their own. They are deciduous, perennial bulbous plants, which can grow up to 1.2m and are usually found in colonies. Prime blooming time is in the summer months (between January and June).

Falling stars attract a host of insects and birds, who distribute the seeds. In traditional African medicine, the plant has been used to treat dysentery.

Yellow yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrows originate in the Northern Hemisphere, in the temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Today, they grow all over the world in places 3,500m above sea level, and grace the Cradle with a brilliant burst of sunshine yellow in summer and autumn.

Yarrows are perennial plants with fern-like foliage and clusters of flattened flower heads, growing to roughly 1.5m in height. According to legend, the flower was named after the Greek god, Achilles, who treated bleeding soldiers with its blossom. Its medicinal purposes include being used as an anti-inflammatory as well as an antiseptic for treating surface wounds and bleeding.

Finger grass (Digitaria eriantha)

A wispy perennial, finger grass is a common sight in South Africa, and especially in the Cradle. As the name may suggest, finger grass has a hand-like appearance., where each stalk grows with one or two whorls (an arrangement of leaves) at the top, from which 3 to 15 fingers grow. 

This grass forms large colonies with its stolons, or runners across the surface of the soil, holding hands with other stalks. Once finger grass flowers, it attracts mammals and birds, who aid the spread of seeds. 

Aloe (Aloe greatheadii)

The Aloe greatheadii seems quite ordinary during the summer. It is in mid-winter (June to July) when this succulent undergoes an incredible transformation, lighting up the grasslands with its pale pink to red inflorescence.

The leaves of the Aloe greatheadii are thick and triangular, arranged in a rosette on the ground. Each leaf is decorated with long white spots and bands and is serrated with dark brown thorns for protection. Bees and birds pollinate the flowers, and seeds are whisked across the landscape with the wind. The bitter sap in the leaves can be used to treat wounds and sores and to soothe burns.

Sage wood (Buddleja salviifolia)

One of the most treasured plants in the Cradle is the sage wood, or sage bush. Its dark green, wrinkled leaves resemble the herb and have traditionally been used with honey to make a tea that soothes coughs and colic.

In spring, the sage wood reveals its full splendour, clothing itself in whimsical clusters of tiny white to lilac, trumpet shaped flowers with a beautifully sweet scent that attracts butterflies, bees and many other insects and birds. It is a semi-evergreen plant, resistant to both frost and drought. It can reach 8m in height and offers a tasty snack to browsers like kudu, impala, eland, and bushbuck.

Black-stick lily (Xerophyta retinervis)

Wide-spread, but never in abundance, the black-stick lily is another unassuming plant found in the Cradle. During winter, all that can be seen is a thick, blackened stem which reaches heights of 1.8m.

As the seasons shift, the black-lily is adorned by masses of white to pink scented flowers. This is especially the case after a fire. The hardiness of the overall plant structure allows it to withstand extreme conditions, such as drought, fires, and very low temperatures.

Smoking the roots can relieve asthma, while the smoke from the whole plant is traditionally used to stop nosebleeds.

In conclusion, the natural world is filled with wonders. The Cradle of Humankind is a rich source of history, culture, fauna and flora. Join a few guided walks on your visit to this diverse region, and immerse yourself in the calm of budding life.

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