Why a South African desert blossoms in an annual flower show
It happened. Summer is over – in the upper half of the world. But as the blazing colors of fall begin their descent over the green leaves of America’s east coast, a rainbow of spring blossoms blooms into a short-lived colorful carpet for a southern desert. African. Superblooms can bring awe-inspiring palettes to deserts around the world, but few erupt as regularly or on schedule as the Namaqualand Flower Show in South Africa.
Each year in August and September, and sometimes until October, millions of wildflowers bloom along 600 miles of coastal desert and arid areas along South Africa’s west coast. Visitors share photos on social media all season long. Right now, with the hashtag #Namaqualand, you can still see their photos appear on Instagram. Just five hours north of Capetown, visitors drive along the Namaqualand Flower Route to enjoy the show in several national parks, including Richtersveld National Park, Goegap nature reserve and Skilpad Wildflower Reserve.
Namaqualand is not the only place for desert flowers. Americans also have it in the Mojave Desert. In February, Death Valley had a superb bloom after the record rainfall last October. And last year in Chile, the Atacama Desert, known to be the driest place on earth, erupted into a sea of ââfuchsia blossoms. Yet “most of every year is a wildflower year in Namaqualand,” said Philippe rundel, an environmentalist who studies desert plants at the University of California, Los Angeles – and it’s because of the rain.
The region’s predictable annual rainfall, he said, is what makes Namaqualand one of the best flower shows in the world. For an entire year, the seeds of more than 4,000 plant species – thousands per square meter – rest in the soil while waiting for the late winter rains in South Africa. But in Chile, says Dr Rundel, the seeds can wait decades, and a good show only takes place every 20 or 30 years. Something like what we’ve seen in Death Valley this year can happen once in a decade.
âIf you want to fly to South Africa and see wildflowers, you have a much better chance of seeing them than the other way around,â Dr Rundel said.
Besides making the shows more frequent, the constant rainfall creates a particularly colorful ensemble, adorned with super bright bulb flowers that you won’t find in deserts like the Mojave. They are “very showy, almost electric colors – almost as if they are glowing in the dark,” said Dr Rundel. They bloom there because bulbs store a ton of energy, and it’s worth doing when a bulb can expect rain.
All these flowers arise and compete. During the rainier years, you’ll see the most plant cover – mostly flowers and succulents – but it also means less diversity as the hardiest plants smother all the others. In some places the sheep grazing eliminates the competition and makes the show even better. âYou probably get less cash, but you get spectacular color,â Dr. Rundel said.
Showy flowers mean lots of pollinators, and South Africa is home to a few rather distinctive ones. The long-tongue bee, for example, which is more and more rare in times of climate change, specializes in flowers with long tubes, as the iris. And the hairy, brown one monkey beetle pollinates plants instead of eating them, which beetles normally do.
Soon the scorching summer temperatures will put an end to the Namaqualand flower show. But at least we can count on this beautiful superbloom to come back next year.