Bulbs and Bulbous Plants Geophytes in Nieuwoudtville

Ever heard of the "bulb capital of the world"?

The great diversity and density of flowers, and particularly bulbous plants (geophytes), that occur on the Bokkeveld Plateau (800 meters above sea level and only 100 km long and 75 km wide ) is what makes Nieuwoudtville, Western Cape, South Africa, both special and different from the rest of Namaqualand (renowned for its spectacular flower display in spring (August-September.)

(Please see my article on this at www.squidoo.com/namaqualand1).

About 1 350 species occur on the Bokkeveld Plateau and more than 600 of these are found in the vicinity of Nieuwoudtville. Forty plant species are Bokkeveld endemics, of which 22 grows only in and around Nieuwoudtville.

The diversity of bulbs and bulbous plants (known as "geophytes") is particularly astounding. The area around Nieuwoudtville has 309 species of geophytes of the 1551 geophytes in the entire Cape Floral Kingdom,  (which is 4-5 times richer than other Mediterranean regions such as California, Western Australia, and the Mediterranean basin.)

Understandably Nieuwoudtville has earned the title of "bulb capital of the world". 

The display starts with the annuals 

In early spring (after good winter rains) the scene is dominated by annuals - mainly from the daisy family, asteraceae. This family is the largest family in the Cape Floral Kingdom with about 1036 species, of which 655 endemic are endemic. (Plants on the Bokkeveld plateau form part of the Cape Floral Kingdom).

Examples of this family

Daisies1 by apricor Daisies2 by apricor Daisies3 by apricor Daisies4 by apricor Daisies5 by apricor


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An then enter the geophytes! 

Gradually the distinctive character of Nieuwoudtville, setting it apart from any other similar area on the planet, comes to the fore, when the geophytes with their greater variety of colour and type of flowers take over. This is truly breathtaking and very hard to describe. In the following image (Bikoes, Nieuwoudtville) we see a mass display of golden spiloxene serrata and red romulea.

(See close-ups at Flickr-link below.)
The density of plants in certain spots leaves one breathless: It is not uncommon to find up to 50 different species packed into one square meter!
In some areas around Nieuwoudtville there may be as many as 25 000 geophytes per square meter, but it is more usual to find a few hundred plants. At this density, a spade full of soil will contain more than 100 bulbs and corms!!

So understandably Nieuwoudtville has earned the title of "bulb capital of the world."


I took these pictures myself in September 2006. They are all from the Nieuwoudtville area, in particular Bikoes and Matjesfontein farms.

Hesperantha pauciflora by apricor

Hesperantha pauciflo...

Gladiolus alatus by apricor

Gladiolus alatus

Romulea hirta by apricor

Romulea hirta

Hesperantha  cucullata by apricor

Hesperantha cuculla...

Babiana klaverensis by apricor

Babiana klaverensis

Romulea sabulosa by apricor

Romulea sabulosa

Humeria odorata by apricor

Humeria odorata

Nemesia anisocarpa by apricor

Nemesia anisocarpa

Geissorhiza splendidissima + sparaxis  tricolor by apricor

Geissorhiza splendid...

Lachenalia elegans by apricor

Lachenalia elegans

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Variety of vegetation types 

A remarkable aspect of the vegetation of the Nieuwoudtville area is that there are at least four vegetation types within 10 km of the escarpment of the plateau, viz.
1. fynbos,
2. renosterveld(in which geophytes are included),
3. dolerite renosterveld (in which geophytes are included), and
4. succulent Karoo.
The remarkable change in types of vegetation in close proximity is one of the features which contributes to the astonishing nature of the areas vegetation.

The diversity of flowers in Nieuwoudtville explained 

The diversity of flowers in Nieuwoudtville is partly explained by two important factors:
1. variety of soils
2. rainfall

The variety of soils will first be discussed.

There are five bands of different soils that run parallel to the escarpment (roughly north to south) and a short journet from the top of Vanrhyn's pass to a few kilometers past Nieuwoudtville will take you across all the major types of soil.

  1. At the top of the Vanrhynspass, the soils (sandstone) are acidic and nutrient poor and support fynbos vegetation.

    (erica blenna)
    Although these soils are not generally good for agriculture, they are suitable for the cultivation of rooibos tea, which is a fynbos plant.
  2. A few kilometers east of the escarpment, the sandstone gives way to yellow or grey coloured tillite soils, locally known as "vaalgrond". The "vaalgrond" has a high clay content.

    The natural vegetation on these soils is known as renosterveld, but very little remains because most of the land has been ploughed for wheat cultivation. Although much renosterveld has been lost to wheat fields, some good examples can still be seen on the
    farm Glenlyon, along the 'trekpad' (Bikoes and Matjesfontein), and along the Oorlogskloof road towards Papkuilsfontein.
  3. Some of the most interesting soils in South Africa can be seen just east of Nieuwoudtville. The soils are derived from a Karoo dolerite sill, which gave rise to the north-south row of koppies (small rocky hills).

    The soils are known locally as "rooigrond"(red soil) due to the high iron content, which rusts to give a deep red colour. The type of soil has a remarkable capacity to shrink and swell during alternate dry and wet periods, giving rise to massive cracks in the soil. The cracks result in a self-mulching process in which topsoil falls into the cracks and subsoil moves to the surface. These soils are called "vertisols". They are very fertile but cultivation depletes the soil nutrients.

    In this "rooigrond" one gets another type of vegetation that is unique to the Nieuwoudtville area, known as Nieuwoudtville dolerite renosterveld. The scene is dominated by a great diversity of annuals and geophytes with very few shrubs.
    A number of Nieuwoudtville endemics are found in these soils.
  4. Beyond the dolerite koppies, the soils are also derived from dolerite, but they have a sandy texture and do not form the deep vertisols found on the west side of koppies.
  5. These soils eventually give way to tillite and then soils derived from Ecca Shales, which cover a large proportion of the Karoo. The vegetation to the east of the koppies, known as succulent karoo, is dominated by low shrubs and vygies (type of succulent)that are able to withstand the low rainfall and long summer drought.
  6. Glacial pavement: Evidence of the extensive sheet glacier that covered much of South Africa about 300 million years ago can be seen south of Nieuwoudtville where grooves formed by rocks and pebbles carried in the ice sheet were left behind on the glacial floor after the ice sheet melted.

    These glacial pavements tend to impede water infiltration and damp patches result, which are favourite habitats for some of the lovely local geophytic plants.

2. Rainfall 

The strong rainfall gradient, from almost 800 mm along the escarpment down to about 350 mm or less at Nieuwoudtville, and decreasing towards Calvinia has a huge impact on the plants growing on the Bokkeveld plateau. The vegetation to the east of the koppies, known as succulent karoo, is dominated by low shrubs and vygies that are able to withstand the low rainfall and long summer drought.

Although annuals grow everywhere as long as there has been reasonable rain during the preceding winter, most geophytes are restricted to the wetter areas.

A second flowering season during the year 

Everybody knows about the spring (August-September)flowering season, but not many about the bonus somewhere in autumn. This does not happen every year and when it does, something special will have to precede. When there's a downpour of not less than 15mm in February or March, be prepared for one of the flora miracles of the planet. Out of nowhere the candelabra-like Brunsvigia bosmaniae flowers will appear and will be fully open almost to the day, hour and minute, 3 weeks after a downpour.

So, even though it's virtually impossible to predict the rain, it's easy to calculate when the flowers will be in full bloom.

These flowers are truely spectacular and very striking, appearing from the soil with no leaves at all.

A sunset amongst the brunsvigias is said to be an experience of a lifetime and a rising full moon is an added delight as the blooms appear to glow in the
twilight. (Although I seen these beautiful flowers many times, I've never had the priviledge to experience then in a rising moon context.)

Unfortunate situation 

The problem around Nieuwoudtville is that many of the unusual plants occur in naturally small areas, often associated with particular soils. Some of these soils are also good for agriculture, especially the tillite soils that support renosterveld vegetation.
Only 21% of the original renosterveld vegetation is left and this amounts to about 10 km2. Although agriculture has had less impact on other vegetation types, the areas that are left are still very small.

Some special habitats, such as damp areas where tillite and sandstone soils merge (e.g. at Biekoes, 8 kilometers from Nieuwoudtville, and Matjesfontein, 16 kilometers from Nieuwoudtville), have almost disappeared. As a result, Nieuwoudtville has a high number of threatened species.

According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List, 88 plant species from the area are classified as threatened and a further 23 species as possibly threatened (unknown).
Forty species of threatened plants occur on the tillite and dolerite soils most affected by agriculture. Almost all the patches that remain have one or more unusual species in them.

On the bright side, this actually means that a visit to one good spot does not mean that the whole area has been covered. No particular spot is representative of the whole area, so you can go from spot to spot and discover species not present in the one you've just visited.

Places to visit in Nieuwoudtville 

  1. Bikoes and Matjesfontein:
    Bikoes is 8 kilometers and Maatjesfontein 13 kilometers from Nieuwoudtville. These two farms are my prime spots. You cannot leave this area without visiting these two farms. The density of geophytes will blow your breath away. The owners of Matjesfontein claim that the geophyte density on their farm is the highest in the world. Whether this is so or not, it is indeed something very special. You can add the Glenlyon farm here as well.
  2. Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve:
    Ten kilometres south of Nieuwoudville, the rugged series of deep ravines incised by the Oorlogskloof River offers hiking trails and a home to several rare bird species, including booted eagles, black storks and gymnogene. The reserve spans 5 577 hectares.
  3. Nieuwoudtville Wild Flower Reserve:
    Nieuwoudtville has a wide variety of flora, of which over 300 species and 199 genera are preserved in the Nieuwoudtville Wild Flower Reserve.
  4. Nieuwoudtville bulb nursery:
    Here you can buy yourself bulbs as a souvenir.
  5. Doorn river Waterfall:
    This waterfall, with a drop of 100 meters, is situated a few miles (8 kilometers) north of Nieuwoudtville on the road to Loeriesfontein.

    There are a number of interesting paths that allow the viewing of the entire waterfall system and the surrounding plants and flowers. The area surrounding the waterfall is home to a wide variety of plant and bird species.
  6. Kokerboom (Quiver tree) forest:
    Gannabos is halfway between Nieuwoudtville and Loeriesfontein. The Kokerboom Forest at Gannabos is the southernmost forest in Africa and contains as much as 3800 trees.

    The Bushmen used the hollow branches of the tree as quivers to hold their poisoned arrows, hence the name Quiver-tree or Kokerboom.

The following links are very useful and worth exploring 


This page provides a description of many of the 22,000 plant species found in South Africa, e.g. a description of the asteraceae family with some photos.

Pacific Bulb Society

This pages provides a number of photos of flowering bulbs. Treat yourself and visit this link.


This document has been compiled aand is very useful. among other things it also provides a list of the endemics in the area. I relied on this document when writing this article.

Go there and see for yourself. 

If my article on Namaqualand did not do enough to persuade you to go there and experience the breathtaking display of spring flowers by yourself, surely this one on Nieuwoudtville should do the trick. So, if you did make the decision, I again refer you to that article where you will get all the help you'll need as far as bookings are concerned.

Otherwise you could consider buying some of the books (or videos) available on the subject.


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» Read full article


Thinking about nature reserves in South Africa, the Kruger National Park immediately springs to the mind, but people tend to forget - or simply do not know - that South Africa boasts a number of other world-class reserves, among which the Pilanesberg National Park/Game Reserve, the fourth biggest in South Africa. In this article I would like to show why it would be worth your while to visit this superb national park in Pilanesberg.

» Read full article