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How to Introduce Endemic Plants to South African Gardens Like a Pro

From healthy soil to which flowers to plant, this thriving ecosystem is a flourishing masterclass on South Africa’s plant heritage

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By House & Garden South Africa | June 30, 2024 | Gardens

Located on the south-western tip of South Africa. the Cape Floristic Region is one of the most special places in the world for plants. While it represents only the tiniest sliver of the African continent - less than 0.5 percent, to be exact - it has been declared a UNESCO World heritage site and recognised as one of the greatest centres of terrestrial biodiversity in the world. Thriving in an area equivalent to a single scale on a crocodile’s tail, the region is home to an astounding 20 per cent of the floral species on the entire continent.

The Best South African Endemic Plants

Euryops Tenuissima. Photography: Elsa Young

With a vision deeply embedded in South African plant heritage, this family garden, in the heart of the cape Floristic region, grew from an intimate connection to the endemic plant life of the area. ‘We had been looking for property in Stellenbosch for a few years. While my husband examined the house, I saw the huge rock at the end of the garden and was sold instantly. That large granite boulder holds ancient energy,’ says the owner.

Selago Canescens. Photography: Elsa Young

DDS Projects was appointed to interpret the family’s dream of an endemic, indigenous garden. They wanted one that required very little watering and was able to establish its own ecosystem. Budget constraints necessitated imaginative thinking. hard scaping, irrigation and trees were identified as priorities which then left funds for only very young plants.

The family required a lawn, but not a traditional central lawn. DDS Projects envisaged graphic, lawned conduits through a mix of low renosterveld plantings. ‘I love the geometric pattern of green paths, which lead to the woodchip path around the rock – meditative meandering often happens here. The paths are cleverly raised above the planted areas to direct rainwater coming off the rock to percolate into the soil.’

Heliophila SP. Photography: Elsa Young

The new planting remained true to the Swartland Shale Renosterveld vegetation that historically covered the area. Much of the fertile, clay-rich soils of old had been denuded to make way for new agriculture in the area and the planting of orchards, vineyards and cereal crops, forcing the renosterveld into isolated pockets, ultimately creating what is now a highly endangered vegetation type.

Marmaduke, the pot bellied pig. Photography: Elsa Young

In an attempt to revitalise soil health, generous quantities of compost and bio- organic fertilisers were applied. ‘By using endemic plants adapted to this soil type and climate, we have created a garden that requires almost no supplementary watering, with a functioning ecosystem where pests are contained by local predators and the seasonal effects of the flora on the mountains and surrounding countryside are mirrored,’ says the homeowner.

Aloe Ciliaris. Photography: Elsa Young

Apart from the usual suspects, the garden attracts drongos, Flycatchers, hoopoes, cape robin-chats, Fiscal shrikes, cape sparrows, cape spurfowl and sunbirds, which all breed in the garden. It also receives regular visits from Pied Kingfishers, Jackal Buzzards, Cape Widowbirds and more. As more gardens are planted with local plants, a widespread, self-sustaining ecosystem is created which uses less water and reduces reliance on pesticide and fertilisers. In the face of future water scarcity and ongoing habitat loss, it is a small but important contributor to the biodiversity and ecological health of our plant heritage.

Lachenalia Rubida. Photography: Elsa Young

Gardener’s wisdom

Using endemic plants honour the area in which a garden is situated. The plants are adapted to survive the local weather conditions and soil type, and the local fauna is adapted to feed and hunt amongst these plants – plus, the plants just look and feel right. My best investment was a garden shredder, as we shred just about all clippings and put them straight back onto the surface around the plants and leave the earthworms and other creatures to work it back into the soil.

Chasmanithe Floribunda. Photography: Elsa Young

We avoid turning or disturbing the soil , and I am amazed at how the population of earthworms has exploded. Plants such as Helichrysum are clipped back after flowering to keep them from becoming too leggy. The grasses also need seasonal pruning to mimic grazing or burning so that they look vigorous. We do make compost for the vegetable garden which is mostly straw mixed with chicken and pig manure thanks to Magnus the resident pot-bellied pig and the clutch of chickens, fondly known as ‘The Girls’.

Melinis Repens. Photography: Elsa Young

The warm, naturally occurring, granite rock is a favourite place to sit and take in the elevated views over the garden and the helshoogte mountains. In spring, a multitude of local bulbs that have escaped the foraging guinea fowl fill the cracks and crevices after the rainy season.

Dig in

The owner and hands-on gardener shares her top tips and considerations for embarking on a garden project:

Read extensively about your area – know the climate, plants, and history.

Use plants that thrive in your area and don’t be afraid to include the odd must- have exotic variation.

Mulch with clippings – do not remove good nutrients from your garden. Mistakes about plant position and eventual size will be made. Nothing is irrevocable.

Most important of all – have fun.

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