South Africa


The Cape’s spring flower spectacle: Building back better with wildflowers as our guides

The Cape’s spring flower spectacle: Building back better with wildflowers as our guides
Namaqualand flowers near Clanwilliam. Let’s imagine what might be possible with more wildflower reserves. (Photo: Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais)

Streams of city dwellers flocking to the West Coast and Swartland to see what remains of the Cape’s magnificent spring wildflower phenomenon are a reminder of how much of our natural heritage we’ve lost, but also a window into what local economies based on biodiversity and social justice could be. We must transform the trauma of this pandemic into a vision of a brighter, more beautiful world where all can thrive. Designing economic systems with ecology in mind will help us to ‘build back better’.

The road verges just outside Darling were clotted with cars of all types, from luxury SUVs to beat-up sedans. Swarms of people spread across a seemingly innocuous field, many stooped low to peer into water-logged tussocks and sedges. It looked suspiciously like cult activity or the symptoms of psychedelia, but I knew the reason to be more benign.

Tienie Versveld Wildflower Reserve is one of a few wildflower patches within striking distance of Cape Town, replete with bewildering geophytes that burst into colourful and idiosyncratic forms over spring. It’s wonderful to witness so many people enjoying biodiversity with their families and friends for free (the reserve does not charge an entrance fee), but the scene was also tinged with sadness.

Tienie Versveld is, literally, tiny – all of 22ha: hundreds of people squashed into a tiny vlei surrounded by an interminable green desert of cereal crops. Compared to the Cape Floral Kingdom’s former grandeur, our scrabbling around in these scraps says something about the sacrifices society has made to satiate a caste of billionaires while the rest of us chase an illusory American-type Dream, steadily degrading the experiences that truly give happiness.

It’s clear that the “supply” of wildflower experiences is insufficient to meet “demand”. The comical mismatch between people and space across the tiny Darling patches, the kilometres-long queue of cars to enter West Coast National Park for the Postberg flowers, and the increasing demand for cut flowers – which added more than R800-million to the export economy in 2019 but is threatening the species on which it depends – all attest to this.

Let’s imagine what might be possible with more wildflower reserves. Imagine that rather than just “Tiny” Versveld there is a series of “roadside reserves” stretching from the Yzerfontein intersection to the Darling Renosterveld Reserve where each farmer has set aside a patch of 22ha or more, interconnected by ecological corridors and hiking paths.

Let’s imagine that, rather than a chaotic scramble to see the flowers, landowners, local businesses and the municipality cooperate to conduct an annual Open Streets style celebration. MyCiti buses could be routed to Darling, where people spend the day wandering the flowering section of the R315 – dipping in and out of the reserves to take photos and be active. Trails weaving through the reserves could be used to generate additional income through running and biking events. Locals could set up food trucks and stalls to sell artisanal products (including bouquets of course) along the road verges; artists could provide entertainment and showcase the deep cultural history of these lands.

A portion of the profits from these festivals could be invested back into community enterprises and help farmers to offset the cost of conserving the land.

Imagine further that these reserves unlock additional revenue streams by providing ecosystem services: wildflowers attract pollinators, which are in critical decline across the world. Creating viable populations of pollinators at landscape scales would boost crop productivity for all participating farmers. Improving wildflower vigour would increase the viability of sustainable harvesting cooperatives (such as the Flower Valley Conservation Trust), providing skilled job opportunities.

Wildflower harvesting cooperatives could pay farmers to carefully harvest selected species for supplying both domestic and international markets. Imagine that these cooperatives, while sustainably harvesting flowers after peak tourist season, also helped to clear alien invasive vegetation from the land (for which the farmers paid the cooperatives), further bolstering ecosystem services such as water retention and pollination and increasing the value of the land in a virtuous cycle. The cleared alien biomass could be sold to local biorefineries to create more skilled jobs and localise supply chains that become resilient to global shocks (perhaps repurposing the decommissioned Saldanha steel plant is the perfect opportunity to start?) The low-carbon biofuel could then be sold back to the food truck owners and other consumers at reduced costs.

Imagine that as each patch of alien vegetation is cleared, more opportunities to expand wildflower reserves are created, widening the resource base and adding to the thousands of jobs already created by the broader wildflower economy.

Imagine the opportunity for this economy to extend local food sovereignty. By returning the veld to natural habitat, farmers could reintroduce indigenous antelope, such as springbok. Antelope are effective nutrient cyclers, which would enhance ecosystem functioning and thus wildflower growth. Occasional biltong hunting would contribute to cash flow and would be necessary to prevent overgrazing (in the absence of predators and wide-open spaces which used to perform this role).

The food trucks at the wildflower festivals could serve venison burgers and pies directly from participating farms. Venison from wild game populations would be rightly seen as the most ethical form of meat consumption possible: the animals live freely in natural social groups performing essential ecological roles, where they are humanely hunted to prevent disrupting herd dynamics by professionals who have a direct connection with the land (compare this to the abuses prevalent in the industrial feedlot-based food systems), and thus they contribute to sustaining the herds from which they come and keep patches of beauty open for all species. Not to mention they are low-fat and low-carbon sources of protein.

Imagine that the droves of people who currently spend hours in queues to see the flowers could convert that into more quality time with family and friends, enjoying experiences from an alluring tapestry of wildflower reserves that sustain interest year after year.

Imagine that half the excitement of the wildflower outing was planning our route through the mosaic of patches, all with slightly different species, features and local products.

Imagine the money we would have spent at shopping malls full of placeless, impersonal brands is instead spent supporting local enterprises; that the effort invested in visiting the reserves is absorbed into rural economies like a wetland storing water to be released throughout the year.

Now imagine this at scale. What if this circular economy model was replicated in each wildflower region – from the Agulhas plains to Namaqualand – a moveable feast of spring festivity rolling across the Cape where rural economies burn extra brightly (on solar power where feasible) for two to three months and local initiatives are reinvigorated through interwoven bio-cultural tourism and retail? Coordination at regional scales could unlock additional enterprise opportunities.

Imagine an Amazing Race-style event orchestrated between conservation agencies, wildflower cooperatives and participating farmers where clues are geo-tagged in the landscape and teams learn about biodiversity, conservation and local culture to find the final and dynamic secret location each year. Maybe this would attract more people to outdoor lifestyles and improve mental health? Maybe it would just be a fun day out to secure social bonds. The clues could double up as rapid botanical surveys where teams perform a citizen science role by uploading their “image-answers” to crowdsourced data platforms like iNaturalist. Analyses of the data could inform clues of subsequent races to create a feedback loop between participation and impact.

Imagine wildflower cooperatives from each region banded together to ensure social upgrading, responsible reinvestment and greater bargaining clout with bullying international corporations and trading partners.

Imagine these cooperatives were empowered to be properly compensated for their indigenous knowledge of the fynbos flowers for any downstream, and potentially exploitative, commercial propagation – as was successfully achieved for the Khoi and San communities for their intellectual property underpinning the Rooibos industry.

Achieving this requires landscape-scale coordination and vision. The 2018 National Biodiversity Assessment paints a bleak horizon of impending extinctions where most Critically Endangered plant species are stranded in fynbos habitat fragments and many more look set to slip into oblivion as the impacts of climate change and unscrupulous land conversion take their toll. Without interlinking protected areas with complementary private conservation areas, the wildflowers and other species on which these bioregional economies depend will inexorably erode.

We must redefine what constitutes a good life and thus what a “successful” economy looks like.

Restored wildflower patches would need to connect with one another through ecological corridors along watercourses and farm edges that enable patches to be within travelling distance of the small creatures that disperse seeds and cross-pollinate, thereby keeping wildflower populations healthy and able to adapt to rapidly changing environments. A complex task for sure, but the science has already been developed to guide us and the biodiversity stewardship programme, pioneered in the Cape and already a world-class conservation programme, is trailblazing new possibilities.

Restoring local wildflower patches is expensive and labour-intensive. It is unreasonable to expect individual landowners or local businesses to bear the investment risks. Government recognises this and provides support to landowners through programmes like Working for Water, but these efforts must be amplified and integrated into local economies.

Emerging financial instruments in the impact investment sector could be used to offset individual risk and raise capital for restoration. For example, impact bonds to grow wildflower populations combined with tradable credits for locking carbon into the soil as cropland converts to natural vegetation could draw a long, stable arc of financial succession and security.

As the climate crisis makes water supplies less predictable, restoring private wetlands and rivers could make water quality trading both a public benefit as well as another stabilising revenue stream. Similarly, participating landowners can claim deductions on income tax by managing all or parts of their land as private nature reserves.

These instruments could be interlinked with more immediate crowdfunding models. Initiatives like livestock wealth could be expanded to growing “wildflower wealth”, where the public directly contributes to growing beautiful landscapes and could be compensated through a range of options, from “fuzzy good feeling” to preferential access to the flowers in spring to long-term dividends from the integrated economic portfolio of the patch (wildflower harvests, entrance fees, venison sales etc). Such schemes could help to overcome high upfront restoration costs and broaden the market base for the Wildflower Spring Street Festivals by engaging citizens directly and involving them in the long-term wellbeing of the land and its communities. Stories of how each of us help in our own little ways to bring about these better worlds could be the renewable energy that bonds us.

Because, above all, we must redefine what constitutes a good life and thus what a “successful” economy looks like. Under neoliberalism, success has been contrived to mean ruthlessly maximising profit for shareholders and expanding production beyond the scales of local system feedbacks and ultimately beyond the safe operating space of the planet. These industries widen the faultlines between surplus and deficit; they proliferate “bull***t jobs” (in honour of the late David Graeber); they crush grassroots innovation; they dispirit us from imagining economies of “enough” where the content of the work itself matters as much as the money, where the manner in which we produce matters more than how much we produce. 

Vishwas Satgar speaks of an “emancipatory ecology” to link climate justice with food sovereignty and Francois du Toit calls for a “wild economy” where sustainable use of our natural resources becomes the cornerstone of socioeconomic policy. Both share a common vision of restoring dignity, equality and life to systems that currently drain them. While we need these big-sky ideas to shift the Overton Window, the wildflowers gently tug our thinking back down to earth.

What can be done on the ground before us? What can be done on the stretch of road between Yzerfontein and Darling? And then what can be done on the stretch of road after that. We can progress – patch by patch – to create resilient and sustainable local economic systems, however humble at first. We must achieve this not because it is “the right thing to do” but because it directly improves our quality of life by bettering familial and social bonds, bettering experiences, bettering memories, and imbuing beauty back into our landscapes and thus ourselves.

Because perhaps the most significant detail about the Capetonians crammed together into the “Tiny” Versveld Reserve was people across economic strata coexisting – albeit ephemerally – in the shared happiness of experiencing something beautiful, in shared kinship with each other and our fellow species who are squeezed to the edge of existence. DM

Matthew Child has an MSc in conservation biology from the University of Cape Town, an MPhil in conservation science from the University of Cambridge and has written numerous scientific articles. He has worked at the Endangered Wildlife Trust and is currently employed at the South African National Biodiversity Institute as an assistant director within the Biodiversity Information and Policy Advice division. All views are his own. 



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  • Garth Kruger says:

    The wild flowers really are something to see. But if you do go, don’t just drive up to Darling for the day. There is more to this than meets the eye. We took 2 weeks and drove through Namaqualand and Boesmanland to see places we had never, ever been to. The flowers around Nieuwoudtville were simply spectacular. We drove from Springbok via Gamoep to see the gate of Vaalputs where we (or they) bury our nuclear waste. Stopped at the gate to look through much to the distress of the guard. Then on to Kliprand and Loeriesfontein. Nice little museum. Two nights outside Calvinia and then a round trip via Brandvlei. All the dirt roads are good. Don’t miss the dirt road Ceres to Calvinia via Prince Alfred Hamlet and over the Katbakkies Pass/Houdenbeksberg. Almost zero traffic. Then straight up north along the west side of Tankwa National Park to Calvinia (the longest dirt road connecting two towns in SA, according to a local). Stop at the Tankwapadstal halfway for a cold beer (or two). We saw one car in 252 km. The second week guided daily walks in the Namaqua National Park with Dana Swanepoel, just south of Hondeklipbaai (no, the rock does not look like a dog). You walk more or less 15 km a day along the shore. Sleep in a comfy tented camp and the food is great. Total bliss. I came back fatter than when I started unusual for a walking holiday. On your wayback sleep at Zeekoegat outside Carnarvon.

  • Wendy Sweetman says:

    What a profound and wonderful vision the author has. My only experience of the Spring flowers was entirely accidental. I’d been on retreat in Riebeek Kasteel and afterwards decided to spend a few days in Langebaan before traveling back to the EC. The flower season was considered to be over by then but driving back through the West Coast reserve I came across pockets of magnificent wildflowers which, being so unanticipated, were both a shock and a delight to behold. The day took on a magical quality I’ll never forget.

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