Clanwilliam’s annual wildflower show in its century-old Blomkerk pays tribute to the richness and diversity of the area’s floral delights.
Clanwilliam is a rooibos-growing area. But it has another distinction. Come springtime it is surrounded by a countryside blooming and brimming with Cape floral splendour.
Focusing on a 90-kilometre radius of the town, the Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show represents all the places that you may want to visit in flower season but can’t possibly fit into one journey, including the Strandveld, Sandveld, Nieuwoudtville, Succulent Karoo, Knersvlakte, Biedouw, Olifantsrivier Valley, and the Cederberg mountains. It’s a one-stop visit for flower exuberance, housed in the old church that has over the years become known as the Blomkerk.
The show is a labour of love, if ever there was one, and the women from the Wild Flower Society, the community of Clanwilliam and the surrounding farmers band together and prepare for it with gusto. From the largest quiver tree to the smallest kalkoentjie (Gladiolus alatus) lovingly placed in its tin of water, the impressive display pays tribute to the floral delights of a vast area and to the richness and diversity of our natural spring bounty.
“The flower show is part of Clanwilliam’s soul,” chairperson Alida Stone tells me. It was especially valued in 2017 after the
worst drought in 100 years ravaged the area. I was fortunate to arrive for the 2018 show as two sluice gates of the Clanwilliam Dam were opened and water gushed into the river. 2017 was a sad year for Clanwilliam and the surrounding towns that depend on the visitors who flock to the area in flower season. “It was the first year that the show had to be cancelled, and it broke our hearts,” Alida says. “We chose ‘Rejuvenation’ as the theme for 2018 in February, with hope and with trust and with faith.” It was a good omen and the first rains brought relief and joy, and eventually the much-awaited flowers.
Alida’s involvement with the show began in 1991 when she was new in town. “I started by sitting with the old tannies the week before the show, placing flowers in blikkies (tins). The next year I had another job to do and it grew from there.”
After taking a break for a few years while she was raising her children, she picked it up again about ten years ago and has been the chairperson for the past five years. “I love doing the show,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to look back and see the whole process.”
You also might like: 8 photo tips for capturing flowers from photojournalist Marion Whitehead
Getting the Blooms Ready
And it is quite an organisational feat. It’s a fine example of teamwork that takes months of planning and preparation. As the
one show ends, the team starts putting their heads together to plan for the next. Marketing begins in February when the theme for the next show is finalised, and in March, the builders get together to discuss the structure for the show over a glass of wine.
As August draws near, it’s time to landscape and assemble the large artificial rocks, aloes and trees – including a quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum) and an elephant’s foot plant (Dioscorea elephantipe) – that are transported in their sandbags to the church. And a week before the event, the teams begin picking the multitude of plants that fill the display, from bright watsonias to the delicate fyn blommetjies that fringe the exhibit. Bakkies arrive at the back door of the Blomkerk where farmers deliver the plants that grow profusely on their land, while groups of pickers – with permits from CapeNature, and permission from landowners – head out into the countryside for the backbreaking work of picking the blooms, stem by stem.
“The friendliness with which they are received, even on a Sunday afternoon or at lunchtime, is really something,” says Alida. “And as we build the display, somebody will arrive with a plate of food or a box of chocolates. Many people from the different businesses walk in with something to eat, or for a chat. It’s the focal point of the town this time of year.”
Some locals have been part of the show for the past 27 years. “Our oldest picker turns 80 this year,” says Alida, “and Sister White, the midwife who delivered me, still collects tins, putting wire into the blikkies and delivering them to the church.”
Alicia Erasmus, on the marketing team, has also been involved with the flower show for more than 20 years. She fills me in on how the show was born. “In the 40s and 50s, the schoolchildren were asked to bring a flower or a posy to school on the first day of September, and they had to know the common names – the noemname. After that the ladies started to make flower arrangements in the school hall and town hall, and later in different venues around town.”
You also might like: The ultimate list of where to stay during wildflower season
A Venue for the Ages
In 1971, the Clanwilliam Wild Flower Society was established and in 1972 the Wild Flower Show opened in the Blomkerk. The Dutch Reformed Church has a long history. For 100 years, from 1864 to 1964, services were held in the church. After that, services took place in the new church and, with the exception of the occasional wedding and funeral, the Blomkerk became home to the flowers.
The proceeds from the wild flower show, which runs for ten days from the last weekend of August into the first week of September, go into maintaining the church and the museum housed in the old jail, with a certain percentage returned to the community in the form of funding for various projects, including the annual Liggiefees (Festival of Lights).
What to Look Forward to
On the opening night of the Wild Flower Show, the Thursday before the show begins, the community is invited to attend the proceedings and to walk through the church. In 2018, Oom Teunis Jooste, a 102-year-old veteran of the town known for his love of flowers and his gardening skills, cut the ribbon to the church, officially opening the show.
During the ten days, schoolchildren are invited for a guided visit. One of the members from the Wild Flower Society takes them around, pointing out specific plants and adding valuable information, from which the children glean some of the answers to the challenging questions in the Flower Show competition.
Conservation is Key
With all the excitement and floral splendour, it is conservation that is at the heart of the show. Every flower that is present in the main display is exhibited and identified with its scientific name in the species room, and if the plant is Threatened, it has its SANBI Red Data List rating.
Daleen Schoombee is one of the self-taught botanists who are instrumental in setting up the species room at the back of the church. After many years of involvement in the Wild Flower Show, she has a vast knowledge about the plants of the area.
“We put 350 to 400 species in the species room,” she explains. “We also find plants that we know the public will find fascinating and which are botanically quite interesting.” For the 2018 show, two species of Heterorhachis, one Critically Endangered, were selected to be exhibited as well as a local disa (Disa spathulata) from the Orchid family, also known as Begging Hand or Oupa-se-pyp, named for its resemblance to a grandfather smoking his pipe.
Daleen smiles as she describes how the Afrikaans plant names often describe their appearance, use or smell, or the animals that like to eat them. For example, the bobbejaantjies (Babiana villosula) that are enjoyed by baboons; voeltjie-kan-nie-sit-nie (Muraltia heisteria), that is so called because of its spiky leaves; skilpadbessie (Nylandtia spinosa) whose berries tortoises love; seepbos (Manochlamys albicans) used as soap; sieketroos (Arctopus echinatus), long known as a medicinal plant for a variety of ailments; and handjies (Cyanella alba) which resembles small hands.
It doesn’t end when the doors to the show close on the last Sunday. Then it’s time for the large plants to be returned and
transplanted back in their home turf. And the women from the Wild Flower Society take the seeds from the flowers exhibited and sow them in the nearby Ramskop Nature Reserve, which the team also tends to during the year.
A visit to the reserve, where a carpet of flowers covers the ground in season, is part of the Clanwilliam experience, as is a turn at the Tuiskombuis, set up on the lawn across from the Blomkerk for pannekoeke and braaivleis. My visit will still include other favourite Clanwilliam delights such as a stop at the Rooibos Teahouse for a rooibos tea tasting, a shopping spree for footwear at Strassbergers shoe factory and a visit to Rooibos Limited and the museum, but the highlight, of course, this time of year is the Blomkerk with its treasure trove of wild flowers.
Before I head off to wander through the town, visit Ramskop and enjoy a pancake and cup of rooibos tea across the road, I ask Daleen what makes the Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show so special. “It’s the ambience in the Blomkerk,” she says “with the background music playing and the beauty of the light streaming through the windows onto the flowers.” The town’s enthusiasm for the show and its flower heritage are expressed in her words, “We are all very proud to live in an area that is so beautiful – and we want to share it.”
After revelling in the exuberant flower celebration painstakingly assembled in the Blomkerk, I take off my hat to the Clanwilliam Wild Flower Society and say thank you so much, for conserving – and sharing.
The 2019 Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show takes from from 23 August to 1 September.
+27 (0) 27 482 2024; [email protected]
Words and Photography Ron Swilling