If you’re on the Cape Peninsula in the next couple of months keep an eye out for the blooming of the extremely rare but spectacular Hessea cinnamomea.
Where can you expect to find Hessea cinnamomea?
Although a few individual plants have been sighted on Rondebosch Common and in the Kenilworth Nature Reserve in the last week, the most spectacular display is in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Drive down the road towards Olifantsbos for about 4km and, on your left, you’ll see swathes of the pretty flowers a few metres from the roadside. There are so many of them that it’s hard to believe this is one of the last remaining sites in the world where they have survived.
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You need to be sharp sighted to spot them as the plants are a mere 10-15cm high – we drove straight past them! But once you do locate them you’ll soon see why the Afrikaans name for Hessea cinnamomea is sambreeltjie (little umbrella). And if you sniff the flower you’ll pick a spicy scent, like cinnamon, hence the name.
An amaryllis, Hessea cinnamomea, can lie dormant for 70 years, then flowers like mad after fire has raged through its habitat.
Why is Hessea cinnamomea so rare?
Once abundant on the Cape Flats, Hessea cinnamomea has suffered massive loss of habitat and subpopulations due to urban growth, crop cultivation and invasion of alien species. According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s Red List of South African plants, 50% of their available habitat and known subpopulations have been lost to urban expansion on the Cape Flats over the past 140 years. Given that the generation length of Hessea cinnamomea, a long-lived bulb species, is estimated to be 50 years, the loss has occurred in less than three generations.
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It might be your last chance to spot this rare flower. But the good news, according to floral fundi, Dominic Chadbon, is that the display in the coming months should get better and better as more flowers appear. “It’s going to be berserk in August, September and October,” he assures me.
Seeing this rare and precious flower is definitely worth a trip to the Cape.
Words and photography Shaen Adey