The Orchids of Kloof and the adjacent Highway area – Part 2

Text Hendrelien Peters Photographs Hendrelien Peters, Pat Brown, Hendrik Venter

“Lord Illingworth told me this morning that there was an orchid there as beautiful as the seven deadly sins.”

Oscar Wilde

Editor’s note

In Part 1 of this series on the Orchids of the Upper Highway, published in our July edition, well-known orchid expert Hendrelien Peters introduced us to the genera and described some of the terrestrial species which flower from June to November. In Part 2 Hendrelien describes the late flowering species, those flowering from approximately December through to March. She also describes the smaller group of epiphytic species.


In Part 1 I mentioned that we are fortunate to have 480 recorded species of orchids in Southern Africa of which 61 are found in our area of interest which is the Outer West or Highway area which encompasses Kloof, Gillitts, Hillcrest, Botha’s Hill and Assagay.

I would like to start my review for this issue with a reminder that Orchids are protected species by law and are not allowed to be dug out or the flowers picked for the vase.

In addition whilst one can be greatly tempted to dig out, remove and grow in a garden environment these terrestrial and epiphytic orchids, the prospects of success are very limited in non-expert hands. Orchids are very specific to the little niche that they occupy–namely, the soil type, temperature of the area and their own micro climate. They, therefore, seldom survive when removed and transferred to a cultivated garden.

Our main aim is to conserve the grasslands and the riverine forests and to keep them as pristine as possible, so that we can maintain our superb wild orchid heritage for the next generation to see and enjoy.

Terrestrial orchids in the Highway area

The late flowering species December to March

Disa chrysostachya is an imposing, robust terrestrial 250mm to 1.1m tall. The inflorescence is dense, cylindrical, 40-120-flowered. The flowers are a reddish-orange in our area, 8mm in diameter. This species is locally common in damp or marshy areas, from near sea level to 2200m. The plants usually appear singly or in small groups. It flowers between November and December.

Disa chrysostachya

Disa chrysostachya

Disa chrysostachya (Photo: Pat Brown)

Disa nervosa is a robust terrestrial that is scattered in its distribution area, with plants occurring singly or in small groups. The plants can reach 800mm in height, with a fairly dense inflorescence carrying up to 50, pink flowers with purple markings. The flowers are large up to 50mm in length. This species is mainly found in drier grassland areas, in full sun, from 300-2000m and flowers from January to February. The flowers mimic those of Watsonia densiflora in order to lure the latter’s pollinator.

Disa nervosa

One of most impressive orchids in our area is Pterygodium magnum. This species flowers from January to March. It is a very robust terrestrial up to 1.5m tall. The inflorescence is dense, carrying 45 -100 flowers. The flowers have green sepals with the petals yellowish, with red dots and darker veins, lip pale green.

These plants are found along forest edges and in grassland, from 500-2000m.

Pterygodium magnum

Pterygodium magnum

Habenaria dives flowers from December to February. The flower stems are up to 700mm tall carrying numerous 15mm flowers, which are white with green veined sepals. It is common in the eastern parts of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, N.E. Free State, Mpumalanga and Swaziland from 15-2300m.

This species is called the Death Orchid, by the Zulu people. The dried and ground tubers are mixed with other herbs and then, at a suitable opportunity, this powder is put onto the food or drink by one who has a grudge against another, thus causing the death of the unsuspecting victim, who will fade and die just like the orchid within the year–there are however other orchid tubers that will neutralize this death charm.

Habenaria dives

Habenaria dives (Photo: Pat Brown)

One of the orchids with the most unusual flowers is Bonatea speciosa. A robust species which can grow up to 1000mm; the inflorescence is usually 300mm long, many flowered. The flowers are green and white up to 90mm long. This species has a widespread distribution area from the southern Cape through the eastern parts up to the northern areas of South Africa into Zimbabwe. It grows in shady places, usually in sandy soil, either at the edge of coastal scrub or forest margin, sometimes in savannah grassland from sea level to 1200m and flowers from the end of June to February depending on the locality in which it is found.

Bonatea speciosa

Bonatea speciosa

The orchids described above are the more common and easily seen terrestrials. Below is a list with the balance of the known terrestrials to be found in our Highway area: 

  • Cynorkis compacta (a lithophyte-rock-dwelling species)
  • Disa aconitoides     
  • Disperis anthoceras, D. fanniniae, D, johnstonii, D. lindleyana, D. micrantha, D. woodii.
  • Eulophia hians var. nutans, E. horsfallii,   E. ovalis subsp.  ovalis, E. parvilabris, E. speciosa, E. streptopetala, E. tenella.
  • Habenaria arenaria, H. dregeana, H. epipactidea, H. pseudociliosa, H. falcicornis subsp. caffra,   H. filicornis (syn. H. chlorotica), H. lithophila
  • Holothrix orthoceras
  • Liparis bowkeri, L. remota
  • Orthochilus aculeatus subsp. huttonii, O. adenoglossa, O. odontoglossus, O. welwitschii (syn. Eulophia mechowii).
  • Schizochilus zeyheri
  • Stenoglottis fimbriata, S molweniensis, S woodii.

Cynorkis compacta

Epiphytic Orchids of the Highway area

Epiphytic species grow above the ground, supported non-parasitically by another plant (usually a tree) or object, and deriving its nutrients and water from rain, the air, dust, etc.

There are 3 common epiphytic species found in most of the riverine forest areas of the Highway area.

Cyrtorchis arcuata is the most and widely distributed species found in South Africa, stretching into tropical Africa. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats, from sea level to 1500m, inhabiting scrubby bush in hot rather dry areas to temperate forests in cool moist areas. It occurs on small to large trees, shrubs, rock faces and sometimes steep banks in light to dense shade and is usually grouped in scattered colonies.

Cyrtorchis arcuata

Cyrtorchis arcuata (Photo: Hendrik Venter)

Cyrtorchis arcuata is a tall, robust plant with stems up to 400mm. Leaves are strap-shaped, wide, stiff and leathery. The plant produces 2-6 inflorescences carrying large 50mm in diameter, sweetly scented, cream flowers. The flowers are produced from spring through the summer into late autumn (September to May).

One of our most popular epiphytic species is the miniature Mystacidium capense. When it flowers in the trees over the Christmas period, it looks like a snow shower. The plant’s leaves are 30-130mm long and it produces 2-4 hanging inflorescences 60-100mm long carrying 6-14 white flowers, 23mm in diameter which are strongly scented at night.

Mystacidium capense

Mystacidium capense (Photo: Pat Brown)

It is widespread from the southern Cape through the eastern coastal areas up to Swaziland. It is found in montane and lowland forest, in hot dry thornveld (acacia trees and bushes) and dry river valleys. The plants can form large colonies on trees. The flowering period is from September to January.

Smaller in stature than Mystacidium capense is Mystacidium venosum. The short leaves reach a length of 15-45mm, and are occasionally absent. The short 20-50mm inflorescence carries 4-10 flowers. The flowers are white, 15mm in diameter. This species flowers during our winter period (April to July).

Mystacidium venosum

Mystacidium venosum

The species is widespread from the Eastern Cape through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, into Mpumalanga into the Limpopo province. It is found in montane and coastal forests, from near sea level to 1700m.

The other epiphytic orchids found in our area are more difficult to find as they occur in less accessible areas.

  • Aerangis mystacidii
  • Angraecum pusillum
  • Microcoelia exilis
  • Polystachya pubescens, P. sandersonii, P. tessellata
  • Tridactyle tridentata (epiphytic and lithophytic)


I would like to thank Tessa Rakow (Secretary of the South African Orchid Council) from Johannesburg, for editing this article.

Hendrelien Peters Leopard's Echo

About the author

Hendrelien Peters originally qualified as a History, Geography and Physical Education teacher and has been growing orchids since 1982. She qualified as a South African Orchid Council judge in 1985. Hendrelien currently curates the orchid collection at the Durban Botanic Gardens and is the editor of Orchids South Africa. Her hobbies include photography, art and searching for indigenous orchids.