Known to most as the Western Province rugby emblem, the red disa (Disa uniflora) is an enigmatic gem of the Cape. It is found alongside remote mountain streams in the Western Cape and on the upper slopes of Table Mountain. Here it survives the dry summer months by gaining moisture from the Mountain’s famous ‘table cloth’. This is a cloud that forms on top of Table Mountain in summer when moist air rises up the back of the mountain and condenses as it reaches the cooler air of the summit. It is estimated that this fog precipitation on the summit of Table Mountain is nearly double that from rainfall, making the upper reaches of Table Mountain an ideal habitat for the rare orchid.
Another character in this remarkable tale is the orchid’s pollinator; the ‘Mountain Pride’ butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia). These butterflies are so large that they are sometimes mistaken for a small bird. They are strongly attracted to the colour red and most hikers first encounter these butterflies as they swoop down to inspect their red clothing. The butterfly pollinates 15 red Cape flowers and ignores flowers of any other colour. As most other insects cannot detect red, the butterfly is crucial to the survival of these red-flowered species. If the butterflies were to disappear they would certainly face extinction.
First Published: 15/12/14