Although indigenous inhabitants knew many wonderful qualities abounding in the Cape Floral Kingdom for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European explorers in 1652, this biological treasure chest has entranced botanists in Europe ever since.
Noted botanists who visited our southernmost shores include Carl Thunberg (1743 – 1828) who collected 3 000 specimens in South Africa, 1 000 of which were new to science, and Anders Sparmann (1748 – 1820).
They were both pupils of the renowned Carolus Linneus (1707 – 1778) who devised the taxonomic system of naming all plants and animal specieis still in use today.
Although Linnaeus formally described many Cape plants sent to him, he never visited this botanist’s paradise – the Cape Floral Kingdom.
Another Swedish botanist, Peter Bergius bestowed the emblem of the Western Cape with its name in 1767, which was inspired by Swedish mythology.
The Pride of Table Mountain is the Disa uniflora, also known as the red disa, that only grows in this tiny patch of land that harbours just fewer species than in all Britain plus the whole of Sweden, some thousand times larger.
Disa is the heroine of a legendary Swedish saga documented in 1555 by Olaus Magnus. According to legend, Disa was incredibly wise and she used her wit to thwart a democide.
As the story goes, the god-king Freyr ruled Sweden and there was a famine. Freyr’s rule was a peaceful time and the population grew steadily until the country could no longer support that many people.
Freyr and his chieftains decided that the only solution to overpopulation was to cull all the elderly, sickly and handicapped people in the kingdom – they would be sacrificed to Odin.
Disa was highborn – the daughter of the chieftain Sigsten of Venngarn in Uppland – and disagreed with this decision. She mocked the king and chieftains, saying that she had wiser words of advice.
Upon hearing this, Freyr decided to test her wits. He asked Disa to visit him but there was a catch. She could not complete the journey by foot, by horse, in a wagon nor in a boat. She also could not visit him either dressed or undressed and the time was not supposed to be within a year nor within a month and neither during daytime or nighttime; and neither when the moon was waxing nor waning.
Somehow, Disa passed the test. She harnessed two young men to a sled and she had a billygoat by the sled with one leg over the goat and the other in the sled, she made the journey.
For clothing, she wore a net and to beat the time constraints imposed by the king she arrived during full moon at dusk on the third day after Yule. All the months had 30 days and the last month was coming to an end, as well as the year.
Having passed the King’s test, the planned culling was cancelled and the new queen Disa declared that a part of the population was to leave Sweden. This would be determined by a drawing of lots.
Botanists derived the name of the Disa genus of orchids from this legend.
The famous red flower grows near waterfalls, streams and seeps in the mountains. It blooms during the summer months from December to March. We locals never tire of finding it in the fynbos.
Acknowledgement: Storm Simpson / Cape Town Etc & John Yeld /Mountains in the Sea
Images courtesy: Andrew Baxter & Robert Miller