Disa venosa, photo  O KurzeThe orchid family is one of the largest families of flowering plants. It includes over 20 000 species worldwide. Orchids are found throughout the world from the tropics to the subarctic zone. However, the orchid-richest areas are the tropics and subtropics. Two maps illustrate orchid distribution in South Africa and worldwide.

Orchids are also well represented in the southern African region; altogether 479 species in 54 genera are indigenous here, of which 65% are endemic. This is almost three times as many orchids as grow in Europe.

As their flowers are mostly small and unlike the showy orchid flowers seen in florists, many people are surprised to discover how many orchids there are in this region. What is an orchid? All orchids share certain basic characteristics.

Our orchids grow in a wide variety of different habitats, including bushveld, savanna, karooid scrub, thorn scrub, fynbos and grassland. As in many other plant groups, the Western Cape is where most of the species occur.

An interesting aspect is the fact that fire stimulates the flowering in a large number of species. The economic uses of orchids are various, but orchids do not play a major role in any ecosystem. For the botanist the orchids are significant, being a highly specialized group in very active evolution. They also display remarkable, complex reproduction and pollination strategies.

If you wish to grow southern African orchids, cultivation notes are available with the descriptions of some of the genera.There are also pages on the history of orchid collection in South Africa and conservation issues relating to orchids.

There are two main types of orchids, if differentiated according to their growth form.

  • The ground or terrestrial orchids grow on the ground in either forest, savanna or grassland (most of our southern African orchids are terrestrial).
  • The tree or epiphytic orchids on the other hand grow attached to the bark of a shrub or tree - but are not parasites like the mistletoe.
  • Somewhat intermediate is the growth on rocks which is termed epilithic or lithophytic.

Terrestial Orchid : Satyrium bicorne

Epiphtic orchid: Angraecum conchiferum
Stenoglottis fimbriata
Epilithic orchid: Stenoglottis fimbriata


Where to see orchids in SANBI Gardens and where to get orchids identified

Within SANBI the work done on the orchids is centered at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town and at the National Herbarium in Pretoria. Orchids are regularly on display in the Botanical Society Conservatory in Kirstenbosch. However, the main collection in the Kirstenbosch nursery is not open to the public. Some of the more robust and attractive orchids have been planted out directly in the SANBI gardens, for example there is an impressive stand of Bonatea speciosa at the Harold Porter Garden in Betty's Bay, and there are several plants of Pterygodium volucris in the Karoo Desert Botanical Garden at Worcester. Disa bracteata regularly comes up as a weed in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. Eulophia horsfallii can be seen in the Camphor Avenue at Kirstenbosch, where it has established itself from seed dispersed by the wind from cultivated plants in the nursery.

For conditions and charges relating to South African orchid identification check SANBI Products and Services

Useful books about southern African orchids

Ball, J.S. 1978. Southern African epiphytic orchids. Johannesburg, London, Manzini: Conservation Press.

Harrison, E.R. 1972. Epiphytic orchids of southern Africa. Durban: Natal Branch of the Wildlife Society of southern Africa.

Linder, H.P. & Kurzweil, H. 1999. Orchids of southern Africa. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.

Wodrich, K. 1997. Growing South African indigenous orchids. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.

Useful websites on orchids

There are numerous websites on orchid societies and councils, and we include only a few. More information can be found by following the links on the sites listed here (particularly the links on the ANOS site appear useful).

AOS, American Orchid Society: http://orchidweb.org/
ANOS, Australasian Native Orchid Society: http://www.anos.org.au/
SAOC, South African Orchid Council: http://www.saoc.co.za
OSSEA, Orchid Society of Southeast Asia (Singapore): http://www.ossea.org.sg/


The author wishes to thank A. A. Balkema for permission to publish some of the images which appeared in Linder, H.P. & Kurzweil, H. 1999. Orchids of southern Africa. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.

Thanks are also due to John Manning, O. Kurze and H. Boernitz for some of the images included on this site.

Author: Hubert Kurzweil
September 2000
(Updated by Clare Archer August 2010)

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