MK West

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

Friends of Melville Koppies:              Phone: +27 11 482 4797                      Email:

Melville Koppies: Flora

Flowers on the Melville Koppies

The Highveld is not well known for its wild flowers. Instead many South Africans make an annual pilgrimage to Namaqualand for the spectacular August flowering - which depends on the Cape winter rains.


Gnidia kraussiana or "Harige gifbossie" - the Afrikaans name loosely translates as "hairy poison bush" which implies that the underground bulb may be poisonous. This is one of the "pre-rain" flowers.
Photo: Maria Cabaço

But we have a display of our own which begins in early spring. These flowers are rather clumsily called the "pre-rain flowers".

They appear between September and November, a time when the first spring rains are unpredictable. They are not dependent on rain at all. Instead the warming of the soil stimulates them to flower.

They are all "geophytes", meaning that their vegetative bulk is a large underground bulb which uses the summer rain to gather nutrients. But flowering happens when the soil warms in the grasslands, particularly when the grass has burned, clearing away the moribund detritus of the "sourveld" grass which has died off in the winter.


Hypoxis species, "African potato" in English, or "Sterretjie" in Afrikaans. Another "pre-rain" flower.
Photo: Maria Cabaço

After the spring flowers, which last for only a few weeks, there is a display of wild flowers throughout the summer.


Gladiolus crassifolius
Photo: Maria Cabaço

Among them are the wild gladiolus and the orchids.

We are accustomed to greenhouse orchids, but the wild varieties are equally beautiful, if smaller, and need to be looked for carefully in the grassland.

Protea caffra

Protea caffra in flower on the Melville Koppies.
Photo: Maria Cabaço

The Protea caffra or "Common sugarbush" is widespread, thriving on the acidic soil of the Koppies and resistant to our harsh frosts.

Most Proteas occur south of the Limpopo and are particularly characteristic of the Cape fynbos biome.

As South Africa's national flower it has had a controversial history.

The well known Prime Minister Hendrick Frensch Verwoerd "had a dream to change the then-current Flag of South Africa and have in its center a leaping Springbok Antelope over a wreath of six Proteas. This proposal, however, aroused too much controversy and was never implemented" (Wikipedia). Verwoerd is not held in high regard today, but the Protea is.

There is a full list of the flowers on the Melville Koppies, together with their flowering times here

Trees on the Melville Koppies

Trees on the Melville Koppies grow on the northern slopes where there is protection from the frost. There is also a dense forest in the moist areas where the spruit runs through the Nature Reserve, and on the north-western part of MK Central, which is underlain by the granitoid basement rocks, rich in minerals.

Among the dominant trees are the Acacia robusta, the Acacia caffra, the Euclea crispa (Blue Guarrie), the Celtis africana, and the Brachylaena rotundata (Mountain Silver-oak).

Acacias are a huge family, the majority of the species being native to Australia, where generally they have no thorns. In due course the International Botanical Congress is going to take the Acacia name away from us and most of our Acacias will be called Senegalia. This has not happened yet, and in the meantime we are stuck with the Acacia mearnsii - the Australian Black Wattle which is a conservationist's nightmare. There are none left on Melville Koppies.

Acacia Robusta

Acacia robusta in flower
Photo: Maria Cabaço

One of the first trees to flower in spring on the Koppies is the (proudly South African) Acacia robusta, with a spectacular display of creamy-yellow blooms in the form of pom-poms.

Acacia Robusta Acacia Robusta

The twice compound leaves of the Acacia caffra (top) and the Acacia robusta. True to its name the Acacia robusta has a far less delicate leaf than the Acacia caffra.
Photos: Norman Baines

It is different from the Acacia caffra which has yellow catkins and blooms a little later. The thorns are also very different - A. robusta has long robust thorns while A. caffra has small hook thorns which give it its Afrikaans name katdoring.


A Mountain Silver-oak leaf seen from above (left) and below. This colouring gives the tree its specially beautiful look.
Photo: Norman Baines

Another early-blooming tree is the Brachylaena rotundata with a brief flowering of yellow blooms in November.

The special colouring of this tree gives the northern slopes a beautiful silvery sheen throughout the year.

Despite its rather unfortunate name, the White Stinkwood is a magnificent tree.

It is found mostly along the banks of the spruit. The name is derived from the unpleasant smell of the newly cut wood.

It grows fast and can reach 30 metres in height. It has a relative from Asia, Celtis sinensis, and at some point the City Council decided to use the Asian variety for pavement trees, a strange decision considering how readily available the South African variety is.


Leaves of the White Stinkwood. The serrated edge is more prominent in the Asian variety.
Photo: Norman Baines

The two hybridise, and it is not always easy to tell whether you have a hybrid or the real South African one. On Melville Koppies we maintain that all ours are proudly South African.

In traditional medicine it is believed that mixing the wood with crocodile fat is a charm against lightning. This is useful information if you have a lightning problem and ready access to a crocodile.


In February the Wild Peach reveals its seeds.
Photo: Wendy Carstens

A rather unremarkable tree is the Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana). Its only resemblance to the domestic, edible peach is the shape of the leaves.

But in February its dull grey-brown berries burst open to reveal beautiful orange seeds, a sight worth seeing.

There is also an interesting interaction with a butterfly (Acraea horta). The butterfly prefers the Wild Peach and its eggs hatch into caterpillars which devour the leaves. This seems not to harm the tree.

Then the Diderick Cuckoo reveals a particular fondness for these caterpillars. Cuckoos have specialized in stripping the inedible skin of caterpillars, and the Diderick focuses on the Acraea horta caterpillars. Diderick Cuckoos with their piercing "dee-dee-deederik" call are summer migrants on Melville Koppies. They are elusive birds but when seen are exquisite in their green and white and irridescent plumage. Diderick Cuckoos - as do all Cuckoos - lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and are particularly partial to the nests of the Masked Weaver, also very common on the Koppies. So the Wild Peach is a fascinating example of a complex interaction between insect, plant and bird... and another bird.

A complete list of trees on the Melville Koppies is available here

Grasses on the Melville Koppies

The Melville Koppies lies in the grassland biome. We are in the "sourveld" area which means that our grasses are mostly perennial, and die back in winter, saving their nutrients in the roots, waiting for the summer to come. "Sourveld" means that the dead stems are mostly composed of silica and cellulose, not palatable or nourishing to grazers - therefore "sour" in farmers' eyes.

Caterpillar grass

Caterpillar Grass
Photo: Norman Baines

There are 56 recorded species of grass on the Melville Koppies. Many are shy and retiring, but here are a few which you can easily recognise.

On Melville Koppies West there is a valley where the earliest summer grass "Caterpillar Grass" (Harpochloa falx) prospers. It fades quickly, and by mid-summer - January - it has seeded and gone. It is not common on the Central and East sections, and we don't know why.

Blackseed Grass

Blackseed grass before the black seeds develop.
Photo: Norman Baines

Another early Spring grass is "Black seed Grass" (Allotopsis semiolata). Its stamens are bright yellow, almost resembling a garden flower, but by December it fades and it develops the black seeds which give it its name.

Much of the soil on Melville Koppies is shallow and acidic, which means that the grasses are sparse and unpalatable. But in the places where the soil is deeper we have two of the best grazing grasses in Africa.

Themeda triandra

Rooigras - one of the best grazing grasses in Africa
Photo: Norman Baines

One is Themeda triandra, "Rooigrass" in Afrikaans or "Red Grass" in English. If you drive through the Free State you see hundreds of kilometres of this grass. It is found in Asia and Australasia as well, meaning that it originated here before the break-up of Gondwanaland about 160 million years ago.

In shaded and moist areas of the Melville Koppies there is another prime grazing grass, Panicum maximum, with the odd common name of "Guinea Grass".

It is easy to recognise because of the purple colour of the inflorescense, and the hairless spikelets, which give it a "dotted" look.

Themeda triandra

Panicum maximum, another one of the best grazing grasses in Africa
Photo: Norman Baines

This beautiful grass is regarded as a weed by sugarcane farmers, among others. A weed is most easily defined as a plant growing where you don't want it to, and much of the vegetation on Melville Koppies is regarded as a weed by farmers and gardeners. We treasure it.

Panicum maximum is today found throughout the tropics, but again it is one of Africa's legacies to the world, originating here before the Gondwanaland break-up.

The abundant seed production attracts birds, particularly the Bronze Mannikin. It is easy to grow from seed if you are cultivating an indigenous garden, and the seed is available at nurseries.

Themeda triandra

Setaria megaphylla, a good grazing grass originating in Africa, but also found in South America and India.
Photo: Norman Baines

Another grass which has a high grazing value is Setaria megaphylla with the clumsy common name of "Broad-leaved Bristle Grass".

It grows abundantly in the forested areas of Melville Koppies Central, where the shade, deep soil, and moisture suit it. Unusually it is very easily identifiable by its leaf, which is broad and pleated.

Many of the grasses on Melville Koppies are not palatable. We have no idea how the area was used when it was a farm, and although our grassland must show the characteristics of "undergrazing", the mix of grasses may reflect how it was used by the Geldenhuys family. Grassland takes a very long time to recover from misuse or abuse. The shallow acidic soils on the ridges also determine what grasses dominate - mostly unpalatable pioneer species.

Turpentine Grass

Turpentine Grass, an unpalatable grass used by stock as a last resort.
Photo: Norman Baines

In the deeper soils there is an extremeley unpalatable grass called Cymbopogon excavatus, Turpentine grass. The chemical taste and smell are caused by an essential oil with 18 ingredients. It requires some imagination to detect a turpentine taste.

Hyparrrhenia tamba

Thatching grass on the old shooting range on MK West: Hyparrhenia tamba in the foreground, and H. hirta in the distance.
Photo: Norman Baines

Late in summer the thatching grasses reach their peak.

Thatching grasses form "climax" grassland - an area where a single species dominates. We have dense stands of thatching grass on the old shooting range on Melville Koppies West, in the "old road reserve" - a strip of land along the southern extreme of the West, and on the north-eastern slopes of Melville Koppies Central.

Fire is an important factor in the development of grasslands. Fire clears out the "moribund", the detritus which gathers at the base, and encourages new growth.

On the Central Section we have too few fires, and on the West too many.

Boat Grass

Monocymbium ceresiiforme - Boat Grass.
Photo: Gena Orfali

As summer ends a beautiful bronze coloured grass comes into flower.

This is Monocymbium ceresiiforme, Boat Grass. It is distinguished by having spathes which cover and protect the flowers. They have the distinctive bronze colour, which slowly fades to a dull gold.

When the Boat Grass fades you know that summer is over, and then we wait for the winter fires.