Africa is a cradle of biodiversity, with 22,000 species of seed plants native to South Africa alone. Europeans began colonizing the South Africa's southern tip near what is now Capetown in the mid 17th century. By the 18th century, new plants from South Africa had become popular in Europe. With so much diversity among African plants, it is impossible to create a list of common characteristics. It is possible, however, to identify groups of the most popular African species and describe their common traits.
Pelargonium is the species name for the common geranium, used by gardeners around the world for container plantings, indoor cultivation and garden beds. There are about 250 pelargonium species and most of them are native to South Africa. Among the most popular are the scented and fancy-leafed varieties. Generally the flowers have five petals apiece. These are often grouped into umbels or rounded, umbrella-like flowerheads. The flower colors range from white through pinks and reds to orange, yellow and purple. The leaves are deeply divided and may be aromatic.
With flowering stems that can be up to six feet tall, agapanthus is a species of dramatic flowering plants that are native to South Africa and Mozambique. The species is a member of the Alliaceae, or onion, family. It features long, blade-like leaves and rounded umbels of blue, white or blue-purple flowerheads. The individual flowers are trumpet-shaped. The flowers are long lasting, making agapanthus a good garden or container plant. Most commercially available varieties are not hardy in cold winter climates and must be wintered indoors.
Iris Family Members
Many members of the Iris or Iridaceae family are native to southern Africa. Perhaps the most famous is gladiolus, the common garden gladiola. Other popular iris family members of African origin are ixia, freesia, cocosmia, tritonia and diorama. These plants grow from bulbs or corms and feature flowers that grow at the tops of upright stalks. The flowers generally have six petals and are often colorful, as in gladiolus and freesia. The leaves are generally long and strap-like.
Arctotis and osteospermum are members of the large Compositae or daisy family. Both are native to southern Africa. The genus arctotis contains about 50 species, while osteospermum is home to about 70 species. Both have characteristic daisy-like flowers composed of many rays surrounding a rounded center, which sometimes has a blue cast. The flower colors can be brilliant, with red, yellow, orange or purple rays. The leaves tend to be deeply cut or dissected and some have an almost feathery appearance.
The genus Erica or heather is part of the Ericaceae family. Though some erica are native to Europe, many more are native to South Africa. Erica often display a low-growing, shrubby habit with woody stems and whorls of tiny, slender leaves. The small flowers are urn-shaped or tubular and may be pink, purple or sometimes white. The plants are generally, but not exclusively, found in acid soil.
Several popular members of the Amaryllidaceae, or Amaryllis, family are native to parts of Africa. These include the belladonna lily, nerine and Hippeastrum reginae, a parent of hybrid plants sold commercially as "amaryllis." These plants grow from bulbs and feature six-petaled, lily-like flowers atop tall stalks. The leaves are long and strap-like. They grow from the base of the plant.