Chasmanthe aethiopica grows in coastal bush and along the edges of forest patches, mainly in clay soils, from Darling just north of Cape Town, along the coast as far east as Kentani in the Eastern Cape. Its coastal habit means that it rarely experiences extreme climatic conditions in nature and will not withstand temperatures much below freezing.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The species was described in 1759 but for more than 50 years its identity was confused with that of the larger Chasmanthe floribunda. It was only in 1812 that the two species were teased apart. Apart from these two species, the genus Chasmanthe contains just another one, C. bicolor, a rare species that although long known in cultivation, has only recently been relocated in the wild. All three species are well worth cultivating. Chasmanthe floribunda has a yellow form. which does particularly well at Kirstenbosch.
The long-tubed, orange flowers of C. aethiopica, like those of all three species in the genus, are adapted to pollination by sunbirds. The Lesser Double-collared Sunbird, which frequents coastal scrub, is the most frequent visitor. The flowers secrete large quantitites of nectar that is eagerly sought after by these birds. The fruits develop into large, swollen capsules that split open at maturity to expose the seeds, which are pea-sized and bright orange, and contrast well against the brilliant maroon inner surface of the fruit. The seeds have a thin, fleshy seed coat that is watery and sweet, and are adapted to dispersal by fruit-eating birds, especially Red-winged Starlings. These active birds are attracted to the brightly coloured seeds and fruits and successfully transport the seeds from bush clump to bush clump.
Uses and cultural aspects
Few Iridaceae are used in traditional medicine or as food and Chasmanthe aethiopica is no exception. For gardeners, however, its early flowering and ease of cultivation make it a very worthwhile plant.