This plant is one of the most striking woody iris shrubs; very different
from the familiar herbaceous genera such as the Iris and Gladiolus,
but equally beautiful. It grows in marshy conditions.
maura is a shrubby, evergreen iris with clustered fan leaves
similar to the other two woody iris genera, Klattia and Nivenia.
They have hard, brittle stems rare in the monocots. It is an erect
or sprawling plant growing from 1-3 m in height. The leaves are
narrow, 100-150 mm long and 40-70 mm wide at the base. It has six
to eight flowers shading from pale-green to black. They are up to
85 mm long, occurring in pairs that are held together by three to
five bracts. Each flower has pubescent (hairy) outer tepals, blackish
in the lower half and yellow in the upper half, creating a brilliant
display in winter, March-August. Witsenia maura is severely
threatened by coastal development for urbanisation and recreation.
It occurs from the southern Cape Peninsula through to Caledon, in
marshy, low altitude locations. Records have been mainly in coastal
areas with populations in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, Betty's
Bay and Hermanus. It has a Rare conservation status.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Witsenia was the first woody Iridaceae genus to be described
and was named Antholyza maura by Linnaeus in 1771. Its present
name honours NicholasWitsen, an eighteenth century Dutch patron
of botany. It is speculated that maura refers to the similarity
between the yellow tepals and the turban worn by Jews in North Africa
in past times. Maurus is an adjective for Moorish in Latin.
The woody Iridaceae include only thirteen species. The genus Witsenia
accounts for one, W. maura.
Pollinators include sunbirds, and sugarbirds that enjoy nectar with
11-13% sugar content.
Growing Witsenia maura
This plant is not easily cultivated, even if planted in the same
soil type and in marshy conditions. It is not readily available
commercially and is therefore very important to conserve the existing
Fynbos plant communities where this plant occurs naturally.
- GOLDBLATT, P. & MANNING, J 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus
of the Cape Flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National
Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden
- GOLDBLATT, P., 1993. The Woody Iridaceae: Nivenia, Klattia
& Witsenia. Systematics Biology & Evolution. Timber
Press, Hong Kong.
- JACKSON.W.P.U. 1987. Origins and meanings of names of South
African plant genera.UCT, Rondebosch.
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden