The Myth, the Legend… the Disa Orchid

If you’ve ever seen photos of these cherished flowers, or indeed, the flowers themselves, you’ll immediately know why I am absolutely in love with them. And it’s not just me who holds them in high esteem. The Disa is actually a genus with 183 species, most of which are endemic to Africa. Its centre of diversity is in the Cape Floristic Region, which stretches over most of the Western Cape. This is important, since the Cape Floristic Region was recognised as crucial, in terms of diversity and endemism. In fact, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) considers it one of the world’s leading areas for terrestrial biodiversity, and added several sites within the region to the World Heritage List, in 2004. The most incredible aspect of the Cape Floristic Region is that it is the most abundant area in the world for flora, compared to any other area, of equivalent size. The region is home to around 20% of Africa’s plants and flowers, however, it isn’t even close to 1% of the size of the continent. With almost 70% of this flora being endemic, I can highly appreciate the need to protect and conserve the region.
© Sandra Falanga - Doringrivier & Outeniqua Mountain Range, Cape Floristic Region
But I digress. My ultimate favourite Disa is the Disa uniflora, also known as the “Pride of Table Mountain”. These distinctly large, vivid flowers are usually red in colour. The significance of its colour becomes clear when considering it has only one, very special pollinator, Aeropetes tulbaghia, or Mountain Pride, as this sizable butterfly is more commonly known.

The Mountain Pride is attracted primarily to red flowers with straight, narrow nectar tubes, which perfectly fits the bill of Disa uniflora. It is believed that the butterfly’s attraction to the colour red likely stems from these flowers having higher amounts of nectar. Red is inconspicuous to bees, which avoid this colour of flora, thus not depleting their nectar levels.

Aeropetes tulbaghia © Peter Thompson
Flora rarely has such dependence on a single species of pollinator. I’m surprised that the flower itself isn’t more sparse because of this. It is plentiful on Table Mountain, though not on the ‘table top’ itself, but around the nearby shaded streams. However, these Disa hot spots are usually quite an effort to get to, and it’s not a recommended excursion for the idle anthophile. Although they are perennial, you’ll only find this orchid in moist conditions. This is why the wet areas around Table Mountain seem to be favoured by these flowers. They actually prefer a lot of moisture, therefore as well as on stream banks and wet cliffs, you’ll even find them around waterfalls. Disa uniflora are a challenge for many orchidists, since to cultivate them successfully, which is apparently no easy task, they must never dry out.
Disa Orchid - © Tony Rebelo www.inaturalist.org/observations/10850384
You might notice that these orchids have a unique pattern on their dorsal sepal, which has the appearance of netting. This pattern plays an important role in the naming of the flower. When Swedish botanist, Peter Bergius, discovered the flower in the 18th century, it reminded him of the ancient Swedish legend of Disa. Disa is portrayed as a heroine, who once appeared in front of the king of Sweden wrapped only in a fishing net, and ultimately helped to stop the sacrifice of many of the country’s people.
Is it any wonder that Disa uniflora are actually the emblem of the Western Cape and its provincial rugby team, and as such, are strictly protected? One of my absolute favourite spots to admire this exquisite orchid is Vida Nova Retreat, in Hout Bay, Cape Town. These flowers bloom all around this spectacular little hideaway, bordered by Table Mountain National Park, and the proprietors have clearly drawn inspiration from them. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a hike to find Disa orchids, after having indulged in a breakfast of homemade banana and nut french toast smothered in coconut cream and berries, in their restaurant, The Green Orchid. This nearby secret spot is off the beaten track, and the hotel’s friendly concierge happily organises a guided tour along the private hiking trail, every time I visit.
Disa Orchid - © Tony Rebelo www.inaturalist.org/observations/9744934
With visions of the spectacular scenery still swimming around in my head, I often relax with a pampering session in the luxurious comfort of the retreat’s Disa Spa. Another incredible feature of Vida Nova Retreat is that they are an eco-hotel. The conservationist in me feels zero guilt when I spend a few days escaping the hustle and bustle of life at this stunning sanctuary.

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