A brief plant safari at Nairobi National Park, July 2020

An account by Washington Wachira (photos by Washington Wachira)

Plant safaris can be as easy as mammal safaris, especially when you are along the tropical region of Africa. The diversity is just phenomenal and this allows a great challenge when trying to identify all the local plants. However, the joy of safari is that it is always a learning experience. When of a safari, you will often need to use plants as landmarks to help your friends find animals- for example you may use a specific tree to give the position of a bird or a bat and so on…

Nairobi National Park is a very exciting place in terms of its flora, and over 500 plant species have been recorded in this small park. Being only 117 square kilometres, this is indeed an amazing list. Even more amazing is that over 100 grass species have been recorded in Nairobi National Park. Grasses are an amazing group of plants and are indeed the base of life in our African savannahs. Grasses feed the bottom herbivores, from mammals, birds and even insects; and in turn these species become food for higher species like carnivores and decomposers.

On a recent safari in Nairobi National Park, we decided to make note of any outstanding plants that we could see on our drive. It turned out that the diversity was too high, and we ended up not making any movement at all. In order to allow us enjoy other forms of life, we enjoyed some of the exciting plants in addition to animals. Here is a brief account of some of the plants we saw:-

a Cattail marsh and the African Wild Date Palm tree

At most of the wetlands across the park, we encountered the tall Common Cattails. This beautiful plant falls in the Typha Genus. The exciting name cattail comes from the shape of the female flower parts, which form a nice fluffy “tail”. Above this female part, a thin tube of male flowers protrude. The female flowers often mature and dry into a fluffy mat that resembles cotton wool. It is a beautiful marshland plant that often forms a habitat for birds and mammals to hide inside.   

Behind one clump of cattails, a nice African Wild Date Palm tree stood majestically. It is a nice palm tree that often grows close to water and related swamps. They can grow up to 8 metres in height and often grow below 3,000 metres of altitude. In Nairobi this species and other related members of the Genus Phoenix are used as ornamental plants around homes. The fruits are edible and the leaves are often used to make hats and mats. This beautiful palm tree is one of the many palms that we get in East Africa, but it is among the smaller species. We do get large palm trees in the region, with a species like the Borassus or African Fan Palm reaching heights of 25 metres.    

the Carissa spinarum shrub

We saw many Carissa shrubs all over the park, but most of these were found around the dry river beds, where thick bushes assembled tightly. This is an attractive bush that often catches your eye when they are flowering or fruiting. During our trip, most were in fruit and the red-and-green fruits were a beautiful sight. When ripe, these fruits are edible and can provide you with nutrients when taking a walk in the bush. The plant has also been used for many years in traditional herbal medicine. As pretty as it looks, it does carry some tough thorns that can hurt your hand if handled without care.

a Hibiscus flower rising above the grasslands

We also came across a beautiful Hibiscus flower in the open grasslands. This is a short flower of about 2 metres height. They love to grow in the open grasslands and more often in places where herbivores graze often. With their flowering season coming to an end, the bright white flowers were wilting but still beautiful.    

an Aspilia mossambicensis bush

There was another common flower across the grassy plains- the very beautiful Aspilia. This yellow flower, resembling a sunflower shape is very evident as you drive across Nairobi National Park. Their leaves are nicely pointed at the tips, making a nice tapered shape. They are often shorter than 1 metre but can grow to become big bushes. It is also useful in traditional herbal medicine- where it is used to treat bleeding wounds.

an old Leonotis flower close-up

Another brilliant flower that we encountered here in plenty is the beautiful Leonotis. There are several species of Leonotis in Kenya and they are often found along roadsides. They like to grow on places that have been disturbed, especially after some form of tilling or road construction works. This attractive flower is a magnet for nectar-feeding animals; especially birds and insects. A group of birds called Sunbirds love to enjoy this nectar and during the flowering season, in Nairobi National Park these sunbirds are common:- Bronze Sunbird, Variable Sunbird and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. To the edges of the park, and the land beyond, Golden-winged Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird and Marico Sunbird species also enjoy this flower.

Along the water courses and streams we saw many Ipomoea flowers. This brightly-coloured flower belongs to the Morning Glory family, where many closely-related flowers belong. Our plants were mainly Ipomoea cairica, with the many leaf lobes- 7 lobes on most leaves. It was nice to see this amazing flower and to learn about how it is adapted to climbing along water trenches. Due to its very attractive flowers and leaf-patterns, this flower is a great choice for gardening in many areas. They can also be used as ornamental indoor and verandah plants.  

an Ipomoea cairica flower

It was also amazing to see so many Water Lilies blooming across the numerous wetlands in the park. These beautiful flowers are common in many ponds and dams, where they remain active almost all year round. Their flowers are unmistakable and often open wider during the day and close up at night. They are also a common plant for ornamental purposes and some homes, offices or lodges plant them along temporary ponds. Water Lilies are a main signature plant for wetlands across many parts of Africa, but in the recent years, some invasive plants have stated replacing lilies in major lakes e.g. Lake Victoria and Lake Naivasha; where the Water Hyacinth is replacing lilies.

a mat of Water Lilies

At the end of the day we had seen many more plants and especially the woody trees and small flowers. Nairobi National Park is such a gem for the city. We are looking forward to the rainy season; when many more flowers will be blooming- a spectacle to witness indeed!!!  


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