Peacock moraea (Moraea villosa)

GenusMoraea (1)
SizeHeight: 30 – 40 cm (2)

Subspecies Moraea villosa villosa is classified as Near Threatened (NT), and subspecies Moraea villosa elandsmontana is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the Interim Red Data List of South African Plant Taxa (3).

Moraea villosa is a species of peacock moraea, a group of plants named for the large, conspicuous eye-like patterns on the broad outer petals of the flowers (4), like those found on the feathers of a peacock. Two subspecies are recognised; M. v. villosa has purple, blue, pink or whitish petals, while the flowers of M. v. elandsmontana are bright orange (4) (5). The eye-shaped patterns consist of a green to blue or nearly black iridescent crescent, encircling a cream to orange ‘eye’, which is covered with long hairs. This entire shape is usually edged in dark violet, yellow or orange. Each stem bears one to five flowers (6), and has a solitary, narrow leaf, that is hairy on the underside (5).

Endemic to the Cape Floristic Region, a ‘hot-spot’ of plant diversity in south-western South Africa (2). This species of peacock moraea ranges from the Piketberg Mountains and upper Olifants River Valley in the north, to Gordon’s Bay in the south, with extensions inland through the Tulbagh Valley to Ceres and Gydo pass (4). The subspecies M. v. elandsmontana has a very small distribution, and is known only from Elandsberg farm at the foot of the Elandsberg Mountains (4).

This species of peacock moraea grows in stony granite and clay, on flat or sloping ground (2).

Moraea villosa flowers from August until September (2). The delicate flowers open sequentially, with only one flower open at a time. Each flower blooms for only two days, opening in late morning and remaining open until the early afternoon of the following day (6).

The primary pollinator of Moraea villosa is a species of Hopliine beetle, Peritrichia rufotibialis. Hopliine beetles are commonly referred to as monkey beetles, due to their dark, hairy bodies and elongate or thickened hind legs. As the beetle crawls to the back of the flower to feed on nectar, is becomes densely covered with pollen, so much so that it may appear yellow or orange rather than black. As well as feeding from the peacock moraea, monkey beetles also mate on them (6).

It is believed that the elaborate colouration of peacock moraea flowers have evolved to attract the pollinating monkey beetle. In some populations of M. villosa there is a striking similarity between the size and dark, shiny colour of the ‘eye-spot’ and a P. rufotibialis beetle. Even the orange or cream part of the pattern closely resembles the pollen deposited on the beetle’s back. In other M. villosa populations, the bright blue-green colour of the spot resembles the blue-green metallic colour of another pollinator, the glittering monkey beetle (Anisonyx ditus). This remarkable mimicry may have evolved to fool male insects into visiting flowers that look like females, but it is thought more likely that this pattern acts as an advertisement, to both males and females, of a suitable site for feeding and mating (6).

The habitat of the Cape Floristic Region, in which this species occurs, is facing threats of urban development, encroaching agriculture, and invasive alien species (7) (8). All these threats are likely to be impacting population of Moraea villosa. The subspecies M. v. elandsmontana is particularly vulnerable to any threats, due to its very restricted distribution.

Within the Cape Floristic Region, there are a number of protected areas (9), and a number of conservation organisations are working to conserve this botanically rich habitat. Conservation actions include purchasing land to protect it from the threats of encroaching agriculture and urban development (10), the removal of alien plants, and the establishment of new protected areas (7). In addition, many threatened species of peacock moraea have been saved from extinction through cultivation outside of its natural range (6), although this does not lessen the impact that would be felt if this beautiful flower was lost from its natural habitat.

For further information on the Cape Floristic Region and its conservation see:

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  1. Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Goldblatt, P. and Manning, J. (2000) Cape Plants: A Conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa. National Botanical Institute of South Africa, Pretoria .
  3. Threatened Species Programme. (2007) Interim Red Data List of South African Plant Taxa. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. Available at:
  4. Goldblatt, P. (1982) A synopsis of Moraea (Iridaceae) with new taxa, transfers, and notes. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 69(2): 351 - 369.
  5. Paterson-Jones, C. and Manning, J. (2007) Ecoguide Fynbos. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa.
  6. Steiner, K.E. (1998) Beetle pollination of peacock moraeas (Iridaceae) in South Africa. Plant Systematics and Evolution, 209: 47 - 65.
  7. Conservation International: Biodiversity Hotspots (February, 2008)
  8. Rouget, M., Richardson, D.M., Cowling, R.M., Lloyd, J.W. and Lombard, A.T. (2003) Current patterns of habitat transformation and future threats to biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. Biological Conservation, 112: 63 - 85.
  9. UNEP-WCMC: Cape Floral Protected Areas of South Africa (February, 2008)
  10. Fauna and Flora International (February, 2008)