• bulbs;
  • corms;
  • morphological plasticity;
  • phylogenetic constraints;
  • rhizomes;
  • tubers

The Cape Region (here treated as the winter rainfall region of southern Africa, thus including fynbos, renosterveld and succulent karoo vegetation) is the world's foremost centre of geophyte diversity. Some 2100 species in 20 families have been recorded from this area, 84% of them endemic. The most important families, with more than a hundred geophyte species each, are Iridaceae, Oxalidaceae, Hyacinthaceae, Orchidaceae, Amaryllidaceae and Asphodelaceae. Although southern Africa does not appear to have been the main diversification centre for the plant orders with highest geophyte representation (Asparagales and Liliales), it represents an active centre of transition to geophytism, such transitions having occurred independently in numerous plant groups, often followed by rapid speciation. Several Cape geophyte groups have consequently expanded across Africa to the Mediterranean Basin, and possibly to other winter rainfall regions. Remarkably high local species diversity in renosterveld vegetation, even in relatively homogeneous environments, suggests that pollinator specificity and phenology play an important role in niche partitioning. However, character diversity is also high in storage organs and leaves, and this could account for the high species diversity values recorded at larger spatial scales, especially across environmental gradients. Long-term climatic stability, combined with topoclimatic and edaphic diversity and regular fire occurrence, is likely to be responsible for the remarkable geophyte diversity of the Cape, as compared to other mediterranean-climate regions. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 87, 27–43.