Monday, December 8, 2008



I spend the week of Thanksgiving in and around Knoxville, Tennessee and Ashville, North Carolina, as guest of Sarah and her parents. What beautiful country this is! And I do not say this just because I am American citizen now and have a sudden rush of patriotism. Rolling green (there is pine and still some hemlock) ridges, if seen from up high changing into fading shades of steel blue. Really pretty!

This is LULU

We went hiking and geeking out on plants, shopped at famous Hammer’s in Clinton (I got me a flannel plaid John Deere jacket-!), had a memorable dinner at ‘Tables’, explored the brand new arboretum and kept eating well thanks to Liz.

I did very much enjoy the flora being so different to up north - but here the trees rule! To me extensive deciduous forests like these are still exotic.

Our rental in front of Starbucks...

We gave considerable business to various Starbucks’ in the two states, some being actual drive-throughs. In NY I am not such a fan, but out here driving, they are fabulous I have to admit.

Great shopping out here!

The only thing missing was DOLLYWOOD. I am a great fan, and we drove right by it - but I was told it was the wrong time of year, so I am looking forward to to a similar trip in the spring! 

The Smoky Mountains

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Knersvlakte and Quivertree Forest

Knersvlakte and Quivertree Forest          !High Succulent Alert!

Knersvlakte means the ‘gnashing plain’, and it is an extensive dry region, consisting of gently rolling hills covered with white quartz pebbles. This region is located just north west of the Bokkeveld Mountains near Nieuwouldville, and the vegetation is succulent karoo and dominated by small leaf succulents.

Many plants (especialy Aizoaceae) are growing only here due to the white quartz gravel, which reflects the sunlight, and is less hot during the extremely arid summers. The dwarf and compact plants, also have an ideal form to absorb thermal heat for the short cool winter growing season when rain occurs.


Oophytum sp., nanum ?

Oophytum flowering

Argyroderma delaetii

Mesems are hygrochastical, meaning their fruiting capsules only open with moisture. The velocity of raindrops on the wet capsule roofs disperses the seed by water pressure, almost like a water pistol. When the capsule dries out the lids close, protecting the seed. The seed are thus only released during the rainy season.


The 48,500hectare area is extremely diverse, with 1,324 recorded species, 266 of them endemic, and 133 (!) globally threatened. I know, these are just numbers, and I am absolutely repetitive in my use of the word diverse – but we are talking about ultimate true hotspots here! And land-use pressures are increasing; mining, overgrazing, and illegal collecting have reduced the area of undisturbed flora greatly.

Dactylopsis digitata

Nevertheless - I had a magic afternoon crawling around close to the ground, and felt like the kid in the toy store...the setting sun was a willing cooperator providing the stage lights for these beauties!


The Knarsvlekte is also the southern most distribution of the quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma. On a different day, after work at the Hantam Garden, I drove north to find the quiver tree forest. They are very slow growing and had just finished flowering. The San tribes (Bushman) used the tree stems as quivers, hence the name. The place is unreal and the Aloes something else - I have never seen anything even closely like this!

You might find the pictures borderline kitsch – but that’s life sometimes…

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hantam National Botanical Garden

Hantam National Botanical Garden

This is part of Sanbi (South African Biodiversity Institute), but a very different place indeed. The 6,200 hectares of land on the Bokkefeld Plateau, about 350km north of Cape Town, make it the largest Botanic Garden in the world, and it is specifically known for its incredible diversity of bulbous plants, which are about 40% of the flora found on the renosterfeld fynbos and succulent karoo. Some 1350 species have been recorded here, of which 80 are restricted or endemic, and often threatened with extinction. The village of Nieuwouldville (took me forever to spell and pronounce this one) has the truly geeky title of ‘Bulb Capital of the World’.

Main building/offices

Camel koppie 

The history of the place as a garden is very recent, as it used to be a sheep farm owned by the MacGregor family, going back to 1883. Sanbi acquired all land belonging to the farm in 2007, and actual management as a garden only started in March of this year.

Moraea tripetala

The retired last owner, Neill MacGregor is a man with great love for the natural environment and the foresight of practicing mostly sustainable farming, initiated by his father before him.  He developed an intricate system of grazing that he considered most beneficial for sheep and the plant diversity naturally found on this piece of land, and also eventually stopped growing grain all together. This meant that part of the land had never been plowed, and the rest only grazed for the last 25 or so years. If you consider how bulbs grow, these are very crucial aspects, as they are no annuals happily coming up from seed landing and sprouting on disturbed ground, but are perennials that need to stay in the soil undisturbed often for many years until flowering. Beside of most of the koppies (=fields) being used in this fairly gentle manner, one koppie next to the gate was always considered especially rich in bulb diversity and left undisturbed. This is now called ‘Neill’s Reserve’, to honor the man with the foresight of conservation during times when the ‘civilized world’ considered all things manmade and chemical superior to nature, which was (and by many still is) considered in much need for improvement by us humans.

sometimes the colors just distract you from the flowers!

Lachenalia sp.

The MacGregor family over the years accommodated many illustrious visitors such as Sir Ghillean, Director of Kew, who declared the farm a ‘botanical treasure of international importance’. In 1991 and ’94 Sir David Attenborough filmed part of ‘The Private Life of Plants’ here, definitely a classic in the plant geek world!

Eventually more Scientists and Botanists got involved in exiting projects on the farm, culminating in the three-year Conservation Farming Project, executed under the Sanbi umbrella. (The aims of the Conservation Farming Project were to assess the ecological and economic costs and benefits of various agricultural practices, including both conventional and conservation farming methods, and to promote land use practices that conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods for farmers and rural communities.)

Roellia sabulosa

Eugene Marinus, the current curator, was involved in this project from the beginning, and being out with him on the grounds revealed his intimate knowledge of the place, it’s wildlife and the plants. I do admire people like him who invest this much caring into the land, and compromise on many aspects of their private life and monetary wealth to do so. 

Goertia diffusa, mimicking visiting beetles

The flowering season here is short and completely depending on the winter rain, usually coming between June and August, with very little or virtually no precipitation for the rest of the year. In very dry years many of the flowers are reduced in size or might not show at all, staying dormant with their energy stored in the bulbs - tough life! This year there were good rains in July, but it has hardly rained ever since, and the place is very dry indeed. You walk over the koppies and the soil makes this dry crumbling sound under your boots. Everybody was hoping for some more rain while I was there, and there was a thunderstorm one morning, but we are not talking about any significant amounts here, it barely lowered the dust for a day. You see on the pictures lots of green and color – but imagine, by December this place is baked, with nothing covering the bare ground anymore!

Hesperantha cucullata and Bulbinella nutans

Eugene explained that the bulbs are layered to a depth of 4 feet, and a bulb count in a cubic meter of soil can yield 15,000 (!!!) bulbs. This incredible dense underground bulb-world results in a super diverse but still very sparse vegetation even in full growing season, and one can imagine this biome being extremely sensitive to any tempering, such as fertilizing, applying herbicides and pesticides, sowing of introduced (Australian) grasses and feed plants, sheep grazing, or even plowing.

The management approach for the time being is monitoring and recording. Many people (including Neill) consider controlled grazing an important component in keeping a maximum number and diversity, but Eugene and a few others think this might not necessarily be so. It will be interesting to see how this will play out over the years - the new more radical hands-off conservation against years of established farming practice. The fences are kept intact just so if the sheep have to be brought back…

Colchicum coloratum, called 'Men in a Boat'

At any rate he has only a staff of 4 men (remember the 6,200 h) and Colleen, who is doing the accounting and covering all sorts of other aspects of setting up a new Botanic Garden in within the huge and bureaucratic Sanbi organization.

Eugene and Colleen

One other remarkable thing here is the important presence of small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects as pollinators, seed dispersers and rejuvenators of the plants. There are currently several people studying bees, the hairy fly with a proboscis longer then their body (I call it the elephant fly, and btw, it is not described yet, one of many species here!), and an array of beetles.

Hesperantha vaginata being violated by too much beetles

Lapeirousia oreogena, pollinated by the hairy fly, the only insect that can reach all the way down the flower tube to the nectar!

Ant parade carrying disc flowers of Asteraceae

Look at those hind legs!

size matters...

Some of the 150 bird species are as spectacular as the Blue Cranes, and there is one lonely European Stork, which never made it on the journey north last March with his buddies. This guy looks truly forlorn all by himself, and one evening I discovered him in the middle of a large flock of African Sacred Ibis around a small pond, his colors being so very similar and only having much taller red legs, he was trying hard to blend in pretending to be a Ibis too.

Another important animal here being studied is the porcupine, which plays a vital role in the rejuvenation of the bulbs. They dig deep pits to find the mature bulbs for eating, and in the process leave a large amount of little bulbs and cormlets behind, a perfect set up for accumulating extra rainwater where these can grow to maturity.

Bulbinella doleritica, endemic to Nieuwouldville

My week here in Nieuwoudville came down to a crash course in SA bulbs, learning about winter/summer rainfall, how to change a farm into a National BG, and of course the local culture (my excursion Friday evening to the town’s only bar will be filed under experiences…). I did work helping labeling the books in the starting library, helped mounting and hanging educational posters, advised tourists where to find the bathrooms and visiting botanists where to find their plants, and I made some design sketches for a future picnic area and demonstration beds.

Ehrharta calycina, a beautiful SA Poaceae

And I met this botanist that, when I introduced myself as Dodo, exclaimed that he was studying my ghost for the last three years! It turned out that he is doing extensive fieldwork in Mauritius, studying the effect of missing seed dispersers e.g. Raphus cucullatus (Dodo bird) in the dynamics of present-day native forests in Mauritius, using the critically endangered tree Syzygium mamillatum (Myrtaceae) as model organism, focusing on seed germination, and the establishment and survival of seedlings of S. mamillatum – pretty cool isn’t it?

Babiana framesii

Thursday, August 28, 2008



I went on a ‘mesemb’ field trip with Matt Buys, a botanist, and his student Kush, who is also my roommate at the Fynbos Cottage. We were looking for Oscularia sp., Mesembryanthemaceae, a genus that Kush is writing her masters on, and that had not been revised in a long time. Several described species originally were collected with type specimen from locations all up and down Piketberg and Cederberg Mountain, and we found the shrubby plants all along the road growing in between the rocks, and hanging down steep cliffs. From the 15 or so locations we checked, supposingly come three different species, but Matt is very suspicious about this, and that’s what they are trying to figure out. Only very few were flowering yet, and as the relatively small, almond scented flowers are the most important criteria, this was much a preliminary survey.

Oscularia sp., note the red stems and keeled leaves

Flowers are pink to whitish with the stamens grouped together in the middle 

Cedarberg Mountains near Algeria

I enjoyed the outing a lot, sitting on the copilot seat I had the perfect opportunity to soak in the landscape without having to drive myself. The famous wildflower colors started to show in the most northern locations, and on our frequent stops I did perfect short mini escursions, taking in the flora.

Diplosoma retroversum, Mesembryanthemaceae, super rare!

Crassula muscosa

Arctopus echinatus, Apiaceae

We had a lovely picnic lunch on the banks of the Olifant River, and returned via the coast, ending back at Kirstenbosch by 7pm.
Matt and Kush

A perfectly great day with good company and lots of new information, but there was a sad ending to it. On our last stop I slipped in the mud, and landed hard on the rocky ground with my binoculars in my hand. Never mind that I got bruised, but I sevearly damaged my beloved tool. I now either see everything double, or have to use it as a monocular, which is not the same at all. I am trying not to be too pessimistic about the situation, and hope very much I can find a specialist in NY who would be able to fix the two monoculars I have now into a pair of binoculars again!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Playing Elephant

Playing Elephant

Today was a fun day working in the Conservatory in the Eastern Cape section. I really enjoyed just that fact of being exposed to this plant group, as I will not have a chance to go to the actual region.  I don’t think I have mentioned that the Conservatory is divided into regional and geographic sections, recreating vastly different environments found in the cape. This part of the conservatory is actually without a solid roof as it is a less arid biome and does not have to be protected from the local rains, much in contrast to the Karoo regions, which could not be recreated without shelter from rain for most of the year.


Ernst explained the eastern cape to me in terms of climate, but also as a (former) natural habitat for large animals, specifically elephants. These would break through thick vegetation, trampling and eating, and such do a natural, rather radical pruning. The plants of this environment are superbly adapted to these occurrences, easily resprouting from chopped off branches (e.g. Aloes), regrowing from fallen off plant sections (e.g. Euphorbias), or being able and even depending on distribution of singular leaves from which a whole plant readily reemerges (e.g. Crassulas, Senecios). In fact without these events the whole balance of this biome flips over, and a vastly different flora starts taking over.

So today Georgina and I started a radical pruning of this section, playing Elephants.

Left is the pruned part, the heap in the middle is part of the removed material, and Georgina examining the work from above

I just wish I would have the proverbial thick skin of these animals because most of the plants are either thorny, spiny or sharp edged, and many also contain various milky and clear saps that can be super irritating if in contact with your skin, or even worse eyes or mouth…gloves are a must and one has to really think before scratching your nose and washing hands BEFORE eating or using the bathroom. We worked our way through about half of the section, tomorrow we will enter a part deep between the tall Tree Euphorbias where nobody went for a year or so – FUN!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

From the Cycad Project to Succulent Heaven and Molecular Mania

From the cycad project to succulent heaven and molecular mania

Just to prevent people from getting the impression that all I do is driving through the rolling hills as I have not told much about my work lately, I will do so now.

I finished my three weeks with the cycads, during which I participated in some very educational pollen testing. This was a very interesting project, the procedure of which I described in detail in the previous entry, and probably bored the heck out of most of you. If you do know me you understand, me getting so exited about these little things under the microscope, and to see all the different species and pollen dating back to 2000. My biggest frustration was that we could not eliminate the fungal growth in the samples, and I had a déjà vu going back to when I lived in New Orleans. I take on rats and roaches and even snakes any time over mold. Seems the ultimate lost battle to fight! In terms of our testing, I could think of quite a few ways to improve sterility in the test setups, but I also have to admit that it was fun to see all the different mycelium, hyphae and fruiting bodies growing (Horror!! – will I end up becoming C.DeW.?).

Male cone scale with open pollen sacs  and white pollen

I also enjoyed the hands-on work with the cycads, and have developed a friendly understanding with Encephalartos. The ‘friendly’ is really important as these guys have some MEAN spines. I learned about cycads horticultural needs, how to pollinate, propagate by seed, and their special soil-mixes. I witnessed the symbiotic relationship with a specific beetle, and helped fighting the current infestation of another bug, killing off those ancient plants. But working with this plant group you are in for a long time – I mean, I am considering raising a cycad from seed now, but we are talking decades here!

Encephalartos detail

I am still working on a little piece on Encephalartos woodii, which I hope to post soon.

Encepalartus seed with emerging shoot

Then I ascended to succulent heaven! And I did not even have to die first!

I started working with Ernst van Jaarsveld who has been employed by the South African National Bio-diversity Institute (SANBI) since 1974 and is currently the curator of the Kirstenbosch Conservatory. Ernst wrote quite a few books on succulents and dessert plants, amongst these ‘Waterwise Gardening’, ‘Cotyledon & Tylecodon’, ‘Succulents of South Africa’, ‘Gasterias of South Africa’ and ‘Vygies- Gems of the Veld’. He is working on cliff dwelling plants right now, and writing about his findings. And he is a very friendly and super gracious person, very positive and helpful with me, eagerly sharing his knowledge even when asked ignorant questions.

Just to be around this very well working conservatory, build in the spirit of design following function, which I also find visually very pleasing, is a privilege. And the working collection in the covered, but on the sides open houses…your eyes would fall out if you could see the diversity of crassulas, mesums, gasterias, aloes, euphorbs, welwitchias…it is a GOOD thing I can’t bring anything back, because I would have to rent a whole container and fill it with those beauties. Instead I took about 500 pictures, 495 more then I would ever be able to upload onto this site

Conophytum sp.

Conophytum sp.

Crassula montana subsp. quadrangularis

Cotyledon sp. 

Welwitchia mirabilis female cone

With Ernst I learned more about habitats and need of those plants, constantly worked on the collection repotting, did cuttings for a new form of Aloe arborescense he named ‘Mzimnyati’ and wants to introduce at the next Botanical Society plant sale. I also started some more cuttings of a climber with different leaf markings he found recently, and pollinated Albuca batteniana, Hyacinthaceae, a fairly unknown bulb he thinks has great potential as a container plant.

Albuca batteniana pollination

I don’t think this is just a momentary fancy, I can get really enthusiastic about succulents, and I am going to work again with Ernst and maybe in some other places with them (I am trying to hook up a week of work in the Nieuwoudtville and Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, both belonging to SANBI like Kirstenbosch).


And then, for the last week I have been emerged in DNA. I have been working with Lucas Chauke, a molecular scientist, and we went out into the field with Mark from the Nature Conservancy, to collect leaf samples of Leucadenron levisanus, a very threatened member of the protea family. It only occurs around Cape Town, and the extreme pace and scale of development brought it close to extinction.

Leucadendron levisanus male inflorescence 

Leucadendron levisanus female inflorescence

There are several projects going on, trying to propagate the plant ex sitiu and replant into the last pockets, one being a project by WWF to secure the genetic integrity of the sub-populations of L. levisanus (i.e. the conservation of genetic diversity within the species). That’s what I am working on at the moment, extracting DNA, purifying it, and amplifying specific genes. At the same time I am also doing lab work on Moraea aristata, of which I have only handled its DNA, and don’t even know how it looks like – this is not unusual at all for those molecular scientists, but way too abstract for me. I enjoy this work, but mostly because it tells me even more about the actual thing out there.

Mark was the one that invited me to come for a Friday evening out, - not drinks as you might assume, - but finding the equally threatened Leopard Toad, and taking toenail clippings for DNA analysis. This turned out to be quite fun, as we were all over the compound of the old Observatory here in the city, and checked out the buildings with the defunked telescopes, and other remote parts of the place, all the while looking for the toads with flashlights.

Leopard Toad