Monday, December 8, 2008
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
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.
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!
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Hantam National Botanical Garden
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.
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.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
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
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.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
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.?).
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
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.