Sunday, June 29, 2008

Freedom! Hurray!! I Have a Car!!!

Freedom! Hurray!! I have a car!!!

This is the new Cape experience, since yesterday I am the proud renter of a VW Golf Chico, about 20 years old, with a pretty nasty smell, but running! And despite my anxiety driving and shifting on the freaking other side, it turned out half as bad.

First thing I took a little round trip: right turn at Kirstenbosch exit, cutting through Table Mountain, to Hout Bay. The sun was out between clouds, lighting up the mountains and the harbor at a low afternoon angle. I got out of my stinky car at a little fish-shag at the end of the commercial harbor where more and ‘different’ aromas engulfed me, a mixture of fish processing factory and town sewage.

SA has given me quite strong olfactive impressions already, some like the fynbos (honey sweet mixed with spicy herbs) are really wonderful, and then the others, one does not even want to describe.

From there, north along the tall cliffs of the Atlantic – YES – this is what they mean by spectacular! I stopped at a little outlook, and I could have sworn I did see some whales, blowing and all, but me idiot did leave the binoculars at the cottage, so no confirmation of what I saw.

At Camps Bay, across from the beach, a little strip of some very chic cafes and bars offering great sunset views; I will definitely go back there for a ‘sundowner’.

With the row of Palm trees and the way people dress and behave this could be anywhere in Florida.

Coming closer to the city again, one might as well drive along the French Riviera.

Architecture from beautiful contemporary to horrendous Mac mansions, mostly white structures glued to the steep coast, and all of it very exclusive. I have to admit I wouldn’t mind enjoying these views through the panorama windows of my living room, steched out on a large sofa with a comfy little fire in the chimney behind…

Then shopping at Victoria Warf, a nondescript (0-8-15) mall that could be found anywhere, where I bought me a new pillow so I wont dream of things living below my face, and a salad bowl, so I don’t have to make salad on little dishes in several batches. I am trying not to buy much and stick to the basics, but easier said then done with those 41/2 dishes, 2 forks and 1 knife found in the cottage kitchen. I might sound really old now, but I could not live with ‘young’ folks like that for any longer time. Their culinary sense of elegance moves between KFC and a particular pizza joint in Clairmont. Brrrrrrrr.

Last week I went with Trevor Adams, who is my supervisor, to Rondebosch Commens, a large open area in this rather affluent suburb, where there is an initiative to rehabilitate the flora from grasses back to indigenous plants.

You see a previously prepared site, where volunteers, Trevor and I planted small plants that where raised at Kirstenbosch from cuttings taken right here.

Some sections were already showing a mix of beautiful wildflowers, this is a rather common 

    Oxalis purpurea, Oxalidaceae

On Friday Andrew Jacobs, the brother of Clive the propagation foreman, gave me a small tour through parts of the garden I had not seen yet. A huge and very neat compost facility and the cut flower section, with mostly Proteas. They used to produce a lot for sale, but this is being faded out. There are still some, and this is the flower of the 
King Protea, Protea cynaroides.

It is incredible what the black Africans have to say about Apartheid. Andrew spent most of his life under conditions a modern person of the 20th century can hardly realize as real. He told me that he dared to look a white person in the eyes only 14 years ago. And he related the biggest unjust of the system to the severe restriction of education, making me think he was also talking about his own life and the huge loss of potential, and the things he might have been able to accomplish if not for people who seriously think that black Africans have small brains and therefore lack capacity for learning. ! .

(Didn’t they say that about women too?)

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? What are they thinking now? Everybody acknowledges things have changed, but it does not feel like there is much justice happening yet. Everywhere I look I see the same pattern; white sitting – black standing, white driving – black walking, white supervising – black working, white eating – black serving, e.t.c.

And then, to mirror the attitude towards women, I read yesterday in a Cape Town news paper about a survey done here, where 36% of people questioned said, a woman wearing a mini skirt being raped, was asking for it…

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cape Town City Bowl

Cape Town City Bowl

Sunday I finally went into town just to stroll around and explore.

Sounds easier said then done. First I had to get a good map of the complete city, because people seem to be utterly unable to give comprehensive directions and not only because they tell you to turn left or right at the robot (which is a traffic light…!?!)

So - well equipped, missing only a handheld GPS – I found the miserable suburb center of Clairmont, first walking for about 40 minutes through a really rich neighborhood (think Westchester) with very tall walls around the properties, crowned without fail by several lines of electric fencing in different arrangements.

As the train for town had just left (they only come every hour or so), I proceeded to the Main Road to find me one of those Mini Van Taxis, where you cram into tiny seats two per, and the conductor-guy never stops his screaming, announcing the route and searching for more passengers, right over the driver’s continuous honking. 40 minutes later when we got to the final stop, the Mini Van Taxi Terminal, I had almost got used to it. This is also the train station and Bus terminal and like everywhere in the world not really a place to linger and enjoy the vistas.

I had one specific destination in mind, that was the Vespa Café, I place I had found on the internet, with a fabulous website advertising a Tapas Bar and Vespa Rental (!) on Kloof Street. But first I had to make my way through a lifeless downtown where large banks, 8-story parking buildings and dark office towers eerily reminded me of Cleveland/Ohio on a Sunday afternoon some years ago. Then I viewed a huge Queen Victoria monument, and figured I now reached older parts of town, not quite first Dutch settlement, but surely colonial.

The choices of people they have places named after and monuments build for, is altogether politically quite incorrect (e.g. Cecil Rhodes) if you ask me, even if they throw in an occasional Mandela.

So I strolled down Government Lane along the Company’s Gardens, a park like pedestrian road, enjoying a pretty dead place save for the occasional tourist taking a picture. Well if there was any life in this place I had not found it yet. So onto direction of Kloof, which turned out to be a short stretch of another quiet street, but with a few cafes and restaurants of the ‘younger’ kind.

I finally found my Café Vespa where I had planned for a delicious cappuccino, only to find it ‘temporarily closed – opening soon under new management’. Bummer! So I choose another place called ‘Arnolds’, where at 3pm a lively crowd of youngsters and not so young ones were busy eating of the breakfast menu, and drinking beers. I started to have a real provincial experience, being reminded of places like Wasserburg, or Nuernberg at best (I am talking about small towns of maybe a couple of hundred thousand people), and actually realizing that despite its fame Cape Town is a rather sleepy small place (the huge and sprawling Townships in the Cape Flats not included).

Later on I found a few hipper and more stylish cafes, which I will definitely go back to, but not particularly for the happening crowd, but rather the free WIFI they offer. Long Street seems to have the most bars and restaurants – I will investigate.

Around 6.30pm I set out back to the terminal to find me a Mini Van Taxi again, as I did not have enough cash on me to take a actual cab, which is rather expensive going all the way to Kirstenbosch. Then in Rondebosch (one suburbial neighborhood over from the Garden) I called to have one of the Garden’s drivers on stand-by pick me up at the BP gas station. After waiting for an hour and a half he finally came and told me that contrary to what I had understood, this only worked for weekday grocery shopping arrangements.

So, I am biting the sour apple (or whatever it’s called) and will look for my own car on Friday. Renting or even buying, there seems to be no alternative at all if I don’t want to start rotting in this place as I am already suffering from serious cabin fewer!

On the botanical/horticultural side I am learning every day. Working in Plant Propagation is rather back breaking as they do a lot of lifting and schlepping by hand, and I have to admit I am quite softened up since my heydays of construction work, and getting rather too old to do this 8 hours a day. Luckily the weather has improved the last few days, once the sun is out the setting of the place and the different lights are beautiful.

And I do find time to look at the plants, and start to make a little more sense of the Proteas, Ericas, Restios and the rest of the Fynbos plants.

Today I learned all about the techniques that they apply, smoking the seed, to induce better germination in those plants. Fascinating! And the different recipes for the soils, general mix and Fynbos mix, both with highly acidic PH around 5-6, with the Fynbos mix being very nutrient poor devoid of any compost.

That whole Fynbos business actually makes me think a lot of the Pine Barrens – there are definitely parallels to be drawn between those two biomes.

Then we looked at all the different Cape Reed (Restionaceae) seeds, how to distinguish male from female plants, how and when to collect seeds, and general cultivation differences (some like it rather xeric – others grow in and beside streams).

This is the nursery with Table Mountain supplying a very handsome background!

…and then I come across these tiny beauties you really have to get very close to with your Lupe to enjoy fully. It was labeled as Syncolostemon densiflorus, Lamiaceae, but I kind of question this. It is cushion forming, and I don't know  it's flower.

O.K. Mystery solved - it is Cotula hispida Asteraceae, and so far I have not found out where it is from...

Saturday, June 21, 2008



Ok, I am hitting a low point here.

Last night I woke several times with something biting me all over!! And there are no mosquitoes here, so, I have some company in my bed of either fleas or even bedbugs!!!!! This is really it – I tried my best to ignore the bathroom situation, actually getting pretty good in no-touch-anything shower acrobatics, but this is intolerable! I started to pull everything out of my room into the yard, took all the linnens and clothes I was wearing, and stuffed them into the little washing machine in the kitchen, only to discover that the machine too was so dirty, there were colorful things growing inside!!!! How can people live like this? So 40 min of cleaning out junks of black and green you-don’t-want-to-know-what, I finally started my laundry. At that point I could not stop anymore, and really wanted to clean at least my room, all the time thinking that Augustine told me I would be moving in 2 weeks (this is info as of yesterday), and would I have to start all over again in another cottage?

But there isn’t even a bucket around, so I went to the cottage that’s under renovation, stole an empty paint bucket, and started to clean that. Next I had to improvise with the cleaner, using laundry soap instead, and started to wash down the mold from the bathroom door and walls, hoping to improve the smell, so one does not have to gag taking a pee, not really getting into scrubbing the grime of the tiles…there is only so much one can do…..

Then on to my room: Pulled out the whole wooden bed frame, and hosed it down in the yard, washed down all the walls, door and furniture, and mobbed the floor.

I don’t know what to do with the mattress – really it should be burned - but then what will I sleep on…also the day went away from me, so now it is too late to get to a store to buy some insecticide and bomb the place.

Did I mention I also spend about 2 hours in the kitchen, sh..!

I really do not know what to do about all this. I could look for a room elsewhere, hoping for some more civilized conditions, but how would I get to Kirstenbosch everyday? I would have to look into renting or buying a car – and all this is really not in my budget, and also – I am giving this place 3 month of work for free, something does not add up well here.

And the weather is really lousy, rain coming down hard all day, and those days are really short! Actually I just realize, this is solstice today, so I am really at the low point, and everything will improve from tomorrow on! Promised!!


Work at the plant propagation is not so bad, as the people are really friendly once they warm up to you. There is lots of laughter, most of which I do not know what about as they mostly speak Afrikans, or tribal language, but laughter is a good thing anywhichway. 

I was mostly potting up restios, and doing cuttings the last two days. The restios are the real interesting thing here. In the pictures you see 3-year old, mature Elegia tectorum, ready for sale in about two month.

I will tell you more about these cape reeds soon, I am still learning just the basics of this really distinct family of Retionaceae.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Atlantis Dunes Nature Reserve

Atlantis Dunes Nature Reserve


Just about 30min north of Cape Town, this is a preserve partially developed for recreational use (shooting range, off-road driving!), and groundwater is drawn there for the nearby town of Atlantis. 

Seems like Atlantis did not sink after all, but driving through it one might think it maybe should have…(just kidding!)

The vegetation of these extensive white-sanded dunes is fynbos mixed with some more seashore and pond plants, and quite a few Aliens (a.k.a invasives).

Colyledon sp. Crassulaceae dried up inflroresence

There was quite a lot of the Metalina muricata that I described before, and lots more that I cannot identify yet. The weather was overcast, and eventually it started to rain again (I start to sympathize with the people in Seattle without ever having been there…)

An hour of bird watching at two adjacent ponds yielded an impressive variety, which I will list starting with:


·      African Fish Eagle (a pair), beautiful! dark brown, black and white

·      African Spoonbill, almost being undetected between two

·      Great White Egrets

·      Egyptian Geese, with colorful plumage in earth colors

·      Black-winged Stilts, black and white on elegant tall red legs

·      Cape Shoveler

·      Yellow-billed Duck

·      Red-billed Teal

·      Dabchick (=Little Grebe), all swimming out on the pond

·      Red Knobbed Coots, a large flock of ~ 65, this bird I know from Bavaria!

·      Common Moorhen

·      Blacksmith Lapwing, another black & white, in large numbers all over

·      White-breasted Cormorants, quite a bit larger then

·      Reed Cormorants

·      Grey Heron

·      Black-headed Heron, again in a stunning black/white combination

·      Cattle Egrets

·      Hadeda Ibis, one lonely one.


Well, and this was just what we i.d. on the fly, not even bothering with the smaller birds, and various things flying over (gulls e.t.c).

Tomorrow I am off buying a bird guide to SA! What am I thinking - as a bird lover in this amazing place…!

There is Thumeka, in the green sweater, with her volunteers on our bird-count.


I got some really encouraging feedback from you guys about my blog – thanks! and I have to say I need it, considering what I do here could be considered hard-core blogging. Me, with my laptop, huddling outside the closed main offices, under the eves, in the cold rain, not able to see the keys properly in the dark…

I know - you still don’t feel sorry for me, and I guess you guys are right!


I was also asked why Botany Geek and not Horticulture Geek…

Well, I think of Horticulture as something more practical, less geeky. And my favorite tool lately has been my Lupe and not my secateurs, a.k.a. pruners. (people do speak English here, but use words rather differently or different words altogether)


By the way, my new favorite travel-gadget: my neoprene computer casing!

I keep discovering new unbelievable practical uses for it when it is without the laptop: it makes a excellent insulating seating pad for hard rocks and wet wooden benches, and I used it filled with a few T-shirts as a pillow for several nights until a got a proper one at the store (which is not a place where you pay for things…this is storage space!).

And last night I stuck a glass bottle filled with hot water in it, such creating an almost perfect hot-water-bottle! Where will this lead me? Will I be cooking chicken in the microwave in it next week? Could it hold my ashes after I leave this beautiful world? Should I patent this...?

Something I read yesterday thet really spoke to me:

‘Ndiwelimilambo enamagama’, ‘I have crossed famous rivers’, a saying in the language of the Thembe people of the Transkei.

It means that one has traveled a great distance, that one has had wide experience and gained some wisdom from it. ( from ‘Nelson Mandela, the Illustrate Long Walk to Freedom’)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

First Actual Day of Work

First actual day of work:

These are the results from my morning meeting with Trevor, who is the Propagation Supervisor together with Augustine, the Estate manager (the estate is the extent of he property minus the cultivated gardens):

For starters I will be working in PP (plant propagation) for the first two weeks, which I am told is standard with international students. But then I was asked what my special interests are, so now I am supposed to do a project on cycads in July, and work on succulents in August. The succulents are a very obvious choice being where I am, and after seeing the Conservatory with all the different Karoo (dessert) biomes, I am even more intrigued.

But Cycads are not something I was so hot about before. They are not necessary cute huggy-lovely things, and the way I have seen them grow so far was exclusively in pots, mostly covered by scale – not an impressive sight. But look at those pictures

again, please be patient with the picture quality - still experimenting with my new camera....

The cycad garden here, particulary the Encephalartos species, blow me away! These are impressive plants the size of trees, not indigenous to the cape, but found further east in SA, and they look really great outside in these large groups. Cycads, are for sure interesting as being so distinct from all other plants we know. For starters they belong into the much smaller group of the non-flowering Gymnosperms plants, but they are not easily associated with what most people know as Conifers. Being very old relicts of plant evolution, and often seen as on their way to extinction, I am starting to be very intrigued, not at least because of Susan Pell’s (BBG) enthusiasm for them.  So here I am supposed to do a cycad project!

I also indicated my interest in working in the Herbarium and DNA lab, where there is currently work done on the Phylogeny of the Protaceae family, but they are not that closely linked to Horticulture, and I have to see if they want me there…


Actual work I was doing today was pruning about 400 small plants of Polygala fruticosa – Polygalaceae to encourage branching. This is a purple flowering shrub, exuding a milky sap when pruned. Look up this link if you are interested further, his will lead you to the rather comprehensive Flora of South Africa Website.

In the afternoon I worked on Metalasia muricata  - Asteraceae (or whatever this is now) a rather lovely plant, having the typical tiny ‘fynbos’ leaves with these very attractive white undersides. It looks like a silver-leaved rosemary, with terminal clusters varying in color from common white to pink or purple and is currently blooming all over the garden. Check it out!                           

 I was repotting those from 2kg bags to 4kg bags, yes you read right, everything is grown in bags (seems to be an economic thing to do), and the sizes go by kilogram (can anybody explain that to me? – the people I asked could not make sense of this to me!)


Tonight I went with Siya and Thumeka, the two conservationalists, to Harare Township (the biggest around here?) to her sisters house – not for the fainthearted!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What a Transition into my Trip!

Dear friends,
this is my first try at this blogery, so please bare with me -
I know there are a few kinks I need to work on!!!

These last days before leaving have been wild to say the least.
Thanks to Carolina and her wonderful old lady (a.k.a. Mary Whalen)
I rocked gently through my last nights before getting the approval 
to become American citizen. 
And just to balance my karma I left the very next day for my 
3-month stint in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa.
I arrived late Thursday night after an endless flight, and there
were three lovely people to pick me up after all!!! 
Except that my luggage did not make it all the way and and
got stuck in Jo-berg, because nobody told me that I should have taken it there 
through customs, and checked it back in(??).
But all ended well when I got it today around noon, and I finally took a shower  
(first since Wednesday morning), ate, and now also found me some wireless to do

my mail. This place is quite beautiful, and the people rather lovely. The lack-of-communication
issue is now explained by one of the women in charge being on maternity leave, 
and the other, Felicity, having a very sick husband, who sadly died last night! 
My quarters are very basic, and the bathroom I share with two others (!MEN!)I won't
describe to you for lack of unrated words, but I am supposed to be moving this weekend, 
and share with two women then - it can only get better!! Monday is a holyday, so I will start to 
work seriously on Tuesday, when they will also make up some work-program for me. 
There is a lab here where they do work on Proteas, trying to figure out the phylogeny of the family,
I will see if i can stick my head into there for a minute! 
Now I have to go food shopping, so I can cook me a decent non-airplane dinner, and 
tomorrow I will start exploring town and mountains....



Yesterday was really nice weather, and after morning tea I went for a long walk up Table Mountain and around the Garden. The landscaped part of it blends right into the larger part, which is restored Fynbos and Afromontane Forest.

Afromontane Forest is found in only 0.5% of all southern Africa, and occurs here in Kirstenbosch on the upper south-facing slopes and in the steep ravines going up Table Mountain, due to the high rainfall. The famed diversity started to hit me slowly with the variety of endemic trees: Podocarpus latifolius (Real Yellowwood), Olinia ventosa-Oliniaceae (Hard Pear), Rapaneae melanophloeos (Cape Beach), just to start naming a few….

It was very quiet up on those paths, I met only a handful of people, and the views toward the city felt very distant. Coming back down one gets into the Fynbos (meaning small bush), which is characterized by small leaved and flowered plants, like Restios, Ericas, Proteas and Geophytes. Here the diversity and strangeness really becomes quite overwhelming, and with all the colourful and really exotic birds on top I barely moved more then a yard a minute.

As I mentioned the landscaped part starts very gradually and is also very extensive. It is divided up into a good dozen different areas, like a Fragrance Garden, Useful Plants Garden, Protea Garden, Sculpture Garden, e.t.c.

separated by extensive lawns on which groups of young girls, couples and families where sitting on blankets with food, drink and even radios. In between flocks of Helmeted Guinea fowl ran around. There is also lots of water everywhere, small streams and little ponds interweaving through the beds, lawns and paths, and the Cycad area finally knocked me out completely, and I went back to the cottage for a late lunch.

On Friday I had figured out the Internet situation, there was a student room in the building of the garden office with a few computers, but this was accessible only during office hours – bummer. But they do have wireless there too, and I can sit outside on a bench with fabulous views, looking down towards the city with the mountain to my left. Not a bad solution as long as it does not rain, which is the case today….so my alternative is only the fancy Silvertree restaurant, which I will try later, see if they let me sit there with a cup of coffee for a while….


About South Africa:

Driving around (from the Airport, and to the Shopping Center) one could easily think of this place as wealthy and completely developed. The roads are perfect and clean (better then Brooklyn!), with landscaped embankments, the houses new or well maintained, and the cars like in Europe. But then all of the sudden, neatly fenced in, like dropped from another planet, Townships, the SA version of shantytowns! And not a bit better then the worse of them. Tin huts with no electricity, no water, and I doubt a chance in hell for those who grow up there.

It is hard to believe that only 14 (!) years ago this was a legally totally segregated place, with the native blacks literally locked up in the Townships, with less then third-rate possibilities in life. I wonder how much has changed…

Last night we had some lively discussions in our cottage. Siya, a future conservation scientist working here, his wife and two of their friends from their home village and I were watching soccer, and quickly the talk went to politics and SA. Siya and …(shame on me – I forgot her name!!) I guess are representing ‘the new generation’, coming from non privileged homes, having received a advanced education, and going on to graduate studies. They are old enough (25) to still know the old system, but are also a new generation that’s does not bent their heads anymore towards the whites, which they say is still very much ingrained in a majority of people.

I realize I have a lot of reading and listening to do in order to step up my understanding of this place and its people, and I started last night with an autobiography by Nelson Mandela.



Ok. No wireless at the restaurant!

I will drink my latte and enjoy that they have a fire in he chimney going, and then I am off to the other café – my last hope, or I will have to huddle outside the garden office under the eaves…better warm up now!