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

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