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

Yellowwoods, Elephant Poop and Exhibitionist Whales

Yellowwoods, Elephant Poop and exhibitionist Whales

Another super exiting weekend trip brought me to the small costal town of Sedgefield near George, about 500 km east of Cape Town. I headed out during the early afternoon, to visit with Ann and Al McGregor, Ann being another of Betty’s fabulous friends. Reg, Ann’s brother hitched a ride along, and I drove the same N2 I had done a few weeks earlier the other way. The traffic is a joke, and the road is gently rolling through cultivated fields of wheat, with the ocean some 30 km to the right, and an endless chain of bare blue-tinted looking mountains not far to the left. (I learned today that the tree line descends from several thousand to a few hundred meters the further you go from the Equator towards the poles).

The last leg of the drive was in darkness, and finally we arrived just in time for dinner at the lovely ‘Center Court’, a simple but well laid-out summerhouse, hidden behind dense thickets of vegetation. Ann had prepared a typical cape dish, "Potjiekos", a (lamb) stew that she cooked in a cast-iron pot over open fire, which needs to be prepared slowly to get the delicious result we enjoyed.

Next morning we got up early to meet above Knysna with members of the Mountain Club of South Africa South Cape Section. Fred van Berkel led the 16km walk, partially crossing through dense indigenous forest. This is part of the largest surviving remnant of a 200 km long, but narrow swathe of the Knysna and Tsitikamma Forest, stretching along the southern coastal shelf and the adjacent mountain slopes. We proceeded from the small settlement of Gouna for about 10km in a north-easterly direction, botanizing and birding all along. The tallest trees here are the Yellowwoods, Podocarpus falcatus, reaching impressive sizes of about 60 m here inside the forest. Also found throughout is the Ironwood, which is easily recognized by the very dark black patches of resin staining the trunk wherever the tree is injured. Diospyros dichrophylla, Ebenaceae carried it’s soft densely haired fruits, and Old Man’s Beard, a Usnea, a lichen species, draped over most of the taller branches. But now I am actually only showing off that I do remember 3 1/2 of the 500 hundred different species found here, and this is considered a low diversity compared with the surrounding Fynbos!

Diospyros dichrophylla

We passed an idyllic spot on a river, where the rocks form natural swimming basins (Gumpen auf Bayerisch), but we all declined a swim as the temperatures in this dense forest did not amount to much despite of cloudless skies.

Then the highlight of the day:

I was walking with Fred who was telling me about the forest and the animals living in it, including the very elusive Knysna Elephant. And near where the Outeniqua Trail crossed our path, looking down on the path, there it was: ELEPHANT DUNG! The africanometer went all the way to the highest reading looking at quite a few of these shit heaps. Not too fresh, and quite agreeable in smell, this is as close as one could hope to get to the elephants, as not many people have ever seen them at all! (a little side note from someone who currently works at a DNA lab; elephant poop contains very usable DNA, and by analyzing it they have learned more about the number and family relations, then by trying to spot and observe them)

These elephants, they estimate the number of individuals being around 8, are the last of the southern most ‘free’-living animals. Survivors of large herds, hunted down to virtual extinction, they are now confined to stay inside this dense forest, surrounded by more and more development. I was told that as late as the 80’, a particular thorough German head of forestry, actively pursued all larger animals in these woods, due to the alleged damage they do to the trees!

This is a informative and a little odd link to learn more about the elephants, it reminded me strangely of the grizzly man in the Werner Herzog film/docu.

After leaving the indigenous forest behind the flora changed in an instant and we reappeared in newly planted pine plantation, at the high point of the walk, 555 meters above sea level. The steep decent down to the Knysna River was swift, and we heard the baboons and a Knysna Turaco bird in the distant doing their funny calls. It is very strange to picture these exotic animals in this very northern pine monoculture, and I realized that the indigenous forest that is left is truly not much more then an island.

Down at the river Stewart and Jenny were waiting with an open Jeep to take us back, but before another guy from the group led us upstream to some superb bushman paintings on the sandstone cliffs of the Knysna River.

The ride back in the 4x4 was great, as I did not have to share the small back of the truck with the other 13 hikers, but had the privilege of sitting next to Jenny in the front seat. I got a whole other set of views of the forest canopy enriched by the woman’s intimate knowledge of the trees and other plants, and we spotted the very endemic Faurea macnaughtonii, a protea found only right here.
After the group disbanded Ann, Reg and I drove back through more woods on unpaved roads, where we actually did see a large group of baboons crossing the road in front of us. 

We made it just in time for the sunset at the Heads, the very narrow entry through enormous sandstone cliffs into the Knysna lagoon.

The spot is a quite magical place, but the lagoon is rather spoiled by recent overdevelopment. It looks like New Jersey suburbs plugged into the idyllic scenery of the Cape – utterly ugly. After a brief walk through the equally soulless newly developed harbor complex (again, think South Street Seaport or any shopping mall), we found a nice and funky bar on the piers where we enjoyed a yummy draft and I sampled some very tasty oysters; two farmed in the lake, and two wild ones from the coast right there. I don’t need to tell you which ones were sweet and intense with flavor... Back at the house my first braai (BBQ) with a sampling of the local meat (ostrich and lamb) made an appropriate finish to the day.

The next day was overcast, and after a slow start and extensive breakfast we left for the old settlement of Belvidere at Knysna. Al was driving us in his rather well aged VW van (also called combi), and sitting in its passenger seat triggered some fond and not so funny VW winter driving memories…)

The tiny, but very beautifully proportioned Anglican Church there was a pleasant stop, and we admired the stonework and botanical glass windows. But the rest of the place again was way to generic and overdeveloped for my taste.

Crossing over the hill to the seaside we reached the village of Brenton on the Sea. Now I will repeat myself: retirement and summer homes as far as one can see, and the mostly recent architecture as inspired as in Staten Island.The great thing is you can just turn your back to all of this and look out over the sea, and all is forgiven. As soon as I put my attention to the water, there I saw a huge splash in the middle of the bay – a Southern Right Whale breaching!  Well - I actually have to admit that I could even live in one of those hideous things and not care, as long as I had this view, with the blue-green Indian ocean rolling up to this pristine beach.

Al, Reg and I walked the entire beach to Buffelsbaai, where Ann picked us up with the combi. And the whole time (more then two hours) several of the whales were visible just beyond the surf, playing, rolling, splashing and exhibiting one behavior unique to Southern Right Whales, known as sailing. They lift their tails straight out of the water for long periods and seem to use their elevated flukes to catch the wind. It appears to be a form of play and one individual seemed to be especially fond of it to the point where I got concerned about it getting a bad headache, being upside down for so long!

Southern Right Whales can be up to 18m long, with a body that is stocky and fat, weighting 40-80 tons. They have a circumpolar distribution and inhabit sub Antarctic water between about 30° and 55° south, and enjoy a tentative comeback since the strict whale hunting bans.

African Oystercatcher

A stop a the bird watching shelter at Rondevlei (=round lake) Nature Reserve presented a fantastic 40 minute sunset show, featuring a androgynous Pied Kingfisher, a busy Black-winged Stilt, the Tree-banded Clover as well as Common Moorhens, Yellow-billed ducks, and a large amount of extras in the roles of Cape Shovelers, Red-knobbed Coots and Little Grebes.

After the curtain went down we all praised with appreciation the beautiful stage setting, artistic lighting and natural acting. With just enough light to walk up the hill, Ann and I managed to do some more botanizing in the Fynbos until we could not tell a pink erica from a yellow protea.

Next morning we went for a refreshing beach walk in Sedgefield, and after breakfast headed out, first over back roads along the vleis (=lakes) past Wilderness towards George. On the way we had some more exquisite, on the fly bird watching (ok, I know I am loosing a few of my readers by now). One spot with the Great Kingfisher, the Pied Kingfisher and the incredibly colorful Malachite Kingfisher right next to each other, then a Hammerkop on a phone line, and as crowning highlight a cluster of Louries, a.k.a. Knysna Turacos. These birds were chasing each other along a river, giving bright green and red flashes in flight, almost like swimming with breaststrokes through the air.

In George we met with Margaret at the Garden Route Botanical Garden, where she had worked before, and we got an interesting tour. The garden is relatively new and almost exclusively depending on volunteers who fight an uphill battle against careless visitors, dog owners, bicyclists and deer, having minimal funding and changing design and mission ideas. But it is still a garden and I believe all gardens are beautiful and important in their own rights.

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, note the three stamens, two down and one to the right, and the stigma to the left. Other individuals have a mirrored arrangement!

Gasteria sp., it's name derives from the stomach shaped flower

Carpobrotus edulis, Sour Fig, the fruit makes a tasty jam, had it for breakfast...

After saying goodbye to Ann, Reg and I headed back to Cape Town. The first part of the drive went from George straight north via the Outeniqua pass to Oudtshoorn. Then a sharp left turn, leading through the western part of the Little Karoo. The quietness of this harsh landscape is fascinating to me, and I would really love to camp out here for a night! 

At a driving speed plants seem to barely have leaves and only a few species sparsely spread, but stepping out of the car at random spots reveals again a mind-boggling diversity with wonderful small blooms and colors.

And on some of the rocky slopes clusters of Aloe ferrox in full bloom, the red candelabra shaped inflorescence in the afternoon light like lit candles!

Aloe ferrox

Along the roadside lined up the striking Nymania capensis, Meliaceae for a while, seemingly taking advantage of the disturgbed site, and the additional run-off water from the road.

Nymania capensis

Besides these and a few ostrich farms, there is not much happening, three small towns,Calitzdorp, Lady Smith and Barrydale along the way, then another super scenic pass , the Tradouws, led south through the mountains back onto the N2. It had just gotten dark by then, and the rest of the drive really stretched along until I finally arrived back ‘home’ at Kirstenbosch by 10 pm.

Already have tons of ideas for next weekend!