A Megadiverse Country: Introducing South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots

Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Isobel Johnson and Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

South Africa is a country that is world famous for its extraordinary biodiversity. Recognised as one of the earth’s 17 megadiverse nations which combined contain two thirds of the world’s plant diversity, South Africa sits in the top ten nations for plant species richness worldwide. This is as a result of the country’s highly varied climate, topography and geology, which also has led to extremely high levels of endemism across its many different ecosystems, meaning that many South African species are found nowhere else on earth.

Perhaps one of South Africa’s most famous centres of plant diversity is the Fynbos Biome or Cape Floristic Region, which is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. However, few realise that South Africa is in fact home to three different biodiversity hotspots, namely the Cape Floristic Region, the Succulent Karoo ecoregion and the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany corridor. Biodiversity hotspots are the world’s most biodiverse and threatened terrestrial regions. For an area to qualify it needs to have a minimum of 1500 species of endemic vascular plants and to have lost a minimum of 70% of its primary vegetation. There are 37 biodiversity hotspots worldwide, of which 8 are found on the African continent. In this week’s edition of the BotSoc Blog we are taking a look at South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots and what makes them special.

Cape Floristic Region Hotspot

Above: Fynbos in the Akkadiesberg above Stanford. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen

The Cape Floristic Region (CFR) is perhaps South Africa’s most famous biodiversity hotspot. It is also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, owing to its extraordinary vascular plant diversity at all taxonomic levels. In recent years the Cape Floristic Region has been expanded to become the Greater Cape Floristic Region, with the previous extent of the CFR now being known as the Core Cape Subregion. The Core Cape Subregion (CCR) is 90 760 km2 in size and has around 9 383 known species of vascular plants. A total of 68% of these species are endemic to the area, therefore meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth.

Above: Watsonia coccinea in bloom in newly burnt fynbos vegetation. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

The CFR comprises a variety of different vegetation types. The most well-known and well-researched of these is fynbos. Fynbos is a Mediterranean type shrubland that is both fire prone and fire dependent. It is dominated by plants from three key plant families: The Proteaceae family, the Restionaceae family and the Ericaceae family. The less well-known renosterveld differs from fynbos by consisting of predominantly Asteraceous shrubs and grasses with an extraordinary diversity of geophytes that produce spectacular flowering displays during spring. On the coastline of the CFR we find strandveld, which has strong floristic links with subtropical thicket vegetation. The CFR also includes small patches of forest growing in sheltered areas with relatively high moisture availability where it is sheltered from fire.

Succulent Karoo Hotspot


Above: Succulent Karoo vegetation, Ou Tiep Farm, between Garies and Soutfontein, Namaqualand. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

The Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot is one of two arid biodiversity hotspots located in predominantly winter rainfall semidesert. Extending northwards into Namibia along the West Coast of South Africa, the Succulent Karoo encompasses the regions of Namaqualand and the Little Karoo, the latter of which lies in a valley between the Swartberg mountains in the north and the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains in the south. The Succulent Karoo is known for being home to the world’s highest diversity of succulent plant species. A total of 40% of the Succulent Karoo’s 6 356 plant species are endemic to the region and found nowhere else on earth. The area is also known for its high reptile and invertebrate diversity.

Above: Pelargonium echinatum. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

The Succulent Karoo ecoregion has highly diverse geology owing to its complex geological and geomorphological history. However, the majority of the vegetation occurs on shale. Members of the Aizoaceae family, more commonly known as ‘vygies’ form a significant component of the flora, with their colourful daisy-like flowers. After flowering they form seed capsules that open upon contact with moisture from rainfall, flinging the seeds away from the parent plant into the veld. Few realise that geophytes also form a significant part of the Succulent Karoo’s flora, comprising 18% of the flora.

Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot

Above: Grassland and forest in the mountains near Barberton on the border with eSwatini. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot is found on the east coast of South Africa below the Great Escarpment. Encompassing three of South Africa’s centres of endemism, it extends northwards from the Eastern Cape, also including the countries of eSwatini and Mozambique. There is considerable climatic variation from subtropical/tropical in parts of the hotspot in the north and nearer to the coast, ranging to more temperate with winter frosts in more inland higher altitude areas. The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot is an important centre of plant diversity for South Africa, being the second richest floristic region in Africa after the Cape Floristic Region. Vegetation types of the area encompass subtropical thicket, which is an endemic vegetation type to the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot, forest and grassland.

Above: The iconic Christmas Bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) Photo: Isobel Johnson.

The area is home to almost 8100 plant species from 243 families in an area approximately the same size of New Zealand, of which nearly a quarter (more than 1900 species) are endemic to the area. There are 39 different genera which are endemic to the area and one endemic plant family, namely the Rhynchocalycaceae, which comprises the single monospecific species Rhynchocalyx lawsonioides which is found in southern KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. It is listed as Near Threatened on the Red List of South African Plants due to firewood harvesting, alien plant invasion and inappropriate fire regimes. Another well-known endemic of the region is the iconic Christmas Bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca), which is now becoming increasingly rare due to habitat degradation, flower picking and forestry.

Further Reading

Bergh, N.G. Verboom, G.A. Rouget, M. Cowling, R.M. (2014) ‘Vegetation types of the Greater Cape Floristic Region’ in Allsop, N. Colville, J.F. Verboom, G.A (Eds) Fynbos: Ecology, Evolution and Conservation of a Megadiverse Region, Oxford University Press, UK.

Manning, J. & Goldblatt, P. (2012) Plants of the Greater Cape Floristic Region: Volume 1: The Core Cape Flora, Strelitzia 29, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.

Mucina, L. Rutherford, M (Eds) (2006) The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, Strelitzia 19, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

The science of names: An introduction to plant taxonomy

Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Corne Brink, Zoë Chapman Poulsen, Christina Curry and Petra Broddle.

A world of plant diversity

Above: Protea cynaroides in flower at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen

From the tiniest moss to the tallest of trees, the world is home to an extraordinary diversity of plants. In fact, there are currently more than 391 000 plant species currently known to science, of which 369 000 are flowering plants. This number only includes the plant species that have been described and assigned a scientific name by researchers. Many more plant species remain undescribed, with more than 2000 new plant species being discovered and described each year. These new species may be found on expeditions high atop remote mountains, or may be right under our noses. In some cases, advances in genetic research reveal that one or many species previously thought to be related to one group of plants may in fact be related to a different group of species.

What is plant taxonomy and how are plants classified?

The art of solving these mysteries of the plant kingdom is known as plant taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is the science of classifying and naming plants. It is a branch of what is known as systematics, which is the science of determining how different biological organisms are related to each other. Taxonomy classifies plants and other organisms into different taxonomic levels. These different levels are as follows:

Kingdom: A taxonomic category of the highest rank. Different organisms are grouped together through the presence of certain common fundamental characteristics. Examples include animals, plants and fungi.

Phylum: A phylum is a taxonomic level that sits below kingdom but above class. There are 12 different recognised plant phyla. The bryophyta include mosses and liverworts, and are characterised by a lack of true roots and stems. Angiosperms meanwhile have flowers, roots and stems, reproducing by means of seeds.

Class/Order: The ‘class’ as a level of taxonomic classification was first introduced by French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in 1684. It sits below phyla and above order. Order comes next below in the taxonomic ranking.

Family: Plants are grouped by taxonomists into families, where plants grouped together have many common characteristics. Plant family names are easily recognised by starting with a capital letter and ending with ‘…ceae’. For example, the plant genera Protea, Leucospermum and Leucadendron form part of the Proteaceae family.

Genus: The genus forms the first part of the binomial scientific name of a plant. It always appears in Italics and should be capitalised. Examples include the genera Gladiolus and Plectranthus.

Species, subspecies and variant: Genera comprise groups of different species that share certain common characteristics and are closely genetically related. A species is an interbreeding group of individuals that are capable of producing fertile offspring that can reproduce themselves. The term ‘subspecies’ and ‘variant’ are used to reflect variation within a species. Plant species/subspecies/variants are assigned binomial scientific names that appear in Italics, first beginning with the genus and then the species, which always appears in lower case, for example, Leucospermum prostratum.

How do taxonomists describe a new plant species?

Above: Specimens collected from the field are pressed and dried in a plant press. Photo: Corne Brink.

First, a sample of material needs to be collected from the plant to allow its main features to be described. This should include representative examples of key identifying features such as the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of the plant. To facilitate preservation of this material once it has been taken from the field it is pressed and dried. Detailed field notes should be taken on features such as flower colour and plant height that may not be preserved during specimen collection. Flowers are often dissected to show key diagnostic features.

Top: Herbarium specimen ready for mounting and accessioning. Photo: Corne Brink. Above: Completed herbarium specimen of Plectranthus esculentus. Photo: Christina Curry.

Pressed specimens are then mounted to form a herbarium specimen. In the case of structurally complex blooms such as orchids, they can be preserved in spirits so that their morphology is not altered by pressing the specimen. A collection of herbarium specimens (mounted pressed plants) is known as a herbarium, which is defined as a systematically arranged collection of dried plants. This collection can be used for identification and other taxonomic research. A herbarium specimen of a new species, once pressed and mounted, can be used to describe it. The first herbarium specimen of a new species to be collected is known as the ‘type specimen’.

So what happens next?

Above: Mounted and labelled herbarium specimen from the Southern Cape Herbarium. Photo: Corne Brink.

One may be forgiven for thinking that once a new species has been described and assigned to a family, genus and species, that the taxonomists’ work is done. This is far from the case. The technology at our fingertips for taxonomic research is constantly evolving, allowing new insights with innovation in technologies such as genetic fingerprinting.

Citizen science programmes such as our partners at the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) get more people into the field, generating new information about our plants including where they grow and how they vary across their range. This information from the field then feeds into the work of taxonomists, who then need to revisit the classification of certain plant species and genera, before updating the work in light of this new information. This process is known as a taxonomic revision. Some species may be moved into other genera, or a genus may be split into several new genera depending on new research findings.

Why is plant taxonomy so important for conservation?

Above: Pressing specimens collected from the field during a CREW trip. Photo: Petra Broddle.

The fields of plant taxonomy and conservation are intrinsically linked, with one informing the other. It is of particular importance in a megadiverse country such as South Africa that we know who our species are and in what ecosystems and vegetation types they grow. When there are so many species and ecosystems in one country and limited resources for conservation, we need to direct our resources strategically to where they are most needed. This is done through innovative conservation planning at a regional, provincial and national level. This planning then translates into implementation through direct conservation action on the ground through processes such as biodiversity monitoring, stewardship or extension work.

Correct and up to date botanical nomenclature also feeds into other important conservation resources such as the Red List of South African Plants. This searchable online database is open access and includes assessments of threat status for all of South Africa’s known flora. It is used to inform the work of many different biodiversity professionals across the sector. The Red List of South African Plants is also regularly updated to reflect changes in our knowledge brought about by ongoing collection of biodiversity data.

The Botanical Society strongly values the ongoing innovative work of our partners, including the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and other taxonomic researchers nationally and worldwide in informing South Africa’s conservation planning and action. The science of plant taxonomy becomes increasingly important in a world where our ecosystems face a plethora of different threats. We will continue to work alongside our partners in strategic conservation planning, driving conservation action across South Africa.

Further Reading

Botts, E.A. Skowno, A. Driver, A. Holness, S. Maze, K. Smith, T. Daniels, F. Desmet, P. Sink, K. Botha, M. Nel, J. Manuel, J. (2020) ‘More than just a (red) list: Over a decade of using South Africa’s ecosystems in policy and practice’, Biological Conservation (Volume 246): pp. 1-8.

Victor, J.E. Koekemoer, M. Fish, I. Smithies, S.J. Mossmer, M. (2004) Herbarium essentials: The southern African herbarium user manual, Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 25, SABONET, Pretoria, South Africa.

Making space for nature: How to create a bird-friendly garden

Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Ernest Porter, Adrian Hunter & Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

Living in a concrete jungle

Above: Common Waxbill. Photo: Adrian Hunter.

As we strive to house and feed a growing population, our worlds are becoming ever more built up. More people are becoming city dwellers in the concrete jungle, as urban development and habitat transformation for agriculture squeezes natural habitats for wildlife into ever more confined areas.

People are increasingly becoming more distanced from nature with often little awareness of the urban biodiversity that lives on their doorsteps. As we encroach upon ecosystems, it is important to make space for nature. Whether you live in a small town or a big city, with a tiny yard or a large garden, it is possible to garden to create a habitat for wildlife. No space to garden at home? Why not consider creating a garden in your local area, school or other community space? In this blog we take a closer look at gardening for birds.

Above: Bokmakierie. Photo by Adrian Hunter.

Why create a bird-friendly garden?

Wildlife friendly gardens can be thriving ecosystems, allowing pollinating insects, birds and other wildlife to coexist alongside people. They act as corridors through built up areas allowing wildlife to survive and move through towns and cities. A bird-friendly garden can provide the food, shelter and nesting sites needed for many different bird species to survive and thrive on your doorstep. It will attract many birds you may not otherwise see, providing opportunities for observation, conservation as well as education.

Above: Cape White Eye visiting Aloe flowers. Photo: Ernest Porter.

Southern Africa is home to more than 900 bird species including migratory species, so gardens in different parts of the country will receive different avian visitors. Bird watching in your garden also is a wonderful way of introducing children to nature, especially during this time that we are spending more time at home.

The importance of growing indigenous

Above: Malachite Kingfisher. Photo: Ernest Porter.

The most important factor in creating a bird-friendly garden is planting locally indigenous plants that are adapted to the climate and vegetation of the part of South Africa in which you live. With an indigenous flora of more than 20 000 plant species, comprising more than 10% of the world’s plants, you are certain to find plants to enjoy in your garden that grow well in your area.

Local wildlife are best adapted to live alongside locally indigenous plants, from the smallest insect pollinators to birds and mammals. Gardening with locally indigenous plants saves water too, as many are adapted to survive with minimal or no additional irrigation during dry times of the year.

Plants for a bird-friendly garden

Above: Leonotis leonurus ‘Lions Mane’ in flower at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

Aloes are perhaps one of the most rewarding plants to grow for the bird gardener, with their architectural foliage creating year-round interest and their spectacular flowers providing abundant nectar which will attract visitors such as sunbirds, orioles, bulbuls, weaver birds and many others. During the short days of winter they provide rich and warm colour in the indigenous garden. They come in many different shapes and sizes depending on the amount of space you may have available. Another favourite for nectivorous birds is Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga). It has numerous upright stems producing masses of orange or white blooms lasting for several months.

Above: White-Bellied Sunbird. Photo: Adrian Hunter.

If you have a larger space then consider making space for shrubs, a tree or trees in your gardens. Those best for birds offer up flowers and/or berries for food and suitable nesting sites too. When choosing trees and shrubs for your garden, it is important to consider the eventual height and width they will grow, as well as planting with sufficient distance from buildings and walls.

White-fronted Bee-eater. Photo: Adrian Hunter.

An easily cultivated favourite that can be grown across South Africa is Halleria lucida (Tree Fuchsia). Growing 2-5m tall, it has an attractive arching habit, producing a profusion of orange, yellow or white flowers from the trunk or branches that are visited by white eyes and sunbirds. These are followed by small berries which are also popular with frugivorous birds.

Top: Halleria lucida. Above: Tarchonanthus littoralis. Photos: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.

For those gardening on the coast, Tarchonanthus littoralis (Camphor tree) makes an excellent screen and windbreak. Its fluffy seedheads are very popular with birds for nesting material. For bigger gardens the Cape Ash (Ekebergia capensis) provides large pink berries that are much enjoyed by mousebirds, barbets, hornbills, turacos and other species. It is naturally distributed from the Eastern Cape northwards into the Lowveld and Zimbabwe but is successfully cultivated in many other parts of the country too.

Providing water and nesting sites for garden birds

Above: Grey go-away bird. Photo: Adrian Hunter.

Providing water for drinking and bathing is one of the most important things you can do for garden birds, especially in drier parts of the country. The container used can be anything, an old pet bowl, dustbin lid or similar works just as well as a purpose-built bird bath. Ensure that it is positioned in a relatively open area with cover in easy reach and away from predators such as cats.

Above: African Paradise Flycatcher feeding young. Photo: Ernest Porter.

In the longer term, one can consider providing bird boxes for nesting. Spotted eagle owls often make their homes in suburban areas and will consider moving into a suitably sited nest box of sufficient size.

Enjoy your garden

Above: Amethyst Sunbird visiting Aloe blooms. Photo: Ernest Porter.

It is extraordinary the rate at which wildlife discovers and moves into a garden with indigenous plants, from pollinating carpenter bees to nectivorous birds. Make time to spend outside and to document the rich variety of different wildlife that may come and visit. The community biodiversity sharing app iNaturalist is a perfect way to document nature in your outdoor space as your garden grows. It is great for beginners and experts alike. We wish you happy gardening.

Further Reading

Buchart, D. (2017) Garden birds in southern Africa, Struik Nature, South Africa.

Ericas of the Southern Cape

Written and photographed by Jenny Potgieter.

This week on the BotSoc Blog we are taking a closer look at the extraordinary world of Ericas, the most species diverse plant genus in the Cape Floristic Region. Jenny Potgieter from the Outramps Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) group has chosen a selection of three Southern Cape long tubed Erica species to introduce you to for the BotSoc Blog, illustrated by her beautiful photographs from the field. She also tells us about her involvement in the Outramps CREW and how she first became interested in Ericas.

I moved to George 24 years ago and joined the Outramps hiking group, knowing very little about the plants, soon after. This group was started and run by Di Turner from whom I took over at the beginning of the year. The group was involved in the Protea Atlas project for 10 years and when this came to an end I started taking an interest in the Ericas as they had always fascinated me.

We then joined CREW and within the group we each took on a family and mine of course was Ericas of the Southern Cape. This became my passion and with the aid of my microscope and help from Connie Smuts who drew up an Erica key and Ted Oliver, I managed to learn to identify most of our local Ericas. We use iNaturalist extensively, which has proved to be a very useful tool.

Erica unicolor subsp. georgensis

One of our favourites as it is red listed as Rare and occurs only in the Outeniqua mountains above George, where it grows prolifically. It can easily be confused with E discolor but this one has leaves and flowers in bunches of 4(4 nate) and E. discolor is 3 nate .It is striking when in full flower. The name is a bit confusing as it is bicoloured.

Erica densifolia

This delightful finely hairy, sticky, pink, long-tubed Erica is a sight to behold in March and April. It occurs in large patches in protected area like Tierkop above the  Saasveld Campus. It has leaves in dense tufts, hence its name. The white one is an unusual variant.

Erica glandulosa subsp. fourcadei


This is a salmon pink ,long-tubed Erica with conspicuous red veins on the corolla. The yellow-green version is rarely seen these days due to urban expansion. There are long gland tipped hairs present all over the plant except for the corolla. This subsp. occurs near the coast and is red listed as Vulnerable.

Jenny Potgieter

Outramps CREW group


Diversity unparalleled: An introduction to Ericas

Written and photographed by Zoë Chapman Poulsen

Meet the Ericas

The fynbos of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region (CFR) is typified by three plant families: The Proteaceae, Restionaceae and Ericaceae. Of these three, it is the Ericas that are going to form the focus of today’s blog. Members of the genus Erica are known from all over the world, from the high moorlands of England to Madagascar.

Top: Erica grisbrookii in bloom, Napier Mountain Conservancy, Overberg. Above: Erica longiaristata in flower, Fernkloof Nature Reserve.

There are more than 800 species of Erica with names currently accepted by taxonomists worldwide, but the CFR is a centre of unparalleled diversity for the genus. In fact, the genus Erica is known to be the most species diverse genus in the Cape Floristic Region with almost 700 known species. When not in bloom they may be almost impossible to differentiate and look relatively unassuming, but South Africa’s Ericas come in a plethora of different flower sizes, shapes and colours.

Above: Erica quadrisulcata in bloom at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.

Even the most experienced of botanists find some Ericas a challenge to identify. Some species even have different flower colours in different parts of their geographic range and flower at different times of the year. This is thought to be to spread the competition for pollinators. A key example of this is Erica viscaria, more commonly known as the ‘Sticky Heath’. Distributed between Mamre, Paarl and Bredasdorp, its flowering season varies and its four different subspecies come in red, green, white, pink or even bicoloured. Identifying plants rarely gets so confusing, with the Ericas keeping the plant community on their toes at many a time. In many cases excellent eyesight and a good hand lens are crucial tools of the trade when attempting to tell these beautiful and varied blooms apart.

Top: Erica viscaria subsp. macrosepala in bloom at Fernkloof Nature Reserve. Above: Erica viscaria subsp. longifolia flowering along the Sphinx Trail in the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve.

Some Ericas are found over a wide range across South Africa, while others are extremely rare with limited distribution within highly specialist habitat niches. The distinctive Erica cerinthoides is an example of the former. It is found from the Cederberg mountains southwards to the Cape Peninsula, eastwards through the Eastern Cape, Drakensberg and northwards into Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Above: Erica cerinthoides in flower at Fernkloof Nature Reserve.

Erica cerinthoides is highly varied in form throughout its range, with even a white flowered variety being record from Mpumalanga and eSwatini. At the opposite end of the scale is Erica recurvata, once known only from a botanical illustration. This critically endangered species was however rediscovered in 2007 in the southern Overberg by botanist Ross Turner. It grows like bonsai trees in cracks in rocky outcrops, where the plants are protected from fire.

Above: Erica recurvata in bloom in habitat in the southern Overberg.

How did the Ericas become so diverse?

The question of how the Cape Floristic Region has become a centre of such extraordinary diversity for Ericas has puzzled many a botanist down the years. Taxonomic work is ongoing to try and better understand this process of speciation, as well as unpacking the mysteries around who is related to whom, and where the boundaries between species and subspecies lie. The Cape is home to nearly 90% of the world’s Erica species so there is much work to be done.

Top: Erica perspicua in bloom at Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens. Above: Erica patersoniae in flower in habitat near Betty’s Bay, Overberg.

Research by Pirie et al. (2016) on the radiation of Erica species in the CFR has revealed that this diversification is a relatively recent event, taking place around 15 million years ago. Evolution from ancient lineages of Erica from the Palaearctic led to accelerated speciation across continental Africa and Madagascar, with a further burst of speciation in the CFR relatively recently. It is also thought that this higher diversity of Ericaceae at the Cape is due to reduced rates of extinction.

The CFR that we know today has its origins in the Miocene, when worldwide climatic cooling led to increased aridity. The establishment of the cold Benguela Current off the South African coastline led to the development of a winter rainfall climatic regime associated with frequent fires. The evolution of the typically small and fine leaves of Ericas and their reseeding and resprouting adaptive traits for fire survival are attributed to these palaeoclimatic changes.

Top: Erica haematocodon in flower at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Above: Erica regia in bloom at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.

Movement of tectonic plates led to uplift, forming the spectacular mountain ranges that characterise the Cape, leading to the creation of a range of different habitat niches. Like with many other montane ecosystems in other parts of the world, these habitat niches occur at different altitudes, different rainfall patterns and differing geology and soils. In addition, many different Ericas have adapted to different pollinators. All these interacting factors have brought about the extraordinary Erica diversity that we see today.

How are Ericas pollinated?

Above: Orange Breasted Sunbird pollinating Erica coccinea on Table Mountain, Cape Peninsula.

The extraordinary diversity of different Erica blooms are adapted to a variety of different specialist pollinators. Those Erica with relatively dull coloured blooms are wind pollinated, with no need to lure their pollinator into visiting them. The bright and gaudy flowers of Erica coccinea and Erica verticillata and others are pollinated by birds, with 15% of Ericas being bird pollinated. As many as 72% of Ericas are pollinated by insects, including bees, long-tongued flies and many others. Few realise that rodents also play a part in pollination of 1% of Ericas.

Going, Going, Gone: Which Ericas are the most threatened?

Like many other plants in South Africa, a considerable number of Ericas are of conservation concern and facing a variety of different threats. Some have experienced considerable habitat loss across their range with some already lost forever. Three Erica species/subspecies are now extinct, known only from botanical illustrations. One of these is Erica pyramidalis subsp. pyramidalis. It was once common on the western side of the Cape Flats from Muizenberg to the Black River in wetlands in Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. Sadly, it became extinct in around 1907 as a result of cut flower harvesting, wetland drainage and expanding urban development with no survivors remaining in cultivation.

Above: Illustration of Erica pyramidalis subsp. pyramidalis from Andrew’s Heathery.

Three other Erica species from the Cape lowlands also teeter at the brink of extinction, being classified as extinct in the wild. They survive in cultivation, with efforts ongoing to reintroduce these species to conservation areas within their former ranges. Perhaps the most famous of these is Erica verticillata, also known as the whorled heath. It was thought to have become extinct due to habitat loss and cut flower harvesting, until it was rediscovered in 1989 in a park in Pretoria. A selection of other clones have also been located in other botanical gardens around the world, being brought back to South Africa for cultivation for various reintroduction programmes.

Above: Erica verticillata in bloom at Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens.

Another lesser known example is Erica bolusii var. cyathiformis. This species used to occur in seepages on sandy flats in the Kraaifontein area. It is also extinct in the wild with all of its former habitat lost as a result of urbanisation and transformation of habitat for agriculture. Today this Erica survives in cultivation only at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens where it can be seen growing in the Garden of Extinction.

Further Reading

Bellstedt, D.U. Coetzee, A. Hitchcock, A. Kanziora, M. Musker, S. Van Der Niet, T. Nurk, N.M. Pirie, M.D. (2020) ‘Small differences, big secrets’, Veld & Flora, Issue 106, March 2020.

Pirie, M.D. Oliver, E.G.H. de Kupler, M. Gehrke, B. Le Maitre, N.C. Kandziroa, M. Bellstedt, D.U. (2016) ‘The biodiversity hotspot as evolutionary hotbed: Spectacular radiation of Erica in the Cape Floristic Region’, BMC Evolutionary Biology (Volume 16): pp. 1-11.

Schumann, D. Kirsten, G. Oliver, E.G.H.(1992) Ericas of South Africa, Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, South Africa.

#ForNature: An Introduction to the National Biodiversity Assessment

Written by Rupert Koopman. Photos by Rupert Koopman, Donovan Kirkwood and Zoë Poulsen

 “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum, former Senegalese forestry engineer, as part of a paper presented at the 1968 General Assembly of the international Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This week we celebrate the launch of World Environment Month, with World Environment Day on 5 June. Hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Environment Day prominently promotes environmental action, with concurrent activities to celebrate this globally. Quite aptly, this year’s theme “time for nature” reminds us that “to care for ourselves we must care for nature” which is heartening in the midst of a global pandemic that has given us all the opportunity and time for reflection.

Above: Kruger National Park. Photo: Donovan Kirkwood.

South Africa is fortunate to have a multitude of excellent biodiversity resources which enable us to “love what we understand”. One of our key guides is the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), which is compiled by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). This resource comprises a technical synthesis document and seven additional technical reports, with associated datasets and biodiversity maps. The latest edition of the NBA was launched in October 2019 and has had copious amounts of media coverage, notably the article entitled “Stocktaking SA’s national treasures” on page 34 – 37 in the March 2020 issue of Veld and Flora.

Above: Forest and grasslands in Royal Natal National Park, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Zoë Poulsen.

In the nature appreciation landscape, where the Botanical Society works, a constant challenge is quantifying what we aim to achieve. This includes aligning our own “know, grow, protect and enjoy South Africa’s indigenous flora” with the best available scientific information. The format of the NBA groups the results into three key themes, namely:

  1. South Africa’s biodiversity provides benefits to people;
  2. South Africa’s biodiversity is under pressure but solutions are at hand; and
  3. The NBA stimulates work to address knowledge gaps.

Above: Hemel en Aarde Valley, Overberg. Photo: Rupert Koopman.

An appreciated attribute of the NBA products is that the team wants the information to be  accessible to a broad audience. Of particular interest is the Facts, Findings and Messages document, a punchy 7-page read which points out our unique biodiversity features, ecosystem threat status, ecosystem services, a summary of key NBA messages as well as identifying necessary actions.

This gives us a solid knowledge base to build our biodiversity plans and conversations on, being a synthesis of existing information collected by a range of more than 90 institutions. It also presents new and refined techniques to measure both the status quo and progress of how nature is doing in South Africa.

In fact, the NBA team are aware of their position as a part of a greater picture in the South African biodiversity knowledge space. SANBI’s Dr Andrew Skowno (Lead Scientist: NBA) said “The NBA would not be possible if it were not for the established and vibrant conservation practice in South Africa. This community has a track record of world-class systemic bio-regional planning which allows us to make sure that we aim limited resources to where they would have the most impact”.

This collaborative ethic means that the NBA feeds into similar work at provincial level such as Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency’s Insights into Biodiversity Conservation within Mpumalanga and CapeNature’s Western Cape State of Biodiversity report as methods across the country are increasingly developed and standardised. This provincial level reporting in turn is used in developing future editions of the NBA.

Above: Berg River in flood, Western Cape. Photo: Rupert Koopman.

Conservation work at the Botanical Society will be drawing direction from the NBA, National Plant Conservation Strategy, provincial plans and other sources in order to make sure that our efforts are always relevant and strategic.

Sustained progress in the biodiversity field can be measured by the improved resolution of biodiversity mapping. In the year 2000, cutting edge conservation planning products had identified irreplaceable biodiversity features at a quarter degree square level (approximately 27 km long and 23 km wide) and currently priority areas are mapped at a scale of 1:10 000 (one cm on the map represents 100 m on the ground). This allows biodiversity maps to be used for land use planning and decision making and better yet, they are available for the interested public for education.

Stewardship and Grasslands: An interview with Isabel Johnson

South Africa’s grasslands covers one third of the country, and are home to an extraordinary range of biodiversity. With more than twenty years of involvement in various aspects of plant conservation, Isabel Johnson is in charge of the Botanical Society’s grassland biodiversity stewardship in KwaZulu-Natal. Isabel Johnson was interviewed by Zoë Poulsen. All photos by Isabel Johnson.

Above: Asclepias concinna, a Critically endangered endemic of the KwaZulu Natal mistbelt grasslands. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What is your background?

I did a degree in Botany, followed by a Masters studying estuarine phytoplankton in the St Lucia estuary. While living on a farm in the KZN midlands I began working on grassland rehabilitation, and then began working with threatened plants when I joined SANBI as a horticulturist. During this time I started the KZN CREW with the Threatened Species Programme in 2007, and then moved on from monitoring threatened plants to protecting them by implementing biodiversity stewardship in KZN for the Botanical Society through a CEPF (Critical Ecosystem’s Partnership Fund).

I am also currently involved in pollination biology research with Steve Johnson’s UKZN Pollination Lab.

Top: Dierama luteoalbidum, a Vulnerable endemic of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s grasslands. Above: Satyrium rhodanthum, an Endangered Kwa-Zulu-Natal grassland orchid pollinated by sunbirds. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How did you first become interested in plants?

From an early age as my mother was a very keen gardener. I became passionate about grasslands about 20 years ago and still am.

What is your favourite plant and why?

This is a really difficult question to answer as I have so many that I don’t know where to start. But I have to choose the Hilton daisy (Gerbera aurantiaca), a very charismatic flagship species of our mist belt grasslands, but I also have a great fondness for the milkweeds (asclepiads).

Above: Commercial afforestation in KwaZulu-Natal mistbelt grasslands. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What do you most enjoy about your work as a conservationist?

The satisfaction that an area formally declared as a nature reserve is relatively safe given the constant decline of our grasslands and seeing a land custodian realise that they have special plants on their property and then take pride in them is incredibly rewarding. I also enjoyed mentoring field rangers in botanical skills at a community owned stewardship site.

Above: Field rangers botanising with Pooley’s field guides donated by BotSoc at Umgano. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

Why are South Africa’s grasslands important?

Grasslands cover a third of our country’s surface across the Eastern Cape, KZN and the central plateau. They are hugely important for our food security as a food source for domestic and wild herbivores, but also supply critical ecosystem services, such as water supply and flow regulation, carbon storage, erosion control, climate mitigation, pollination, and cultural services such as traditional medicinal and symbolic plants and building materials and eco-tourism.

Above: Gerbera aurantiaca, a charismatic Endangered mistbelt grassland species. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How do grassland ecosystems vary across South Africa?

Grasslands vary widely depending on factors like elevation, temperature geology and rainfall. The grassland biome is divided into four main types Drakensberg Grassland, Dry Highveld grassland, Mesic (moist) Highveld grassland, and the Sub-escarpment grassland.

There are also important patches of grassland that form a mosaic within other vegetation types such as the Indian Ocean coastal belt.

Above: Drakensberg foothill grassland. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How are grassland ecosystems important in mitigating climate change?

Grasslands are vitally important as a carbon sink to mitigate increases in atmospheric CO2. With up to 90% of grassland biomass below ground, soil carbon levels are high in grasslands compared with other ecosystems.

Above: Asclepias woodii, a Near Threatened endemic in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What threats are facing South Africa’s grasslands?

We have over 350 000km2 of grasslands of which approximately 40% has been modified and less than 3% is under formal conservation. Importantly, there are over 540 threatened plant taxa in our grasslands. Our grasslands face a multitude of threats from modification (transformation for agriculture, commercial forestry and urban and industrial development), fragmentation, inappropriate grazing and fire regimes (too frequent or infrequent), erosion, alien and indigenous plant infestation and climate change.

Above: Grassland field surveys at Babanango. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What conservation action is taking place to protect South Africa’s grasslands?

Currently the most important movement for increasing the formally protected areas of grassland is the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme (BDS) which also plays a critical role in ensuring good post-proclamation management practices by ongoing regular interactions with the custodians of these areas.

The conservation authorities play a role here particularly in protested areas like the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park and acting as watchdogs to prevent development in sensitive grassland areas.

The Department of Agriculture is also vitally important in ensuring grassland sustainability by encouraging appropriate management in terms of grazing and burning practices.

Above: The iconic Sandersonia aurantiaca or Christmas Bells. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How can we improve ecosystem resilience in grasslands?

Anything which causes a loss of species diversity will affect the potential ability of grasslands to recover from accelerated climate events such as drought. Therefore improving management, especially of grazing, burning, erosion control and removal of invasive aliens is critical to maintaining grassland health.

Above: Hilton Daisies (Gerbera aurantiaca) in mistbelt grassland, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What is stewardship?

Biodiversity stewardship is an approach to entering into agreements with private and communal landowners to protect and manage land in biodiversity priority areas, led by conservation authorities in South Africa. It recognises landowners as the custodians of biodiversity on their land.

Above: Identifying grassland plants at Umgano. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How can stewardship help conserve South Africa’s grasslands?

By implementing the protection of grasslands through formal legal proclamation, by educating grassland custodians on their importance, and by providing regular adaptive management advice on grazing, burning and invasive plant control.

As well as the conservation authorities, NGOs such as the Botanical Society, WWF, EWT, Birdlife and others currently play a key role in BDS. The KZN BDS programme works closely with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource section to provide ongoing management advice for with grassland sustainability.

Above: Monkey beetles on Afroaster hispida in a KwaZulu Natal grassland. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

How is BotSoc involved in grassland conservation?

The Botanical Society is actively involved in grassland conservation through the Biodiversity Stewardship programme. It focuses specifically on the conservation of botanically important sites with high levels of threatened and endemic plant diversity, as well as endangered vegetation types such as Sandstone Sourveld and mist belt grasslands and has so far successfully proclaimed three nature reserves in KZN and is currently involved with a number of other sites under negotiation. BotSoc also provides valuable botanical input to the KZN BDS programme, assisting with the assessment of potential sites and, together with CREW, providing input on threatened plants.

Over the last several years BotSoc has been monitoring the relationship of grassland plant diversity to veld condition at a number of KZN BDS sites to investigate which grazing and burning regimes are most conducive to maintaining high forb diversity. Stewardship sites give us a unique opportunity for this since we know what management practices are being implemented.

The severe impact of both alien and indigenous problem plants in grasslands and in some of our BDS sites is a huge concern and we are involved in a research project with DARD on the control of Curry’s Post weed (Phymaspermum acerosum) at one of the BotSoc stewardship sites.

Above: Sub escarpment grassland with forest patches and Protea woodland. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

What does the future hold for your stewardship work in KZN’s grasslands?

BotSoc are planning to increase the number of stewardship protected sites in botanically important areas, including grasslands, and to increase our grassland conservation initiative by mentoring potential stewardship implementers. We also have some exciting grassland conservation research projects on the cards!

The Humble Spekboom: Climate Change Saviour or Overrated Fad?

Written by Zoe Poulsen. Photos by Mike Powell and Zoe Poulsen.

Today we are celebrating the International Day of Biological Diversity, as proclaimed by the United Nations. This day aims to raise awareness of the world’s biodiversity and environmental issues. It was first created by the Second Committee of the United Nations General Assembly in late 1993 when the Convention on Biological Diversity first came into effect. This year for the first time the celebration of the International Day of Biological Diversity will be taking place primarily online, with this year’s theme being ‘Our solutions are in nature’. More information about the day can be found here: https://www.cbd.int/idb/2020

The slogan ‘our solutions are in nature’ speaks to the fact that the COVID 19 crisis has called upon people to re-evaluate our relationship with nature, with the acknowledgement that we are completely dependent on healthy ecosystems for our wellbeing. It emphasises the importance of hope, solidarity and working together to build a life that it in harmony with the natural world. In this blog we are going to take a closer look at the spekboom, a South African shrub that has very much been in the spotlight this year.

This rather unassuming South African shrub has hit the news of late. The spekboom bandwagon has rolled into town and everyone is climbing on board, from travel magazines to municipalities, homeowners to game reserves. This shrub is appearing in almost every suburban garden, often jostling for position in the driveway with multiple 4x4s. So what is all the fuss about? Can one shrub save the world? Or is the spekboom trend all a lot of hot air?

So what is spekboom? Let’s take a closer look. Also known as Porkbush, the scientific name of the spekboom is Portulacaria afra. It is an evergreen succulent shrub or small tree that in the wild grows on rocky slopes in bushveld, thicket and Karoo scrub from the Eastern Cape northwards into Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, as well as being found in eSwatini and Mozambique. It is a highly favoured food for game including elephants and domestic livestock. It is edible to humans too, packed with Vitamin C and with a relatively tart flavour. Spekboom can be used in salads, preserves and chutneys and as an ingredient in traditional South African tomato bredie.

As the scale of the climate change crisis has hit home, the world has been looking for solutions. Research has shown that spekboom, as part of its indigenous ecosystems and in the climate to which it is adapted, is a superbly adapted indigenous species that is highly effective at sequestering carbon. When conditions are favourable, spekboom undertakes C3 photosynthesis. During drought conditions it switches to CAM photosynthesis (Crassulean Acid Metabolism), where the plant closes it pores (stoma) during the day to save loss of water.

As the scale of the climate change crisis has hit home, the world has been looking for solutions. Research has shown that spekboom, as part of its indigenous ecosystems and in the climate to which it is adapted, is highly effective at sequestering carbon. When conditions are favourable, spekboom undertakes C3 photosynthesis. During drought conditions it switches to CAM photosynthesis (Crassulean Acid Metabolism), where the plant closes it pores (stoma) during the day to save loss of water.

Despite this, the plant is still able to photosynthesise. This is made possible through the acid that has accumulated during the night which is stored as carbon dioxide. Through these processes spekboom is highly effective at capturing carbon. Spekboom is also highly drought tolerant and easy to propagate, rooting with little effort from cuttings. It has thus been cited by researchers as an important plant for use in carbon sequestering thicket restoration within its natural range.

We spoke to Mike Powell from the Rhodes Restoration Research Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Rhodes University and he had the following to say:

“Spekboom (aka Portulacaria afra) is indeed a wonder plant, an ecosystem engineer and a significant part of the ecology of the Albany Thicket Biome. It has a pivotal role to play in the carbon sequestration strategies and restoration plans for the semi-arid and xeric thickets in the Eastern Cape and eastern parts of the Western Cape (NB – where thicket used to occur and has been lost due to poor management). Unfortunately the popularisation of spekboom as a symbol of carbon capture in South Africa has led to the false belief that planting this lovely species in your garden or in urban areas will make a significant difference towards mitigation of climate change. This is pure tokenism. Planting the species in natural areas (e.g fynbos) where it never occurred before or planting it in super saturated densities in thicket is a mild form of ecological terrorism..”.

Fast forward in time and much of the popular media have jumped into publicising the story of the spekboom, without letting the facts get in the way of a good story. This shrub has captured the imagination of South Africans, with promises that this ‘wonder plant’ will help save the earth from the climate change crisis. Many false and over-exaggerated claims about spekboom are flying around and being reproduced without fact checks, confusing the green and eco-minded public even further. It has been widely publicised that spekboom is a ‘wonder plant’ because it absorbs carbon dioxide and uses it to produce plant tissue. In fact, this is something that almost all plants on earth do.

Spekboom is making its way en masse into domestic gardens across the country, and even into nature reserves outside its natural range thanks to well-meaning people thinking they are ‘doing the right thing’. This has been further fuelled in 2020 as a result of the launch of the Spekboom Challenge. This social media movement has called upon people to plant ten or more spekboom in 2020 and post to social media about their efforts under the hashtag #SpekboomChallenge. Many organisations and individuals have joined in, thinking they are contributing to addressing the climate crisis.

The reality is that spekboom is not the ‘silver bullet’ it is purported to be for fighting against climate change, particularly when it is planted outside of its natural range. Also it contributes little for wildlife as a part of the indigenous garden when grown outside its natural range due to its intermittent flowering providing little for pollinators. If we really want to save the world from the climate crisis then we need to face some uncomfortable truths: We need to cut back on emissions and conserve those of our natural ecosystems that remain to  best ensure their resilience and survival. Even grasslands have been shown to be highly effective carbon sinks. There are no shortcuts or easy fixes here.

We instead encourage you to garden your outdoor space with locally indigenous plants: Many of these are most effective carbon sinks when grown within their natural range. Within urban areas indigenous gardens provide an oasis for wildlife, supporting pollinators such as insects and birds. As diverse a range of plant species as possible offers interest from flowers and foliage throughout the year, providing blooms during differing flowering seasons to the benefit of people and wildlife.

We would like to wish you happy gardening!

Endangered Species Day: Threatened Plants of South Africa

Written by Zoë C Poulsen. Photos by Tony Dold, Nick Helme and Ernst Van Jaarsveld.

Today we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Endangered Species Day, a day dedicated to people of all ages learning about endangered species and how they can be protected. Due to the COVID 19 crisis, his year’s celebration will be taking place predominantly through online education and activities and digital actions. This year we will be celebrating this important anniversary for Endangered Species Day by introducing you to some of South Africa’s lesser known threatened plants from across the country.

So what is a threatened species? How does a species become threatened with extinction? South Africa is currently home to around 20 000 known species of plants, constituting around 10% of all plant species found on Earth. Sadly nearly a quarter of South Africa’s flora is classed as threatened with extinction or of conservation concern. This means that it has been shown to be subject to one or several different threats that reduce numbers of that plant in its habitat or are contributing to habitat loss.

Many of South Africa’s threatened plants are ephemeral, thus meaning that they germinate, grow, flower and set seed within a growing season of just a few months when weather conditions permit. Some other threatened plants are only seen in their habitats during a specific successional period (for example in the first year after a fire). This makes them challenging to find and to properly quantify how many still survive.

A further complicating factor is that there are many more interesting and threatened plant species living in plain sight that have not yet been formally described as accepted species by plant taxonomists. In addition, there are many South African plant genera that still require taxonomic revision. At least 15% of South Africa’s plant genera are in urgent need of taxonomic revision (Victor et al. 2013; Victor et al. 2015). Taxonomic revision occurs when scientists reassess the scientific names of a particular group of plants, as new technologies and more detailed datasets allow us to more accurately differentiate between species. Additional resources are needed to support this work.

Plants may be threatened because of illegal collection for medicine or the horticultural trade; it might be as a result of changing climate or fire frequency within the habitat that the species grows. Species may disappear as they lose their habitat, either from colonisation by alien invasive plants, habitat clearance for agriculture or urbanisation to feed and house a growing population. More information about the threat status of South Africa’s flora can be found here:  http://redlist.sanbi.org/stats.php

Aspalathus recurvispina

This beautiful shrub is a member of the Fabaceae or pea family and is in the same genus as rooibos. Aspalathus recurvispina is historically known from six localities around Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, but all of these have been lost to urban development of the suburbs around Port Elizabeth. Concerns were raised that this species had become extinct, but a new subpopulation of around 200 plants was found in a 1.5 Ha fragment of natural vegetation in the area.

This population is however, likely to continue to decline due to habitat invasion from invasive alien plants as well as habitat degradation. Since this initial rediscovery, Eastern Cape CREW have located two additional new subpopulations, but these also remain highly threatened and so monitoring is ongoing. Aspalathus recurvispina is therefore listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants.

Top: Aspalathus recurvispina. Above: Aspalathus recurvispina close up showing recurved spine tip. Photos: Tony Dold.

Freylinia visseri

Above: Freylinia visseri in bloom. Photo: Ernst Van Jaarsveld.

The beautiful dark purple tubular sunbird-pollinated flowers of Freylinia visseri are hard to miss. Sadly this species is teetering at the brink of extinction. It is also known as the Velddrif Bell Bush or Velddrif Klokkiesbos in Afrikaans. Flowering takes place from September to November. Freylinia visseri is historically known from just two sites.

One of these known subpopulations has been lost due to habitat transformation for wheat cultivation, and the other site has been ploughed up for rooibos tea cultivation. However, a few plants still survive at the latter site and proposals have been made by new landowners to fence off the remaining plants to help them survive. There are also stewardship efforts taking place within the broader river catchment area in the region.

Various efforts have been made to conserve this species ex situ in cultivation, with material being collected in 1954 by Mr Floors Visser who saved four plants from the farm Hermanauskraal. In 1992 members of the Botanical Society’s search and rescue team planted 20 plants of this imperilled species back into the veld at its original site. Freylinia visseri is listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants.

Above: Freylinia visseri (Velddrif Bellbush) survives at the brink of extinction in its last remaining habitat, following ploughing for rooibos tea cultivation. Photo: Nick Helme.  https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/15382267

Lachenalia convallariodes

The delicate white blooms of Lachenalia convallarioides are also close to becoming lost from the landscape forever, with this species also being Critically Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants. It is known only from one site in the Makhanda area (formerly known as Grahamstown).

Lachenalia convallaroides grows in relatively specialist habitat in Suurberg Quartzite Fynbos on south-facing rocky quartzite outcrops from 17-1800m asl. The fifty or so plants that still survive are further threatened by alien plant invasion of the site. The site is managed by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) and monitoring by Eastern Cape CREW is ongoing.

Above: Lachenalia convallarioides in habitat near Makhanda. Photo: Tony Dold.

South Africa’s threatened plants need our help. The Botanical Society will be putting special emphasis on prioritising that our work, as well as partnerships help conserve our imperilled flora, by being a strategic force driving innovation around the conservation of threatened species and habitats.

Further Reading

Victor, J.E. Hamer, M. Smith, G.F. (2013) A biosystematics research strategy for the algae, animals, bacteria and archaea, fungi and plants of South Africa 2013-2018, SANBI Biodiversity Series 23, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

Victor, J. Smith, G.F. Van Wyk, A.E. (2015) Strategy for Plant Taxonomic Research in South Africa 2015-2020, SANBI Biodiversity Series 26, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

Interview with Elise Buitendag, author of ‘Genesis of a Garden’

Last week we launched this year’s Botanical Society Awards, now open to nominations before the 15 May. In honour of this, this week we interviewed one of our past awardees, botanist, artist and author of ‘Genesis of a Garden’ Elise Buitendag.

Elise’s career started as a botanical officer at the Botanical Research Institute in Pretoria (1962-1964). After a year at Grootfontein Agricultural College in the Karoo, she and her husband Carel moved to Mbombela (Nelspruit). Here Elise spent twelve years working as botanist at the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens (NBG).

Following this, she was employed by the Department of Agriculture, where for 21 years Elise was South Africa’s participant at technical meetings of The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).

She chaired two of the six UPOV technical working parties and subsequently became the only person outside of Western Europe to be appointed chairperson of the UPOV Technical Committee, which is the highest technical body of this prestigious international union and received two bronze medals and a silver in recognition of her accomplishments.

The book ‘Genesis of a Garden’, written by Elise and edited by Wendy Sippel, documents through artwork and narrative, the story of the first twelve years of the Lowveld NBG.

Elise Buitendag was interviewed by Zoë C Poulsen.

Above: Botanist and artist Elise Buitendag at the exhibition and book launch of ‘Genesis of a Garden‘.

What is your background?

Elise grew up on a flower farm, where her father grew cut flowers. From early on this was an inspiration for Elise as she grew to love the plants and the soil. After studying botany, she then started work at the National Herbarium in Pretoria. After getting married Elise and her husband Carel moved to Middelburg where she spent a year doing research into the phenology of Karoo bushes.

They then moved to Nelspruit where their two sons were born. Soon afterwards, the Lowveld NBG was founded and Elise started working there as botanist. Elise’s role encompassed compiling a checklist of all plant species occurring naturally within the garden area, and identifying all plant specimens collected, as well as providing plant identification services, talks and guided tours to the public.

She was also required to produce information brochures about the garden. When writing information brochures about the garden, Elise was faced with the challenge of illustrating these brochures and that brought about the start of her calling as botanical artist and illustrator.


Above: Watercolour illustration of Ceropegia species from the second Lowveld NBG gardens brochure, 1983 (pp. 62).

What is your favourite part of the Lowveld NBG and why?

Elise’s favourite part of Lowveld NBG is the walk down to the rocks overlooking the Nels River. When the garden was first founded, this area was still bush until the viewpoint we see today was carefully cleared, taking great care not to damage any valuable trees. This part of the garden remains particularly special to Elise from the memories of seeing this new view from the garden for the first time.

What time of year is your favourite to visit Lowveld NBG?

Elise particularly enjoys visiting the Lowveld NBG when the seasons are changing during autumn or spring.  At this time of year one can see four seasons in one view with spring flowers, autumn leaves, evergreen trees and skeletal silhouettes like the barren, fruit-laden kiaat (Pterocarpus angolensis).

In early spring the Dombeya come into flower with the Lowveld chestnut also in full bloom, alongside the red blooms of Erythrina and the rusty red-leaved fig trees. Elise loves the muted colours of the Lowveld, the ruggedness of the bush.

Above: Oil on canvas of a typical thicket with Bauhinia and Dalbergia foreground (2018).

What inspired you to write ‘Genesis of a Garden’?

The writing of a book started off because Elise was anxious to have some of her artworks recorded in print, since she has no photographic record of more than 1000 of her paintings. She started the process by adding interesting bits of information and descriptions for each artwork. But the book was to take a different course.

Elise was often invited to tell the story of the Lowveld NBG and was encouraged by various groups to put it on record. So she incorporated the story of the garden amongst the paintings and the book grew into the coffee-table ‘Genesis of a Garden’.

Elise and her competent editor Wendy Sippel finally produced a generously illustrated book of artwork and stories about the first twelve years of the garden’s history.

Above: Oil on canvas of green Kiaat pods (Pterocarpus angolensis).

How did you become interested in plants?

Elise grew up with plants and they have always been a part of her being, inspired to have a deep appreciation in particular by her father. Elise remembers him receiving boxes of propagation material of Dahlias, Paeonies and other plants from the Netherlands.

She watched as he lifted them from the sawdust with the greatest of care. Elise also remembers long beds of Irises. As they grew, Elise would lie on the ground and watch the world growing bluer each day.

What is your favourite plant and why?

Elise’s favourite plants are the Ceropegia species, belonging to the Apocynaceae family. Ceropegias have distinctive lantern-like flowers, that are pollinated by insects captured inside the tube. But the flowers are small and inconspicuous and these dainty climbers are not easily spotted in the Lowveld bush.

Above: Watercolour illustration of Aloe arborescens (1988).

What is your definition of botanical illustration and why is it important?

Elise learned much about botanical art from Cythna Letty and one of their discussions was whether botanical illustration is a form of art or not. Elise believes that botanical illustration is definitely art, because each painting is a unique creation and is something that is produced from one’s creative spirit.

Although one needs to include all the key diagnostic features of each species, and must never make a plant look more beautiful than it is, it is still a creative process. And this creative process can never be rushed because it should never become a rote exercise – observation is the thing.

Elise remembers Cythna Letty working in her bay at the herbarium, where the window cast light on her subjects from the left-hand side. This single source of light created a stunning array of different levels of light and shadow.

What inspired you to start painting botanical artworks?

Elise has always had a love of plants, dating back as far as her childhood. Her artwork has always focused on the natural world around her. Even as a child she painted plants from life. She is inspired by a particular love of organic lines in nature, in contrast to manmade geometry.

Above: Oil on canvas of Kirkia acuminata in autumn (2007).

How do you choose the subjects of your artwork? Are there specific qualities that particularly attract you to painting certain plants?

For about 25 years Elise’s artwork encompassed many watercolour works of specific species for botanical researchers as well as general commissions of Lowveld flora. When she began with oils, she felt that subject matter was less important than mastering the technique.

Now, after many years of getting to know and love the Lowveld bush, Elise’s work draws a different focus: the soul of the plant in the context of its environment. The Boscia, for instance, she sees as a symbol of perseverance in an arid environment.

Do you prefer to create your artworks working from photographs or from life?

Elise prefers to create her artworks working from life, but one cannot spend hours in the bush painting a particular subject. She does not copy a single photo to produce an artwork but rather uses the camera as a referencing tool.

This can be compared to the approach of the old masters where they would use sketches taken from life to inform the creation of their artworks. Elise believes that to truly capture the soul of a plant in botanical illustration one needs to go further than imitating the photo.

Above: Oil on canvas of pod Mahogany seedpod (2007).

What is the best thing about being an artist?

Elise refers to the quote “Art is one of the most intellectual activities because every step of the process confronts the artist with numerous choices”. Creating art requires focus, observation and concentration, and should never become a mechanical process. Each component of a painting is important and one cannot neglect any part. Elise particularly enjoys the harmony of nature, where each part contributes to a beautiful equilibrium.

Who/what are the main influences of your work?

Elise’s artwork is strongly influenced by her father who was also an artist. South African artists Cythna Letty and Karin Daymond have also had a huge influence on her development as an artist.

What has been the most inspiring moment for you as an artist?

One of Elise’s greatest inspirations are her students. Often as they learn, they tend to hate their own artworks, as they aspire towards perfection. Elise remembers teaching a student who would dance and shout with the joy of creating a beautiful painting, an important lesson in appreciating one’s own work.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention that I haven’t asked?

To close, Elise would like to emphasise the importance of always growing, always living on the growing edge – not the most comfortable position to be in. You only grow into the space you allow for yourself.