Out of the Ashes: Post Fire at Harold Porter NBG

Text and images by Zoe Poulsen

New Year’s Eve 2019: In the small Overstrand town of Betty’s Bay a boat flare was set off, landing in the fynbos on the mountains above. The stage was set for what was to be one of the biggest blazes of this year’s fire season. Each year across South Africa’s Fynbos Biome as temperatures rise and summer comes, the veld becomes a tinder box, prone to ignition from rockfalls, lightning strikes, that carelessly thrown cigarette stompie, or a boat flare let off in a reckless moment of thoughtlessness. In summer the beautiful, highly biodiverse, fire prone and fire dependent fynbos can be a tough neighbour to live alongside when wildfire comes knocking at the door.

Above: The lower section of Harold Porter NBG three weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire.

Fuelled by strong winds, the fire moved quickly down the mountain flanks in the early hours of the morning, leaping across the R44 and threatening the nearby settlements of Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay and Hangklip. Terrified residents were evacuated as fire teams fought the blaze through the night. Tragically one life was lost and two other people were seriously injured. As windspeeds rose to gale force, for days the blaze raged through thousands of hectares of the Kogelberg above with numerous fire teams across municipalities working around the clock on multiple fire lines.

Above: Leopard’s Kloof at Harold Porter NBG three weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire.

On Friday 11thJanuary, further fuelled by gale force winds, to the horror of residents and all others watching, when it was thought to be almost under control in the area, the wildfire flared up again, barrelled down from the mountains into Harold Porter NBG and onwards into the heart of the town. Fire teams fought in desperation to save lives and property, but 41 houses were destroyed and 28 were badly damaged. Many people lost everything and the community was left reeling by what was one of the worst wildfires affecting the Overstrand in more than 30 years.

Above: The bridge at the bottom of Leopards Kloof after the Betty’s Bay fire.

Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens sits at the heart of Betty’s Bay, where the Kogelberg meets the town. The gardens are integrated within the surrounding fynbos landscape and the forested Leopard Kloof and Disa Kloof. Although many parts of the garden and its infrastructure were lucky enough to emerge relatively unscathed, a considerable area burnt in the fire and the fynbos surrounding the garden looked like a lunar landscape when visiting just after the fire.

Above: Burnt seedheads open to shed their seeds hours after the fire.

Blackened stems of fynbos shrubs stuck at awkward angles above ash covered ground, starting at zero waiting for life to return again. The landscape appears desolate and devoid of all life. Occasionally seen in the veld are the sad remains of a tortoise or snake who stood no chance. Nature can be cruel.

Above: Stream below the Zigzag Trail in Harold Porter NBG three weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire.

And yet without fire there would be no fynbos. No matter the cause fynbos will always burn.  Fire is an integral part of the ecology of fynbos vegetation. Many plants within the fynbos are completely dependent on fire to regenerate, flower or grow anew from seed. While walking through this blackened landscape just three weeks after the fire, frogs could be heard calling from the brown tannin coloured streams running through the fynbos, seeming an incongruous sign of life going on despite the devastation.

Above: Fynbos below the R44 burnt in the Betty’s Bay fire. Seedheads have opened already to disperse seed, triggered by the fire burning through the veld.

Within hours of the fire the cones of members of the Proteaceae family open, spilling their seeds onto the ground, leaving a cornucopia of food for those rodents that have survived. Fynbos wildlife has adapted in many ways to survive when fire moves through the landscape. Insects and birds will fly from the fire and many insects and spiders will survive as eggs or pupae buried in the soil or underground in ants nests. Many reptiles are adapted to take refuge in rock cracks or rodent burrows. Tortoises often survive veld fires in this way but often there are some that aren’t so lucky. Larger mammals often run from the flames. Numbers of some rodents such as the Pygmy Mouse will actually increase after a fire owing to their preference and tolerance of more open landscapes.

Above: Mountain slopes above the R44 burnt in the Betty’s Bay fire. Note the areas of green between rocks acting as fire refugia for fire sensitive flora and relatively safe havens for escaping wildlife.

In the upper reaches of the botanical gardens above the sweeping lawns and formal flowerbeds, across the ash covered landscape the first few green shoots of re-sprouting plant species are starting to emerge already. Two weeks after the fire splashes of red can be seen against the grey ash on the upper slopes by the more observant of garden visitors. These are colonies of Fire Lilies (Cyrtanthus ventricosus), their profuse flowering triggered by the heat of the fire. Flower buds can emerge as soon as two weeks after a burn, followed by leaves that grow throughout the winter before dying back in late spring. They will not be seen flowering here again until after the next fire.

Top & Above: Fire Lilies (Cyrtanthus ventricosus) flowering at Harold Porter NBG in the first two weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire.

As the weeks and months go by, further triggered by autumn and winter rain and cooler temperatures, seeds will germinate and grow, their dormancy having been broken by the heat from the fire. Many plants such as Orchids and many annual species will take advantage of the removal of the shade from the shrubby overstorey to grow and flower. Bulb species commonly flower en masse soon after a burn. When spring comes around the veld will be blooming in a profusion of colour. This is a time to observe and learn about this extraordinary growth and change in the fynbos of Harold Porter NBG and the surrounding area.

Above: New shoots of fynbos post fire resprouters starting to emerge after the Betty’s Bay fire.

There are no words for the human losses from this wildfire. My heart goes out to all those affected. And yet after this tragedy there will come new life in the veld. It may not seem so now amidst the chaos, pain, loss and destruction, but out of the ashes of this fire will come new life, like a phoenix. Time to watch and wait…..

Above: The first new shoots of geophytes (bulbs) emerging at Harold Porter NBG after the Betty’s Bay fire.


BotSoc Beyond Botanical Gardens: Exploring Microhabitats in Overberg Renosterveld

One of the things that the Botanical Society of South Africa is most famous for is its close relationship with South Africa’s National Botanical Gardens. Some of our bigger branches such as the Kirstenbosch and Bankenveld Branches have their homes at gardens. However, this is not the case with all branches of this extraordinary nationwide organisation. Some branches, such as our Southern Overberg Branch, are in areas that may not have their own botanical gardens but are known for their extraordinary and unique biodiversity. The Overberg area is also home to several fantastic conservation organisations that work tirelessly to conserve threatened habitats in this area. We went to visit our partners at the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust (ORCT) to find out more about what makes this extraordinary vegetation that forms their main conservation focus unique.

Above: The beauty of Overberg Renosterveld in the Eastern Ruens at the ORCT’s Haarwegskloof Renosterveld reserve.

The renosterveld of South Africa’s Overberg region is one of the most species diverse Mediterranean type shrublands. It is also one of the most threatened and under-researched. One of the factors that has caused the evolution of such high levels of diversity and species turnover is the presence of high levels of habitat heterogeneity and many different types of microhabitats within the ecosystem. The levels of diversity and endemism associated with this is something that we are only just starting to fully understand about Overberg Renosterveld.

Above: Succulent species often are well adapted to life in rock crevices in Overberg Renosterveld.

So what does this all mean? When there is habitat heterogeneity in an ecosystem it means that across a relatively small area there is considerable variation in the specific ecological conditions that lead a certain plant or animal calling a place home. Soil chemistry or structure, availability of water, different levels of light or shade from the sun and other factors influencing growing or living conditions may vary to an unusually great extent in this environment. If a certain organism requires a specific set of these conditions to thrive, this is known as a habitat niche. Some organisms may live happily in a wide variety of different habitat conditions, others are adapted to one set of specific needs that can be only found in a select few places.

Top: Polhillia curtisiae named after the director of the ORCT, Dr Odette Curtis-Scott for her services to renosterveld conservation. Above: Endangered Gladiolus vandemerwei growing in a shale rock wall in Overberg Renosterveld.

Where habitat conditions in a small area differ from the surrounding ecosystem, acting as home to a unique assemblage of flora and fauna, it is known as a microhabitat. This is a common phenomenon in Overberg Renosterveld and can manifest in various different ways. The unusually common occurrence of microhabitats has meant that this extraordinary and biodiverse ecosystem is home to an unusually high number of endemic species. The word ‘endemic’ means that the organism being described only lives in one place, and is found nowhere else in the world.

Above: Quartz patches within Eastern Ruens Shale Renosterveld in the Overberg.

One of the most noteworthy examples of unique microhabitats within Overberg Renosterveld are the patches of white quartz found within the Eastern Ruens. These have similarities to the quartz fields found in the Knersvlakte in Namaqualand and in the Klein Karoo, but are home to a unique assemblage of endemic species, many of which are now highly threatened in the wild after their homes have been ploughed up for agriculture and lost forever. The Eastern Ruens quartz patches had previously been dismissed as having relatively low levels of biodiversity, but more recent research has revealed no less than six new species endemic to this unique habitat.

Above: The beautiful and newly described quartz patch endemic Aspalathus quartzicola. 

It has often been said that, despite the fact that renosterveld vegetation forms part of the Fynbos Biome, it actually has a greater ecological affinity with Karroid vegetation types due to its large succulent component. Many of these succulent species have found weird and wonderful places to live within this vegetation type. Succulents are typically associated with hot and dry conditions, but in fact many actually prefer to grow away from the worst of the sun’s heat. Some species might grow inside the large tussock grasses so typical of Overberg Renosterveld. Others are commonly found growing underneath larger bushes. Large outcrops of shale where the softer strata have been weathered away provide deep crevices where both succulents and many bulb species may grow.

Top: Unusual form of Nerine humilis Above: Spectacular Gasteria flowers.

In the Eastern Ruens there are also outcrops formed from quartz geology. These quartz koppies often have a unique array of different species. The ORCT discovered that one of these was the only remaining home for a unique form of the autumn flowering Nerine humilis. This particular form has unusually long styles and filaments, thought to be an adaptation to a specialist pollinator, likely a long-tongued fly. However, sadly despite extensive pollinator observations, the pollinator was not seen and the blooms of these form are no longer being pollinated here. It is thought that the long tongued fly that pollinates this form is sadly now extinct in the area.

Above: Sadly illegal destruction of renosterveld vegetation is still a common occurrence, driven by a desire to make more money from agricultural land and increasing size of farm machinery.

These stories highlight the uniqueness of Overberg Renosterveld, as well as its fragility as it is becoming increasingly fragmented within an intensively farmed agricultural landscape. In the past many of the rocky areas that form the unique microhabitats within this vegetation type have remained safe due to the difficulty in being ploughed out. But now with increasingly large farm machinery these small pockets of vegetation are being illegally bulldozed out. The sheer complexity of this habitat makes it highly challenging, if not impossible to restore once it has been destroyed. So spare a thought for this unique and extraordinary habitat and lend your support to those at the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust who are working tirelessly to conserve it in perpetuity.

2018 awards by the Botanical Education Trust

As is the case every year, the demand for grant funding far exceeded the amount available. Only income derived from investments is used, as all donations received are invested for future funding of applicants. Six applications which, in the opinion of the Trustees, would best serve the conservation of our indigenous flora were selected, totaling R115 000. Unfortunately it was not possible to grant the full amount requested to all successful applicants.

Top: Carolina Diller. Above: Martina Treurnicht.

The Trustees wish to thank all our donors, large and small, who have made these grants possible. Whether an immediate contribution or a legacy, all donations permanently benefit our indigenous flora. The favorable exchange rate for donors abroad means that even small contributions translate into valuable amounts in South Africa.

The Trust approved funding towards the publication of A Field Guide to succulent Euphorbias of southern Africa by Rolf and Alma Becker. This is the first book dedicated to the genus Euphorbia in this part of Africa since 1941. Easy to use, with annotated photographs, it will make identification easy, so raising awareness and interest in conserving these succulent plants.

Above: Gerbera aurantiaca (Hilton Daisy)

The current conservation status of the Hilton Daisy, Gerbera aurantiaca, is endangered. Only about twenty populations remain and, because of commercial forestry, these are extremely fragmented and isolated. Carolina Diller of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal received an award to study the population genetics of this beautiful plant. Her work will have implications for conservation of the mist belt grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal.

The Drakensberg Mountains are an important area of floristic diversity. This is also a major catchment area, but only 5% is protected in nature reserves. Glynis Goodman-Cron, of Wits University, aims to help inform management approaches to protect this biodiversity hotspot and maintain its integrity. To this end, her research examines ecological drivers of diversification in the beautiful endemic genus Glumicalyx.

Top: Glynis Goodman-Cron, of Wits University. Above: Glumicalyx nutans

Marie Jordaan received funding for a taxonomic revision of part of the genus Olea. Because taxonomists seldom appear in the limelight of botanical research, they often find it difficult to attract funding. This work provides critical basic information that can be applied to many practical aspects such as conservation status, environmental management and environmental education. Olea from southern Africa was last revised 55 years ago. Marie’s proposal is dramatically different and includes more species, one previously undescribed.

Natasha Visser, of the University of Johannesburg, received the balance of her funding approved in 2017, but subject to a progress report in 2018. She is making excellent progress with her taxonomic study of the southern African grassland species Thesium. Grassland plants are of great importance and Thesium has been identified as a high priority for taxonomic revision.

Above: Stephen Cousins. Photo: Tessa Oliver.

In 2014, Stephen Cousins received funding from the Trust for his work aimed at restoring the critically endangered Swartland Shale Renosterveld in the Western Cape. An extremely talented young botanist, he had already produced publications describing his progress when he was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident this year. Martina Treurnicht, of Stellenbosch University, received an award in honour of Steven to continue this work.

Life on the Edge: Saving the Albertina Sisulu Orchid from Extinction

Written by Zoë Poulsen, Photos: Andrew Hankey

One in five of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction, according to the State of the World’s Plants report published by experts at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. We are more than aware of the ongoing threats to our tigers, our rhinos and the other charismatic mammals. But quietly under our feet and in our backyards, often unbeknown to us, many other species are also making their final journey towards extinction, to be known only to future generations from photographs and herbarium specimens.

Top & Above: The beautiful Albertinia Sisulu Orchid (Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis)

Rainforest giants may come crashing to the ground or go up in smoke, fuelled by the unrelenting demand for making a quick buck from timber or to become monocultures for palm oil. Other species may fall victim to transformation of ecosystems by the scourge of alien invasive plants or quietly disappear underneath another shopping mall, another block of luxury apartments or that perfect house by the sea.

Above: One of the iconic Black (Verraux) Eagles of Roodekraans that also call the Sugarbush Ridges home.

As this habitat loss has happened, scientists and conservationists have risen to the challenge in a desperate battle to come up with increasingly innovative ways to save our biodiversity. Plant species under threat? No worries, we can store it in a seed bank. Habitat under threat? No problem, we can make an offset. Ploughing up critically endangered biodiversity for barley? No problem, we can restore it later…. It is vital that with the plethora of tools now at conservationists’ fingertips we do not become complacent. There is no better alternative in conserving ecosystems and their biodiversity than conserving habitats, making sure they are not destroyed. We cannot keep our species in perpetuity ‘in the zoo’ with no home to return to.

Above: The Critically Endangered habitat of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid at Sugarbush Ridges.

The home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid is under threat, a home where the iconic Verreaux’s eagles of Roodekraans soar, found adjacent to South Africa’s Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. Plans to make Sugarbush Ridges an urban conservation area are at risk and the City of Mogale Municipality have instead approved plans for high density housing.

The Albertina Sisulu Orchid (Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis) was once known from several localities across Gauteng and Mpumalanga. However, urban development has all but wiped out the majority of habitat for this species and it was last seen in 1956. That was until 2007 when a population of c.130 plants was discovered growing above Walter Sisulu NBG, to date the only viable remaining habitat for this species. The Albertina Sisulu Orchid is thus listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the Red List of South African Plants.

Above: Local High School and Proteadal Conservation Association field trip to Sugarbush Ridges, with demonstration of erosion control.

Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis was named after anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu (also known as Ma Sisulu) in this her centenary year by the South African National Biodiversity Institute. The species was first discovered in 1918, the same year that Albertinia Sisulu was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In 1955 Albertina Sisulu joined the ANC Women’s League and participated in launching the Freedom Charter, the same year that the orchid was named by Kew botanist V.H. Summerheyes. In 1956 Albertina Sisulu marched alongside Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn with 20,000 other women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the same year the orchid was last seen in Gauteng before its rediscovery above Walter Sisulu NBG in 2007. It could not be more fitting that Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis now be known as the Albertina Sisulu Orchid.

Top & Above: Beautiful butterflies of Sugarbush Ridges.

A team of conservation heroes have now come together to save the home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid at Sugarbush Ridges, in an effort to bring about conservation of this unique and precious habitat in perpetuity. The Sugarbush Ridges Coalition comprises the Botanical Society of South Africa, one of South Africa’s oldest conservation nonprofits, local community group Proteadal Conservation Association, nonprofit Wild Orchids of South Africa, the Roodekraans Black Eagle Project and Walter Sisulu NBG.

Top: Gladiolus permeabilis, Above: Albertina Sisulu Orchid

The Sugarbush Ridges Coalition team are working towards a vision of conserving the area and home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid in perpetuity as an urban conservation area. The case concerning the development proposals is imminently due to be heard in the High Court of Gauteng. The Coalition is fundraising for vital conservation management interventions to help achieve conservation goals. This work includes training rangers, fencing, environmental education and clearance of alien invasive plants in addition to fighting unsustainable developments that threaten the integrity of the site. Without this essential work the Albertinia Sisulu Orchid may be lost forever, with the other species that call this place home also losing one more habitat stronghold.

Above: Close up of the exquisite blooms of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid.

Help us save the home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid by donating to the vital conservation efforts of the Sugarbush Ridges Coalition. More details on how you can help can be found here: https://www.thundafund.com/project/eagles

We thank you for your support.

Spotlight on Pelargoniums: Stalwarts of the Waterwise Garden

In 2015 South Africa experienced its driest year since records began in 1904. On average we receive just 497mm of rainfall per year, far below the global average. As climate is changing we are forecast to receive yet hotter and drier conditions with more extreme drought events becoming more frequent, alongside greater pressure on our water to supply a growing population. Although the risk of ‘Day Zero’ becoming a reality is still fresh in the Western Cape’s collective memory, as dam levels have risen the perception has grown that the drought is ‘over’ and the temptation is strong to quietly slide back to our water wasting ways. No more is that the case than in our gardens.

Top: Pelargonium betulinum Above: Pelargonium exstipulatum

The most successful gardens are those that grow with their environment rather than against it. We need to move away from that traditional European idea of a garden as a sweeping green lawn with pampered roses and pots full of pansies. Having a drought proof garden does not have to mean living with a sea of prickly cacti or installing plastic turf. There are many plants that, once established, can survive a dry summer with little or no additional water. These should be the stalwarts of the waterwise garden.

Top: Pelargonium quercifolium Above: Pelargonium fruticosum

The genus Pelargonium has many members that make beautiful but bomb proof additions to the garden. No less than 219 species are found in Southern Africa and the genus name is derived from the Greek word ‘Pelargos’ in reference to the similarity of the shape of the seed to the beak of a stork. Their long flowering season provides ongoing colour and interest long after the many spring blooms have finished their annual display.  We took a walk at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens to explore the sheer variety one can consider growing.

Top: Pelargonium coronopifolium ‘fragrans’ Above: Pelargonium panduriforme

Pelargonium betulinum is known for its large and attractive blooms, which are deeply veined and vary in colour from white to purple. The leaves are sometimes used medicinally for coughs and other chest ailments by being placed in boiling water and the vapour from the steamed leaved then inhaled. It can be propagated easily from softwood cuttings and is both wind and drought tolerant, also making it suitable for coastal gardens.

Top: Pelargonium greytonense Above: Pelargonium capitatum

Pelargonium fruticosum has delicate finely divided leaves and at up to 450mm in height is suitable for a smaller space in the garden. It produces delicate pink flowers throughout the year, peaking from September to November. This species is propagated easily from seed or cuttings. Regular watering is required initially after planting but one it is established will be tolerant to both drought and windy conditions.

Top: Pelargonium inquinans Above: Pelargonium suburbanum

Another easily grown and adaptable member of the genus is Pelargonium quercifolium, also known as the Oak Leaved Pelargonium. It is relatively fast growing and can reach up to 1.75m in height, flowering from August to January. This species grows well in both sunny and semi shaded areas of the garden. Pelargonium quercifolium has been used in the treatment of hypertension, rheumatism and heart disease. The dried leaves remain aromatic and can be used in potpourri.

Top: Pelargonium ternatum Above: Pelargonium citronellum

Pelargonium citronellum is also known as the Lemon-Scented Pelargonium. The strongly scented leaves can be used as a culinary herb, crystallised for use in puddings, used in potpourri and in finger bowls. Flowering takes place from August to January. It grows well in both full sun and light shade.

Why not consider making space for Pelargoniums in your garden? More detailed cultivation tips can be found at http://pza.sanbi.org

Professor Neil Crouch awarded the Botanical Society’s Marloth Medal

Written by the KZN Coastal Branch, Photos: Di Higginson Keath

Professor Neil Crouch was presented with the Marloth Medal in a light-hearted ceremony at the Durban Botanic Gardens on Monday, 22 October.  The presentation was convened to coincide with the visit to Durban of new national Council Chair of the Botanical Society, Mrs Marinda Nel.

The Marloth Medal is awarded to any person, professional or amateur botanist, who has produced significant literature of a popular nature to stimulate public interest in the indigenous flora of southern Africa.  The medal commemorates Dr Rudolph Marloth, pharmacist, analytical chemist and botanist who published much on the flora, his most famous contribution being the Flora of South Africa, which appeared in six magnificently illustrated volumes between 1913 and 1932.

Top: Mrs Marinda Nel, Chairman of Council, congratulates Prof. Neil Crouch on his award. Above: Professor Neil Crouch wearing the Marloth Medal

Prof. Crouch was nominated by Professors Gideon Smith and A. E. (Braam) van Wyk , for his work across a broad section of our flora, including ferns, succulents and medicinal plants.  Prof. Crouch has written or co-written ten books and over 330 papers, chapters or other publications. His research work has been matched by a great interest in field work. He has served as the Scientific Editor of PlantLife and is a Trustee of the Botanical Education Trust.

Prof Crouch graduated from UKZN : Pietermaritzburg in 1989 with a B.Sc. in Botany and Biochemistry. This was followed by a Ph.D in plant physiology also from UKZN. Whilst busy with his lab-based research, he explored his interest in field-based natural history, and wrote a field guide to the ferns of Ferncliffe Nature Reserve. Following his PhD, the National Biodiversity Institute (now the South African National Biodiversity Institute) employed him as their ethnobotanist. He continues to be based at KZN Herbarium on the Berea, now as Deputy-Director, Biodiversity Economy.  At the same time, he is an Honorary Professor in the School of Chemistry and Physics at UKZN.

Top & Above: The Marloth Medal awarded to Neil Crouch.

Mrs Nel commended Neil on how his botanical skills had translated into books for the benefit of all.

On accepting the medal Prof. Crouch thanked BotSoc for considering him even though he was not a BotSoc member. He said that it was through interactions with other people that he had become excited about plants and had wanted to share the information with others. People like Geoff Nichols, Ian Garland and Elsa Pooley had passed on their passion to him. He had enjoyed collaborating with all his many co-authors, such as Gideon Smith, and John and Sandie Burrows. He acknowledged all those he had worked with and thanked them, remarking how even a small interaction can have a big impact.  He hoped to see others ‘picking up the torch’ in the future and speaking and writing on behalf of local plants and their environment.

Neil’s wife, Tanza, an entomologist and ceramic artist, and father-in-law, Dr. Richard Clark, were there to support him. Geoff Nichols and Richard Boon among other friends and associates created much merriment with their witty comments.

Perfect Pincushions: Introducing the genus Leucospermum

Spring has well and truly sprung in the Cape Floristic Region. After the winter rains the fynbos has come to life, alive with a diversity of stunning blooms and full of busy pollinators. Some of the most spectacular of these are known as the ‘Pincushions’ with such strange looking flowers that one might be forgiven for thinking they have come from outer space.

Leucospermum muirii (Albertinia Pincushion)

These are the Leucospermums, which are part of the Proteaceae, one of the three key families that typify South Africa’s famous fynbos vegetation. The blooms of Leucospermums are recognised by their unusually long, stout and colourful styles that are the ‘pins’ of the pincushion. Unlike their other Proteaceae relatives, Leucospermums have small inconspicuous bracts around the flowerheads and tooth shaped margins at the end of the leaves.

Leucospermum cordifolium (Orange Pincushion)

Members of the genus range in size from huge shrubs to low growing prostrate species that grow along the ground. The larger more upright species are pollinated by sugarbirds and sunbirds whereas the more prostrate ones are pollinated by rodents. After seeds are set they are often predated by rodents. Those that survive are collected by ants, attracted to a fleshy appendage on the seed. The ants carry the seed underground where they are safe from predation. There they will stay until the next fire moves through the fynbos, allowing the seeds to germinate and the next generation of Leucospermums to grow.

Leucospermum harpagonatum (McGregor Pincushion)

The genus Leucospermum has a total of 48 species, the majority of which are found only in the Cape Floristic Region. There are however two species (L. rodentumand  L. praemorsum) with a range extending north into Namaqualand, two species (L. gerrardii and L. innovans) in Kwa-Zulu Natal and one (L. saxosum) in Mpumalanga northwards into Zimbabwe. The most important centre of diversity for the Leucospermum genus is the Agulhas Plain, where there are a total of 30 species occurring.

Leucospermum heterophyllum (Trident Pincushion)

The plant collections at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens showcase a rich diversity of different members of the genus, many of which are flowering now for visitors to enjoy. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Leucospermum cordifolium, with their large and spectacular orange blooms. This species is a popular and easily cultivated garden plant that is used in the cut flower industry all over the world.

Leucospermum oleifolium (Overberg Pincushion)

Leucospermum fulgens, easily recognised with its large fiery red and orange blooms, comes from limestone fynbos in the eastern Overberg. Sadly as a result of inappropriate fire management and loss of habitat to alien invasive plants, it is Critically Endangered in the wild. Kirstenbosch NBG provides this species and many others with a safe home should the worst happen to its wild population.

Leucospermum hypophyllocarpodendron subsp. hypophyllocarpodendron

There are several members of the genus that have flowers that change colour almost like chameleons as the blooms age. Leucospermum oleifoliumflowerheads are initially yellow, turning a rich orange and then intense crimson red as the flowers age. Leucospermum heterophyllum has flowers that are lime green after they open, changing to a deep wine red over time. Often flowers of different colours are present on the same plant as the flowering season progresses.

Leucospermum heterophyllum (Trident Pincushion)

Why not come and visit Kirstenbosch and see for yourself? Entry to all South Africa’s National Botanical Gardens is free for BotSoc members. The Kirstenbosch Nursery also has a great selection of Leucospermums so garden waterwise and indigenous and consider giving a home to one of these beautiful plants.