The small Namaqualand town of Nieuwoudtville lies on the Bokkeveld Escarpment, just north of the border between the Western and Northern Cape. It is reached via the Vanrhys Pass, named after Petrus Benjamin Van Rhyn who was a clergyman and member of parliament in the old mission settlement of Troe Troe. The pass winds its way up from the quartz gravel plains of the Knersvlakte to the high altitude renosterveld and fynbos of the escarpment, home to many rare endemic plant species.
It is not without reason that Nieuwoudtville is known as the ‘Bulb Capital of the World’. In spring the veld comes into bloom in a plethora of colour, drawing visitors from all over South Africa and beyond to see the spectacular displays. Here BotSoc partner the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) manages Hantam, one of the country’s newest National Botanical Gardens (NBG). Hantam NBG is more than 6000 Hectares in size and conserves habitat of Nieuwoudtville Shale Renosterveld, Nieuwoudtville-Roggeveld Dolerite Renosterveld and Hantam Succulent Karoo. Visitors to the garden have a choice of nine different walking trails to explore the garden, of differing lengths to suit all levels of fitness.
The last couple of years has seen South Africa experience the worst drought in living memory. Water has become a commodity all too precious and the winter rain that brings the veld into bloom in spring did not come. The veld remained dry and the bulbs remained dormant, with the drought impacting on livelihoods in farming, tourism and on wildlife.
However, as the hot and desperately dry summer ended, autumn arrived at the Cape. And this autumn the rain came. Ephemeral streams long dry started to flow and green returned to the veld. The rain triggered the coming of an extraordinary phenomenon, last seen in Nieuwoudtville four years ago. On municipal land managed by Hantam NBG and the adjacent WWF Wildflower Reserve, the previously dry ground began to crack, and flower buds began to emerge.
These flowers are the huge autumn flowering geophyte Brunsvigia bosmaniaeor Maartblom, a member of the Amaryllidaceae family. This species is distributed from southwestern Namibia southwards to Tygerberg north of Cape Town and inland to the Roggeveld and southern Tanqua Karoo. It is most common around Nieuwoudtville and Vanrhynsdorp where it occurs in huge and dense colonies. The type material was first collected near Piketberg in 1927 but did not flower in cultivation until 1932.
Huge moisture filled bulbs allow this plant to survive long periods of drought. Their flowering is triggered at the end of summer when intense thunderstorms arrive following incursions of tropical air that arrive in Namaqualand from the north. These perfect conditions to trigger flowering do not happen every year: These Brunsvigias often have a long wait to reproduce.
As the days go by and the Brunsvigias come into flower, the veld slowly turns an intense shade of pink. The blooms are the size of footballs. Word spreads and visitors come to Nieuwoudtville from far and wide to see this spectacular floral display. The display is fleeting, lasting around a fortnight. As flowering ends the infruitescences dry out and come adrift from the bulb, allowing the wind to blow them across the landscape, distributing the seeds as they go. Meanwhile, flowering done, the huge leaves start to emerge, and will remain until the bulb goes dormant during the summer months. The Brunsvigia bosmaniae of Nieuwoudtville must now wait, until the next autumn thunderstorms come.
Visitors to Kirstenbosch in the last couple of months will not fail to have noticed the spectacular blue and white flowers through the gardens flowering at present. These belong to members of the genus Agapanthus which bring on a stunning summer show for all to see. These gorgeous blue flowers are world renowned and globally cultivated, prized as both a garden plant and cut flower.
Above: Agapanthus praecox ‘Purple Delight’
The genus Agapanthus belongs to the family Agapanthaceae. The genus was first described by L’Heretier in 1788. It was initially placed in the Liliaceae family, then moved to Amaryllidaceae. It was then moved to the Alliaceae family alongside the genus Tulbaghia but was later moved back to Amaryllidaceae and then latterly placed in its own family. This is because the compounds responsible for the strong garlic aroma that typifies other members of the Alliaceae family are notably absent from Agapanthus.
The genus name Agapanthus is derived from the Greek words ‘Anthos’ meaning ‘love’ and ‘Anthos’ meaning flower. Members of the genus are also known as the Blue Lily, African Lily or strangely in Europe and America as the Lily of the Nile. In the case of the latter it is likely that this name has its origins in a miscommunication about where the plant material originated from when it was first brought to Europe from South Africa. In Afrikaans they are known as Agapant, in Xhosa they are called isicakathi and in Zulu they are known as ubani.
There are currently around ten different species of Agapanthus recognised and the most commonly cultivated of these is Agapanthus praecox. There are three different subspecies and a plethora of different cultivars and hybrids available in various shades of blue, purple and white of various different sizes. In the wild Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox is found in the Eastern Cape. Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis is also found here but is also distributed further north into Kwa-Zulu Natal. The relatively diminutive Agapanthus praecox subsp. minima is distributed from Knysna to the Eastern Cape. It is relatively easy to grow, tolerating even very poor soils and strong coastal winds.
Plants of Agapanthus praecox are often misidentified as Agapanthus africanus. This species is in fact much smaller and far more difficult to cultivate. It grows on rocky sandstone slopes from the Cape Peninsula eastwards to Swellendam in the eastern Overberg from sea level to 1000m asl where they even experience frost and snow from time to time. It is more commonly known as the Cape Agapanthus or Kleinbloulelie in Afrikaans. Flowers are most commonly deep blue but rare white forms are occasionally seen. They are pollinated by wind, bees and sunbirds. In 2003 a new paper was published lumping Agapanthus walshii with Agapanthus africanus leading to them being recognised as two different subspecies.
Bee visiting Agapanthus praecox at Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens
Despite being poisonous and causing mouth ulcers when ingested, members of the genus have a significant variety of different medicinal uses. It is considered to be the plant of fertility and pregnancy. In Xhosa culture a necklace of the roots is worn as a charm to bring healthy, strong babies into the world. Zulu people use the plant in the treatment of heart disease, coughs, colds and chest pain. It is also used to ward off thunder by those scared of thunderstorms. It is also sometimes used as a love charm.
So come visit us at Kirstenbosch and see the stunning blooms of the ‘Flower of Love’. Membership of the Botanical Society of South Africa gives you free unlimited entrance to all our national botanic gardens. So why not sign up or gift a membership to a friend or loved one? We look forward to welcoming you.
With water restrictions underway in South Africa, there is a far stronger need to encourage water-wise gardening and promote indigenous plants. Today we are talking about the rich variety of different Aloe species found in Limpopo Province. These unique and beautiful plants are hardy, drought tolerant and water-wise.
This is a grass aloe, easily recognised by spots visible on both the upper and lower leaf surfaces. Plant population dynamics and conservation of this species are currently being studied thanks to funding from the Botanical Education Trust.
This rare summer-flowering Aloe grows amongst the spring flowers of the Woodbush Granite Grassland and may be seen while on one of the hour long wild-flower walks during the annual mid-September Spring Festival, led by the Friends of Haenertsburg Grasslands (FRoHG). The rare Aloe plants were photographed one cloudy and cool day, while accompanied by eco-enthusiasts from nearby towns as well as the dog Pluto, who watched closely.
The land had been burnt and several plants were in flower, belying the fact that there had been little rain. This shows that underground storage organs such as bulbs and tubers are an important part of the survival of these grassland species, hence clearing land for example for firebreaks irreparably destroys the integrity of the flora. The grasslands have established over a long period of time.
Coincidentally meanwhile the CITES convention had started in Gauteng, to discuss the preservation of endangered species such as elephant, pangolin and rhino. While scientists and policy makers talked, there are those who walked, appreciating the priceless value of the grassland wildflowers. Rare and endangered plants with medicinal value have been listed for the Woodbush Granite Grasslands (Dzerefos et al. 2016).
2. Aloe greatheadii var. greatheadii
This is the spotted aloe with spots on the upper leaf surfaces. This species is relatively commonly and is an important plant for bees as the pollen has a high protein and lipid nutritional content.
The spotted aloe, or kgopane (Setswana) produces its spectacular flowers in the winter months (June-July). The plants are stemless, occurring singularly or in groups of up to 15 plants, up to 1.7 m high. The dark, shiny green leaves present with spotted, elongated markings arranged in bands on the upper (adaxial) surface, while the leaves are light green and not spotted underneath (abaxial surface). The one to three inflorescences are branched. Each raceme presents 30-40 pale pink to bright red flowers. Aloe greatheadii var. greatheadii is pollinated by bees and birds. Wind distributes the seeds.
This species occurs in the Grassland and Bushveld Biomes, in open woodland and in overgrazed areas, at altitude from 1,000 to 1,660 m. It is distributed throughout the Free State and northern KwaZulu-Natal. Aloegreatheadii is named after Dr. J.B. Greathead who collected the type specimen with Dr S. Schönland. The bitter sap is medicinal and is used as a treatment for burns, sores and wounds. The young leaves are chopped and boiled for use as an antiseptic.
In the garden, seeds of this species can be germinated in a mix of sand, compost and river sand. Cover with pebbles. Keep in a dry and warm environment. Avoid drying out the growth mixture. Plants are frost and fire tolerant and are used as soil binders on mine dumps.
3. Aloe marlothii
This is a very large, single stemmed Aloe often seen in large stands along the road between Polokwane and Tzaneen, interestingly this is unusual as explained later.
The large, single stemmed Aloemarlothii occurs in bushveld vegetation on rocky ridges from sea level to approximately 1,600 m at warm temperatures with infrequent frost. It is commonly known as the Mountain Aloe, Bergalwyn (Afrikaans), inhlaba or umhlaba (Zulu), Aloe marlothii is distributed from the north-western, northern and north-eastern part of Southern Africa and is rewarding to cultivate.
Aloe (Greek) refers to the product of dried juice from the leaves, Alloeh (Sanskrit) and Allal (Hebrew). The species epithet refers to the botanist H.W. Rudolf Marloth. These Aloes are associated with the African iron age archaeological sites on the Polokwane (formerly Pietersberg) plateau where the distribution is an anomaly in terms of climate and ecology. The dense stands consist of 80 to 100 year old plants.
It is thought that plants were introduced as seeds near the Ndebele villages as the spiny leaves were used to prepare hides for dresses, dried leaf ash may be added to snuff, the flower nectar is edible and leaf decoctions may be used as a vermifuge. The succulent Aloemarlothii plants are suited to drought conditions, as water is stored in stems and leaves, though kudu browse the leaves during dry conditions, thorns protect the rough leaf edges from browsing, dried leaf bases defend the stems and the plant height enables escape from browsers while surviving drought.
This is the most commonly cultivated of the Southern African Aloes. The Aloe leaf gel can be used to heal sunburn.
This species is commonly known as the Kranzaloe (Engl.), Kranzalwyn (Afr.), ikalene (Xhosa), inhabane or umlabana (Zulu). It occurs on cliffs in mountainous regions, rocky ranges and outcrops and in dense bush. It occurs in summer rainfall regions and has the widest distribution of the Southern African Aloes, from the Cape to the eastern coast, KZN and northern South Africa, from sea level to higher altitudes.
The cliff dwelling form was formerly known as Aloemirabilis. Aloearborescens tolerates drought and it is moderately frost resistant. This is one of the most widely cultivated Aloes in the world. It is one of the first Aloes collected for cultivation from South Africa. The inflorescences are unbranched and flowers emerge during winter (May to July). These are commonly orange, rarely pure yellow or a combination of orange and yellow. The nectar is edible to birds such as sunbirds as well as bees.
Aloearborescens is recommended as a key component of herb gardens. A leaf decoction may be used as an antiseptic and for indigestion and it has also been used in stock and poultry farming. The leaf powder is considered to have protective properties against storms. Aloearborescens are useful barrier plants and as a hedge. In rural areas, remnants indicate fenced enclosures or cattle kraals.
Aloelettyae highlights the conservation value of the grasslands. Aloegreatheadii is present as a spotted, grass aloe. Aloemarlothii has been introduced for its economic value. Aloearborescens is widely cultivated and an early subject for gardens having been collected from the wild. All Aloes are water-wise their flowers bring colour to the garden.
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Dzerefos, C., Witkowski, E., Kremer-Köhne, S. 2016. Aiming for the biodiversity target with the social welfare arrow: medicinal and other useful plants for a critically endangered grassland ecosystem in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology. DOI 10.1080/13504509.2016.1A.4963
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