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.

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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

Wildflower Wonders: Where to find the best blommetjies this Spring

This winter, after three long and dry years in succession, the rain came. The drought’s impact has been pervasive, affecting the economy, agriculture, tourism and much more. Above average rainfall this June has provided some respite and improved dam levels, but we are far from out of the woods yet.

However, good winter rains are making it increasingly likely that we will have some wonderful displays of wildflowers this spring. Already there are beautiful carpets of Oxalis giving their winter display along our road verges. We have hand-picked for you a selection of our favourite places to go and experience the Cape’s world famous wildflower displays. All of these stunning places are within five hours drive of Cape Town, easily accessible on a weekend for those of you with limited time available.

NAMAQUALAND 

Nieuwoudtville

The small town of Nieuwoudtville lies at the top of the Bokkeveld Escarpment, five hours drive north along the N7 from Cape Town. It is not without reason that it is known as the ‘Bulb Capital of the World’. The town is home to Hantam National Botanical Gardens (NBG) one of South Africa’s newest NBGs, run by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Hantam NBG is 6000 Ha in size encompassing Nieuwoudtville Shale Renosterveld, Nieuwoudtville-Roggeveld Dolerite Renosterveld and Hantam Succulent Karoo.

This unique range of untransformed habitats makes this the place to see many of the rare and special plant species known from the Bokkeveld Escarpment. The garden has nine different hiking trails that allow those of differing levels of fitness to explore as they please. Members of the Botanical Society enjoy free entrance to this and all of South Africa’s NBGs. Additional tourist information for the area can be found at www.nieuwoudtville.com

WEST COAST

West Coast National Park

West Coast National Park lies on the coast between the small towns of Yzerfontein and Langebaan just 1.5 hours drive north of Cape Town. The park is a mix of Strandveld and Hopefield Sand Plain Fynbos.  During August and September visitors to the park are rewarded by the most spectacular displays of flowers in the Seeberg and Postberg sections of the Park. For the more energetic the two day overnight Postberg hiking trail can be done, with an overnight stop (bring your own tents) at Plankiesbaai. Bookings and tariff information can be obtained from Geelbek Information Centre on 022 707 9902. Entrance to the park is R76 for South African Nationals and residents (with ID) and free for Wildcard Holders.

Tienie Versfeld Nature Reserve

Tienie Versfeld Nature Reserve is 20 Ha in size and found just outside the Swartland town of Darling, an hour north of Cape Town. The reserve was formerly part of a farm that was donated to the Botanical Society by Marthinus Versfeld. Marthinus’s sister Muriel was one of the founder members of the Darling Wildflower Society. The reserve is open all year round, but the most spectacular blooms can be seen during the spring season from August to September. Entrance to the reserve is free.

Waylands Farm Wildflower Reserve

Also near the beautiful town of Darling is the fantastic Waylands Farm Wildflower Reserve. The reserve was founded by Fredrick Duckett in the early 1900s and is home to more than 300 different plant species, many of which are geophytes. The reserve forms an integral part of the farm and is grazed from late November to the end of April each year. The spring flower season reaches its peak from the end of August to early September.

CEDERBERG 

Ramskop Wildflower Garden

Three hours drive north of Cape Town on the N7 is the small town of Clanwilliam, which lies at the foot of the Cederberg Mountain chain. Adjacent to the municipal campsite on the banks of the Clanwilliam Dam is the beautiful Ramskop Wildflower Garden. There are more than 300 species of different wildflowers to be seen, and spectacular views down over the dam and up to the Cederberg mountains beyond. Entry is R25 and the gardens are open until 4:30pm during August and September. (Info: 027 482 8000).

Biedouw Valley

 

The Biedouw Valley is one of the Cederberg’s hidden wildflower gems. It can be reached either via Calvinia or the Pakhuis Pass from Clanwilliam. The Biedouw River is one of the tributaries of the Doring River. The valley is bounded by the Biedouw Mountains to the north and the Tra Tra Mountains to the south. The name ‘Biedouw’ refers to the common plant name ‘Bietou’, although there are several plants that go by this name so it is not clear to what species the name originally refers. In spring local farmers restrict livestock grazing in the area to further enhance the stunning wildflower displays. 

CAPE TOWN  

Rondebosch Common

 

Rondebosch Common lies at the heart of Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. This 40 Ha site is of international conservation importance, being one of the last fragments of Critically Endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, a highly biodiverse vegetation type that only occurs in the greater Cape Town area. It is home to around 250 plant species.

The site is under the custodianship of City Parks and their work is supported by the Friends of Rondebosch Common, affiliated with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA). Each spring the Friends run a series of walks lead by dedicated volunteers to see the spring flowers on the Common. All are welcome and becoming a Friend is encouraged to support the valuable conservation work taking place. More information can be found on the Friends’ Facebook group.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/Friends.of.Rondebosch.Common/

 

Out of the dust: A mass flowering of Brunsvigia bosmaniae

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.

Growing the Future: An Introduction to the Botanical Education Trust

Written by Charles and Julia Botha

Why is the Botanical Education Trust so important?

South Africa is home to one of the richest floras on earth. It has more than 10% of the world’s flowering plant species and is the only country that has a whole plant kingdom that falls entirely within its borders. The Cape Floral Kingdom has more than 20% of the African continent’s plant species, despite covering less than 0.5% of its total land area. The Cape Peninsula alone has more plant species than the whole of the United Kingdom. However, many South African plant species are under threat. Populations of threatened species are lost underneath housing development from a rapidly growing human population. They are outcompeted by alien invasive plants or collected en mass for the medicinal plant trade.

What is the Botanical Education Trust?

The Botanical Education Trust was founded to educate people about the importance of South Africa’s diverse flora and biodiversity in view of these challenges. The organisation operates under the auspices of the Botanical Society of South Africa. It is fully registered as a Trust and is audited annually. In addition, it has been approved as a PBO (Public Benefit Organisation) and has been granted exemption from donations tax and estate duty by SARS. This includes a Section 18A exemption certificate which permits any donor to treat donations to the Trust as a tax deductible expense.

Neil Gerber, a past president of the Society of Chartered Accountants, is the Honorary Treasurer of the Trust and Professor Julia Botha is the Secretary. Some of the country’s leading botanists serve as Trustees on the Botanical Education Trust’s Board, namely Professor Braam Van Wyk, Professor of Plant Science at the University of Pretoria, Dr Neil Crouch from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and Dr Hugh Glen.  Zaitoon Rabaney, Executive Director of the Botanical Society of South Africa and horticulturalist Chris Dalzell also serve as Trustees. The Trust is chaired by Charles Botha, a semi-retired businessman.

What does it do?

The objectives of the Botanical Education Trust are:

  1. To conserve and promote the indigenous flora of South Africa.
  2. To advance education and research in the field of our indigenous flora.
  3. To fund literature pertaining to indigenous flora and factors that influence it.

What projects has the Trust funded?  

Last year the Botanical Education Trust celebrated its 10th Anniversary. Since it was founded the Trust has awarded grants to the value of more than R865,000. One of the projects supported was an environmental education programme based at the National Botanical Gardens which encouraged learners to make informed environmental decisions and educated them about conservation. The Botanical Education Trust has also funded taxonomic studies, threatened and data deficient species research and research on biological control of alien invasive plants. In addition, funding has also been contributed towards the publication of important botanical literature.

In 2017 the Trust received 22 applications, five of which were selected for funding, receiving a total of R113,000. Sharon Louw (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) received an award to study the effects of fire on the Common Sugarbush Protea caffra. Findings from this research will be used to inform best management practice for the Protea Savanna system, which will ultimately benefit the flora as a whole. Dr Francis Siebert, of North-West University, received funding for her project on different forb species in semi-arid savanna. In this ecosystem forbs represent a vital food source for a variety of different insects including butterflies.

The Mistbelt Forests of Kwa-Zulu Natal have long been exploited and only an estimated six patches of primary forest are now left.  Those which remain are now also highly threatened by alien invasive plants. Dr Jolene Fisher from the University of the Witwatersrand has received funding to monitor the extent, diversity and quality of these forests. Dr Marina Koekemoer from SANBI works to help people identify South Africa’s fascinating and diverse flora. A grant has been made towards her publication of the Complete Plant Families of southern Africa. Natasha Visser, from the University of Johannesburg, also received funding to carry out a taxonomic study of the southern African genus Thesium. This genus has been identified as a high priority for taxonomic revision. This work is of vital importance in advancing knowledge about South Africa’s unique and highly biodiverse flora.

The Botanical Education Trust would like to thank all donors who have made these grants possible. We thank you for your support.

How can you help?

Donations, no matter how small, will serve conservation in perpetuity because only interest on capital is used and all donations are capitalised. Even if contributions are not immediate, legacies left behind will be to the permanent benefit of our indigenous flora.

Payments can be made to:

Botanical Society of South Africa – Durban Coastal Branch

Nedbank, Durban Branch Code – 135226

Account Number – 1352029901

Please state clearly on all donations that it is for the Botanical Education Trust and fax the deposit slip to 086 651 8969 or email to botsoc-kzn@mweb.co.za. Payments can also be made via the donate button on the KZN Coastal Branch website.

BotSoc launches new awards

Written by Zoë Poulsen

Do you know someone who deserves recognition for their contribution to the conservation, promotion and appreciation of South Africa’s indigenous flora? The call is now open for nomination for BotSoc’s annual honours and awards. The Honours and Awards committee are excited to announce the introduction of four new awards:

The BotSoc Youth Award

Awarded to any young person or groups of youth (under the age of 25) who has/have made a significant contribution, excluding publications, to the conservation and promotion of the indigenous flora of Southern Africa.

The Stella Petersen Education Award

Above: Stella Petersen reminisces with Xola Mkefe

Awarded to any person who has made a significant contribution to the promotion of environmental education which focuses on the flora of Southern Africa. The award is made in honour of Dr Stella Petersen. Her interest in the rich biodiversity of the Cape Floristic Region started at an early age, while exploring the floral treasures of the Cape Flats around Macassar during family holidays.

Following on from achieving multiple degrees at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she went on to achieve a further MSc at the University of Syracuse, USA in science and education. She worked for many years as a tutor in the Zoology Department at UCT and worked alongside Edith Stephens. Upon her retirement she worked as a volunteer garden guide at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town and later joined their Goldfields Education Centre where she continued her work. She was a visionary educator, tireless campaigner for equal rights and an inspiration to countless students.

The Dale Parker Conservation Award

Above: Elandsberg Nature Reserve: Jewel in the crown of biodiversity conservation in the Swartland

The Dale Parker Conservation Award is to be awarded to any private landowner or farmer who, as custodian, undertakes outstanding biodiversity conservation practice on their land.

The award is made in honour of the late Dale Parker, a visionary farmer, businessman and conservationist. He saw himself as a farmer, but his foremost love was for the wild places he encountered as well as their wildlife and flora.

While growing up he spent considerable time on the family farm Elandberg near Wellington. He later took over the property in the 1960s and started to introduce antelope such as eland and springbok to the veld.  In 1971 he took the pioneering step of having the wild parts of the farm declared a provincial nature reserve. Today Elandberg Farms is one of the major producers of wheat, wool, meat and game in the Swartland. Meanwhile Elandsberg Nature Reserve conserves an ecologically important stretch of land recognised for its incalculable botanical value. It contains the largest remaining tracts of two highly threatened vegetation types and their associated animal species, including the endangered geometric tortoise. The reserve is home to more than 820 plant species, five of which are endemic to the reserve.

Dale Parker was also a past chairman of the very active and successful Flora Conservation Committee, and did much to ensure its success. He was a committed supporter of BotSoc SA and is appropriately acknowledged in the naming of this award.

The President’s Award

Awarded to branches of BotSoc, both garden and non-garden based. The award will have a monetary value awarded to the branch. This is awarded at the discretion of the Council to the branch whose activities are most in line with the BotSoc’s mission and objectives.

Nominations for awards open on the 1st March 2018 and must be submitted by the closing date of 12:00 noon on 15th May 2018. Application forms for nominations are available from the BotSoc Head Office or can be downloaded from the website http://bit.ly/2BplGA1.