A REVIEW OF 2018

The statistics provided for our blogs make interesting reading, particularly as I look back on another year of posting about this or that. That most of my viewers are from South Africa pleases me, for it is my home audience after all. The United States of America and the United Kingdom provide the next most viewers – although the spectrum of viewers from all over the world is exciting, for it is good to know that what I post has a broad appeal.

I am intrigued that the top search term remains black jack plant.

It is thus not surprising that the most popular post is Weeds with a History, which was first published in 2015. It received seven views then and 323 views this year! This post came about as a result of a trip we did through the Free State at a time when the Cosmos flowers were blooming; we had walked through the veld to view military graves and returned covered in Black Jack seeds; and had inadvertently crushed Khakibos underfoot, which released a particularly fragrant aroma I have always associated with my childhood in the Lowveld.

All three of these weeds came to this country as a result of feed brought in for the British horses during the Anglo-Boer War.

The next most popular post is War Horses: the role of horses in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). This was posted in 2016 after a trip to KwaZuluNatal during which we visited the horse memorial at the Weston Agricultural College. Even though I was familiar with the well-known horse memorial in Port Elizabeth, I found this a particularly moving experience and felt compelled to research and write about the role horses played during this war.

It was viewed 49 times in 2016 and 297 times this year, which encouraged me to conduct further research and to write about this topic in greater detail to present as a talk to three very different audiences.

What has taken me by surprise though is the popularity of the post on Flying Ants, which was also published in 2016, gaining an initial nine views then and garnering 233 this year – simply an observation of what was happening in my garden!

What about the posts published in 2018 then? Blackjacks tops the list – this is a more in-depth exploration of these weeds which came about as a result of the popularity of the search term. My short story, Poor Uncle Kevin couldn’t go to the party – based on my son’s dog which died this year – came second, with National Bird of South Africa – the Blue Crane – coming third.

Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read my posts, to those who have become followers, and especially to those who have liked and commented on my posts. This has been a wonderful way to connect with readers and has enriched my blogging experience enormously.

I hope you will all enjoy a happy festive season.

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HERITAGE SITES IN GRAHAMSTOWN: BOTANICAL GARDENS

The Botanical Gardens in Grahamstown are situated on land granted to the Albany Botanical Gardens by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Cathcart, with the transfer of Erf 3282 being passed on 19th October 1853. More land was allocated to the project a year later and the gardens have expanded since then.

An avenue of oak trees runs through the centre of the gardens – clearly these are replacements of the original trees. This was the oldest plantation of oaks in or near Grahamstown at the time. This avenue historically formed an important carriageway from Lucas Avenue to Mountain Drive.

The gardens, affectionately known as ‘Bots’, but now officially called Makana Botanical Gardens, are adjacent to the beautiful campus of Rhodes University. Owing to the neglect of the gardens over a number of years, a rehabilitation and redevelopment programme was initiated by SANBI between 2004 and 2006. The Makana District (formerly Albany) granted Rhodes University a 99 year lease on the understanding that the gardens would be maintained by that institution during that time.

For some time afterwards the gardens were a joy to walk through with a variety of indigenous flowers blooming at different times of the year and an interesting array of paved paths winding up towards the top of Gunfire Hill. The paths are still there but an air of genteel neglect is pervasive.

Given the prolonged drought, it is perhaps understandable that the lily ponds have been drained. One of these lily ponds was created to commemorate Captain Fordyce (who died in the Amatolas in 1851 in the War of Mlanjeni). Only the hardiest of flowers are blooming in the overgrown and neglected garden beds. One being Felicia aethiopica.

The other is a Sour Fig.

A number of mature trees have survived both drought and neglect – there is a lovely grove of Erythrina caffra.

The very tall Bunya Pine Tree (Araucaria bidwillii) near the entrance has a sign warning visitors to be careful of falling pine cones. Read the sign and you will understand why!

This and other exotic trees hark back to an era when the gardens showcased plants from all over the world.

A military cemetery, dating from 1819 to 1822, lies within the grounds of the botanical gardens – overgrown with grass and weeds. A seedling white ironwood is growing right next to one of the head stones.

Apart from one, the remaining headstones can no longer be read because of weathering and the growth of lichen on them. The earliest grave is that of Captain R. Gethin, who died in the Battle of Grahamstown in 1819.

These botanical gardens, once part of the Drostdy Estate, are the second oldest in South Africa and bear the status of a Provincial Heritage Site. They were officially proclaimed a National Monument in July 1984.

Interesting background reading about the history of this area can be found at:

https://www.sahra.org.za/sahris/sites/default/files/remoteserver/sahrisdepot/scannedfiles/Part%202%20Vol3%20%209-2-003-2.pdf

 

COCHINEAL INSECTS: A TALE OF TWO IMPORTS

Most species of cacti were introduced to this country in the 1900s – or even before. They have become so prolific, however, that cochineal insects (Dactylopius austrinus) that feed on the sap of cactus species were introduced to South Africa, firstly in 1935 and again during the 1970s, as a biological control for these invasive cacti species, including the jointed cactus and prickly pear. These insects usually live together in colonies seen on the surface of cactus plants.

The jointed cactus, (Opuntia aurantiaca), originally from Argentina and Paraguay, has invaded pastoral lands, threatening indigenous plants as well as the health of livestock – and is a particular pest in the Eastern Cape. I pointed out in a post on jointed cactus (February 2018) that they not only compete for resources such as water, sunlight, and nutrients but their viciously sharp spines prevent animals from grazing and can cause considerable harm to livestock.

By all accounts, the introduction of a variety of the various varieties of cochineal insects has not been as successful as might have been hoped. Nonetheless, should you spot white masses on prickly pears, know that one import is doing its bit to get rid of another import!

BALLOON WILD COTTON

The changing of names of birds, trees and other plants can make seeking information rather puzzling at times. Take the strange looking plant, Balloon Wild Cotton (Balbossie) for example. I first came across it growing in the veld while we were living in Mmabatho during the 1980s. So little grew in that wind-blown, sandy place that we delighted in anything green. Then this plant was readily identified as Asclepias physocarpa. Quite appropriately, some gardening books of the time recommended planting it to provide something green in very dry areas (such as we were living in at the time) with the added recommendation that the seed pods could effectively be used in arrangements.

I have subsequently discovered that it is now known as Gomphocarpus physocarpus. Another surprising discovery – for this plant is widespread in South Africa – is that it is actually a naturalised plant from tropical Africa! I would love to know how it arrived here e.g. did it arrive on its own or introduced for the floral trade? It seems to thrive in the Eastern Cape.

According to http://pza.sanbi.org/gomphocarpus-physocarpus the genus Gomphocarpus is derived from the Greek gomphos meaning a club, and karpos, fruit. The species epithet physocarpa is derived from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. These swollen capsules can be clearly seen in the picture below:

There is a slight resemblance to cotton bolls, but more so once the seeds emerge from the pods. These are dispersed by wind, aided by the tuft of silky hairs attached to each seed, shown below:

JOINTED CACTUS (OPUNTIA AURANTIACA)

Be aware when you walk through parts of the Eastern Cape veld. Be very aware for dangerous prickles can lie await in the thick tangle of grass around your ankles, on stony ground – or even on a rock where you might wish to take a rest. This painful danger comes in the form of Opuntia aurantiaca, commonly known here as Jointed Cactus, or Litjieskaktus in Afrikaans.  It is a terror of note: those tiny, sharp, needle-like thorns embed themselves into your skin – even through denim – and break off easily should you try to brush them off. These plants need a large sign: HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE!

Their flattened leaf-like stems tend to be bright green, although older plants and those exposed to the sun are sometimes tinged with reddish-purple – as seen below.

These thorny invasive plants come – as so many do – from South America and are a particular menace in the Eastern Cape, where dense infestations of them reduce the grazing potential of the land and can harm animals such as sheep. The thorns stick into the wool of sheep – and anything else that might pass close by and unwittingly aid the dispersal of the plants!

A tip I learned after painfully trying to remove individual broken ends of thorns from my legs with a pair of tweezers, is to use brown parcel tape – the plastic kind. Cover the infected area (or sections of it) with tape, smooth it down firmly … and rip! Most of the thorns stick to the tape and come out – such a relief!

BLACKJACKS

One of the most frequent search terms that appear on my blog relates in some way to Blackjacks (Bidens pilosa), demonstrating that what I have regarded as a pesky weed is clearly of greater interest to others. This piqued my curiosity and so I have put blackjacks under the microscope, metaphorically speaking.

The common blackjack is an annual plant belonging to the Asteraceae family. Like so many other species, this plant was collected and named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 – what a marvellous contribution that man has made to our collective knowledge of plants! How this particular one came to be known as a ‘blackjack’ is anyone’s guess.

I have mentioned in a previous post that blackjacks originated in South America and, while it is now common in all tropical and sub-tropical areas throughout the world, it is known that they put down their roots in South Africa over a century ago. This date can be traced to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), when British forces imported fodder mainly from Mexico and Argentina for their horses. Blackjacks formed part of this fodder.

These plants are easily recognisable for they grow tall, and have small white and yellow flowers, which then develop into clusters of barbed seeds. The flowers are borne on long, slender stalks at the end of branched stems. Each flower head has four or five short, broad white petals with numerous yellow disc florets which are pollinated by flies and bees.

To the dismay of many a gardener, blackjacks are fast growing: flowering starts a mere six weeks after the plants emerge and the seeds mature only a month later! Think about it: each plant can bear about eighty flower heads, which in turn can produce over 3 000 seeds in a single generation. You can see why these plants are widely regarded as a weed.

As you can see from the picture above, the seeds radiate outwards and have sharp awns that hook onto passing animals and people as an efficient means of dispersal. Two of the seeds are dangling from the seed head on the left, just waiting to be caught on something passing by.

If you look carefully at the flower on the right of the picture above, you will notice the cluster of seeds in the making – quite an arsenal of them packed in tightly!

The plants commonly grow in disturbed habitats, such as in gardens, farm lands, and along the road verges. The hot weather conditions in South Africa suit the ideal growing requirements of blackjacks.

Heed this anonymous quotation: But a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit.   Weeds are people’s idea, not nature’s.

A plant as prolific as this must have some uses. I find it intriguing that blackjack leaves are considered in some quarters as a ready source of food and medicine. It has been recorded as having been sold at local markets in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo during times when other vegetables are scarce. The problem is that blackjacks cannot be stored for more than a day and so, storing leaves in a ‘fridge or parboiling them before allowing them to dry in the sun are some methods of preservation that have been tried.

It is the young plants that are reputed to be the most nutritious as they contain high levels of Vitamins A and C as well as iron, and even protein. The leaves are generally eaten boiled or stir-fried. I cannot vouch for this, yet I imagine one would have to become used to their astringent taste.

The roots, leaves and seeds reportedly possess anti-sceptic and anti-inflammatory properties. For those who know how to administer the plants medicinally, decoctions of powdered leaves have been used to treat abdominal pains, headaches, and even diarrhoea. Juice from crushed leaves can apparently be used to clean cuts and superficial wounds. It has also been said that the fibrous nature of the plants promote bowel regularity and can ease constipation.

While it is fascinating to know of some of the many uses of this common weed. I wouldn’t try any of the above medicinal applications – that’s what pharmacies and pharmacists are for!

This is a list of some of the many interesting resources relating to blackjacks, their cultivation and their uses:

Henderson M. and Anderson J.G Common Weeds in South Africa Botanical Survey, Memoir No 37 1966. Department of Agricultural Technical Service.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bidens_pilosa

http://www.nda.agric.za/docs/Brochures/BlackjackPG.pdf

http://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/v3/eafrinet/weeds/key/weeds/Media/Html/Bidens_pilosa_(Blackjack).htm

http://www.tibb.co.za/articles/health-benefits-of-black-jack.pdf

https://avrdc.org/blackjack-bidens-pilosa/

https://somethingovertea.wordpress.com/tag/common-blackjack/

http://www.farmersweekly.co.za/animals/horses/beware-those-blackjacks/

https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ricette_tanzania_ENG.pdf

http://ugmed.weebly.com/plants–medicinal-power.html

https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/340215/

 

TALL VERBENA

Over the past month I have been struck by the tall purple flowers growing near the roads I have travelled on. A closer look – I am always happy to investigate something that intrigues me – revealed the flowers to look a bit like a relative of the verbena that gardeners are fond of using as ground covers. Clearly some further investigation was required.

It turns out that these flowers are commonly called Tall Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and what has really surprised me is that, far from it being an indigenous plant as I had imagined, it is actually classed as an invasive alien in many parts of the country!

Why I am taken aback by this is because I have seen it growing in the veld for years and never given it a second thought – the flowers have simply been there, occasionally waving their purple petals in the breeze but otherwise not really drawing attention from passers-by. As with so many invasive plants in this country, the Tall Verbena originates in South America and, as with others of its ilk, it grows in disturbed areas and then invades grasslands. The problem here is that it is poisonous to livestock and other grazers.

The bonus is that they are attractive to butterflies and, as this image shows, beetles too! I was attracted by this CMR beetle (actually Mylabris oculata) which is named for its similarity in colour to the uniform of the South African Cape Mounted Riflemen, which had black and yellow bands.