CASTOR OIL PLANT

In these end days of winter when most of the veld is covered with the grey-brown or faded yellow of grasses that have lost their seeds, become brittle and are – like us – waiting for the first spring rains to bring forth green shoots, any bright green leaves stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. While a host of trees and shrubs in South Africa are evergreen, we are familiar with them; with their shape, their leaves and their colour. What stands out are plants like this one that do not belong. The Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus communis) is a shrub with waxy stems and large star-shaped leaves with serrated edges. This is another invasive alien that I learned from early childhood to keep well away from for it is toxic. In fact, those reddish stems (to me) serve as a warning not to fiddle with.

The Castor Oil Plant is thought to have originated from the tropical parts of Africa and, as with other alien invasive plants, they have in the past been grown for their ornamental qualities as well as on a commercial scale here. The problem is that escapees have become wide-spread weeds that thrive in the disturbed soil along the edges of roads and open land as well as along water courses. There is one growing to the right of  the make-shift ladder which is next to a river in the following photograph.

The spiny fruits develop on an erect spike. Although castor oil is extracted from the seeds, they should on no account be eaten! The seeds are highly toxic, especially for horses, although it is interesting to read that livestock are able to ingest the leaves without any ill-effects.

As a declared invader plant, it must be eradicated if found growing on one’s property.

PATTERNS IN NATURE: DATURA SEED PODS

In places the dry winter veld shows up patches of the skeletal remains of the Datura plants that ripened during the autumn months. The spiky green fruits have since dried, split open and scattered their highly toxic seeds that will spawn new plants once the spring rains have arrived.

SYRINGAS

There was a time when Syringa (Melia azedarach) trees – also known as Persian Lilac (not a name I am familiar with) were planted as attractive shade trees in gardens and as street trees.

The Syringa is the large tree on the right, spreading across the street.

The origin of these trees is said to be in India and the Far East, from where they were largely imported for ornamental purposes. Apparently they were already well established in Natal gardens by 1894 and in the Lowveld in the early 1900s. Our municipality removed the indigenous trees we had planted on our verge and replaced them with syringa trees – what a scourge they are proving to be!

Their popularity as street and garden trees stems from them being both fast-growing and look attractive year-round. Their glossy green leaves provide deep shade and in spring the trees are covered in delicately scented lilac-coloured flowers, favoured by bees for their pollen.  This fragrance is especially noticeable in the late afternoons and early evenings after a warm day. The flowers are followed by clusters of golden berries which remain even after the trees are bare of leaves. My parents exhorted us from an early age not to eat syringa berries as they are highly toxic!

Given that each tree produces a significant number of berries, it is not surprising that that there are syringa trees all over the country, except for the driest regions. Syringas are invasive trees that are known to have choked streams and formed dense thickets that displace indigenous vegetation.

I have noticed that, among other birds, the Speckled Mousebirds and Knysna Turacos enjoy eating the ripe berries. Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves settle on the streets to eat the fallen seeds that have been crushed by passing vehicles. Seeds are also dispersed by water. A look at the neglected watercourses that run through the town show how easily the trees propagate along the edges and clog up the flow of the water.

EUCALYPTS

Human beings are impatient creatures: we lack the patience to wait. There is an English proverb that reminds us that if you want to be happy for a year, plant a garden; if you want to be happy for life, plant a tree.  ‘Happy for life’ is a long time – and one has to wait for several years before you can truly enjoy the beauty / the shade / the fruit of the saplings you have planted – and even longer if you started the process from seed. It has taken some trees thirty years to grow into the shade trees we imagined when this garden first became ours – we only planted indigenous trees, and they have taken their time. An African proverb informs us that the tree breaks that takes all the force of the wind, and that brings me to the Eucalypts and the lack of patience we practice.

Eucalypts – often called gum trees here – are fast growing and have been planted in this country since the 1800s. They proved to be a quick source of timber – particularly for the mining and paper industries – but have also been planted as shade trees. I imagine these ones, growing next to the ruins of a farm house in the Free State, may have performed that function.

Their usefulness extends to providing nectar and pollen for bees, as well as providing wind breaks on farms. You would be surprised to see the number of short straight lines of Eucalypts and pines growing on farms throughout South Africa –a windbreak is needed now so plant these imports and get one growing quickly! These trees are a remnant from a windbreak planted out in the country decades ago.

The trees in this photograph grow not far from our home and were possibly meant to form a windbreak for the first houses to be built on the side of this hill.

Another example of a possible windbreak are these gigantic trees growing along the edge of our botanical gardens.

As is the nature of trees, there are many escapees from the timber plantations and farms and the downside of this is that these trees consume more water than indigenous species do – not a good attribute in a country that is short of water even in the best of rainy seasons. We used to have a stand of Eucalypts growing on our farm. Once they had been removed, it was amazing to see how quickly the little dam filled up!

There is no denying that apart from being useful – and invasive – Eucalypts can be beautiful too. The bark of some of them peels away in papery slices to reveal a lighter under bark, creating an attractive contrast of colours.

Traffic was held up recently when a Eucalypt fell across a road on the outskirts of town during a particularly windy period – not my own photograph.

A similar row of trees used to line the entrance to our town on the way in from Bedford. These were removed many years ago and some indigenous trees planted in their wake (since either chomped by the Urban Herd or died through lack of water) and this is all that is left of what had been tall, stately trees that shielded drivers from the piercing sunlight in the late afternoons.

NO BEES

Bees have been very scarce in our garden for a while now. I am thus concerned that the few flowers we have enjoyed this winter have fallen foul of the lack of pollinators.

BUT WE HAVE THESE:

While looking at the stunted, yet very pretty, self-sown cosmos I noticed it being visited by this insect:

A much closer view reveals it to look like this:

It moved to the next flower and was joined by this one:

Both have a long proboscis. There are a lot of ordinary flies about too, so I realise I need to stop thinking about bees, butterflies, moths and beetles being the only pollinators – nature makes sure there is a variety.