CRASSULA MULTICAVA

I seem to mentioning the drought rather frequently still – odd this, when parts of the country have already experienced flooding and hailstorms. We have rejoiced in the little rain that has come our way in the Eastern Cape: mostly in the form of drizzle so light that one wouldn’t bother to reach for an umbrella, yet enough to green up the grass and to encourage the trees to put out leaves. Our landscape has been transformed by the different hues of green as well as a few wild flowers here and there. One of our main water storage dams is completely empty; another I drive past regularly probably only has enough water to fill an average home swimming pool; while an aerial view of yet another shows only a thin stream of water. The latter dam used to be so full that the local rowers would use it for regattas! Alas, no more …

Hence the joy I take in drought-resistant blossoms that either grow in my garden or in the veld within easy walking distance. Our garden has always been blessed with a generous sprinkling of Crassula multicava, also known as Fairy Crassula. It was many years before I discovered what it was called: even though it can be found in many gardens in this town, no-one seemed to have a name for it. A common response I would get is “I don’t know, it seems to grow wild here.”

A ‘wild’ plant it is too for it grows all over the garden and forms a good ground cover even in the deep shade, whilst appearing to be equally happy in the sunshine. Their leaves are flat and roundish. If you look closely you might notice the tiny spots on them. These are what might have given rise to another common name for this plant, Pitted Crassula.

The colour of the leaves vary from light to dark green depending on whether the plants are growing in the sun or the shade. They contain hydathodes (which are water-secreting pores), which serve for rapid absorption of water from the leaf surface – making them ideal ‘drought’ plants. Dainty white, or pale pink, star-shaped flowers appear in sparse clusters from about May to November.

These are best appreciated when seen in a mass and attract a variety of insects, including bees and butterflies.

Crassula multicava occurs naturally from the southern Cape, through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, into Mpumalanga. They multiply rapidly – if they can do that in my drought-stricken garden, then imagine what they can do under ideal conditions. This is because, apart from the expected dispersal of seeds, these plants root easily and spread from leaves that fall or break off from the mother plant. Another form of self-propagation is that the Crassula multicava produces plantlets on the flower-head that drop off and develop into independent plants.

They seem to have all bases covered!

AGAPANTHUS

Every time I visit Cape Town, I am struck by the banks of Agapanthus (Agapanthus praecox) that line so many of the roads there. Agapanthus are grown in private gardens and public parks all over the country. It is a hardy evergreen plant, so their glossy strap-shaped leaves provide a good cover. When they are in bloom en masse, the sight is breath-taking – yet so many people take them for granted and drive on without a second glance. They really are beautiful flowers! The name ‘Agapanthus’ is derived from the Greek agapé (= love) and anthos (= flower). It would be interesting to know why it would be called a ‘flower of love’. John Manning, the author of Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa, suggests this might be an allusion to their beauty.

When you come across Agapanthus blooming in their natural habitat you might be surprised to find they do not sport the large clusters of funnel-shaped flowers you might be more familiar with.

The buds emerge once the calyx has split and the colour intensifies as the buds swell before opening.

This cluster is a mixture of swollen buds and open flowers.

Even their seed-heads look attractive.

It is interesting that this plant that grows on rocky slopes on the coastal mountains of the south-western Cape, along the banks of streams and the thickets of the south-eastern part of the country, and on montane grasslands in the eastern parts of South Africa, has become an international garden denizen. Of course they have become hybridised into a variety of forms and colours.

You will find a really interesting and far more detailed article about these flowers at:

https://naturebackin.com/2019/02/28/agapanthus-a-true-blue-summer-flowerer/

OCTOBER 2020 GARDEN BIRDS

Although I have not been able to photograph one, I am delighted to hear the Red-chested Cuckoo once more. It is commonly known as the Piet-my-vrou here, as that is what its call sounds like – a strident command early in the morning, occasionally in the afternoon and even sometimes in the evening. Both the Klaas’ Cuckoo and Diederik Cuckoo entertain us with their distinctive calls during the day. Of course the Hadeda Ibises continue to wake us early and call to each other across town before they settle down for the night.

There seems to be an explosion of the Dark-capped Bulbul population of late. They queue up to drink from the nectar feeder, biff each other out of the way to eat apples and oranges, and several pairs sit very close together on the branches in true lovey-dovey style.

I am used to the Laughing Doves rising in a whoosh whenever a particularly noisy vehicle passes by, the neighbour might slam a door, or a lawnmower starts up in a nearby garden. There are times though when all the birds disappear in a quiet flash – a sure sign of a predator on the prowl. This month began with a flying visit from an African Harrier Hawk and ended with a low-flying Yellow-billed Kite, both of which saw the garden birds head for the closest cover.

Mundane tasks, such as hanging up the laundry, can have its interesting moments too. The light and distance were of little help to me, yet I could hear the persistent tap-tap-tapping coming from nearby that I dropped what I was doing to scan the trees … and there it was: a Cardinal Woodpecker chipping away at a dead branch of the Erythrina tree that towers over the back garden.

A well turned out visitor is the male Pin-tailed Whydah. He visits fairly often, although I have only seen one female in our garden this month.

While this is the best I could do from a distance with only my cell phone at hand, here is proof that a small flock of Cape Glossy Starlings paid our garden a visit.

I have often said that birdwatching in our garden is balm for my soul. October has been no different.

My October bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
African Harrier Hawk
African Hoopoe
Amethyst Sunbird
Black-collared Barbet
Black-headed Oriole
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Dark-capped Bulbul
Diederik Cuckoo
Fork-tailed Drongo
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redchested Cuckoo
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Greenbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift

TRAVELLING LOCAL

The COVID-19 pandemic has clipped our wings in ways we would never have imagined a year ago. Initially there was the anxiety of repatriating South Africans abroad who needed to come home as well as the hundreds of people trapped here who had to return to their homes and places of work abroad. Then we were stuck: at first confined to our homes; gradually being allowed out to exercise; being restricted within provincial borders; and now we can – still with caution – enjoy what South Africa has to offer.

With so many overseas trips cancelled – and still not possible – ‘travelling local’ has taken on a new lease of life. There is a lot of ground to cover in this beautiful country! Friends and neighbours are taking advantage of setting off to explore hitherto unvisited areas or hiving off to the familiar delights of iconic places such as the Kruger National Park.

While confined to home during the initial lockdown phase, I got to know my garden very well indeed – as well as the creatures that share it with us. Nonetheless, I would gaze through our front gate with a degree of longing, yet only ventured as far as our local supermarket on my weekly grocery shopping expeditions.

Expeditions they have been too: rising in the pitch dark to enter the shop when it opened at half past six in order to avoid the lengthy queues that gathered outside after sunrise. I still go early even though the queues have somehow dissipated, and now can enjoy the fresh air and the birdsong at the start of the day. I am home by seven in the morning and the rest of the day stretches ahead, with the worst task already behind me.

‘Freedom’ first came in the form of being allowed to exercise close to home. We have got to know our local streets very well. How’s that for ‘travelling local’?

I clearly recall our first day visit to the Addo Elephant National Park. What a rigmarole it was to get in as we had to book the visit beforehand and show proof of our residence in the Eastern Cape. Then, as now, one had to fill in various forms and have one’s temperature taken – and of course wear a mask. Even though the shop, restaurant and the picnic area were closed, this didn’t detract from the sheer joy of leaving the confines of our town and being in the wild once more.

I have visited the area a few times since then, but the Mountain Zebra National Park was ‘calling’ too – especially once overnight accommodation was allowed. For the first time ever, we eschewed camping to stay in a chalet.

Another favourite place that has simply had to be savoured once more is the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Spending four days there was restorative for my soul.

We have not yet left our home province, but the rest of South Africa is beckoning …

CLIVIAS SIGNAL SPRING

I first ‘met’ clivias whilst rock climbing in KwaZulu-Natal when I was a student. The bright blooms nodding from ledges on the cliffs and peeping out from shady spots in the natural forest areas we walked through were always a pleasure to see. It was to be decades later, however, that I truly began to appreciate these beautiful indigenous lilies. This was when we moved to our home in the Eastern Cape and I discovered a bounty: the base of the Cape Fig is surrounded by clivia plants!

These glossy green strap-like leaves didn’t mean much to me at first – until they bloomed and I was enchanted by the vivid orange flowers that brightened what I call my ‘secret garden’. This is an area I have deliberately left undisturbed so it has a thick layer of mulch from the trees – ideal for clivias – which birds such as thrushes and robins like turning over to find insects. To see the buds appear is a sure sign that the travails of winter are about to be left behind.

Although these plants originate riverine forests and shady woodland areas on the eastern side of South Africa – from the Eastern Cape through to Mpumalanga –  they are such popular plants that they occur in private and public gardens all over the country. They prefer growing in shady conditions, which makes them a boon in terms of brightening up shaded areas in a garden where not much else will grow – and they are remarkably resistant to local weather conditions. That they continue to thrive in our current drought conditions is a testament to their toughness!

I enjoy their dark green leaves, their pretty flowers and – in autumn – the dark green berry-like seeds turn bright red, providing another splash of colour.

Under ideal conditions (which includes more or less leaving them alone if they are happy) clivias multiply and need to be thinned out every couple of years. I moved some plants to grace our garden path, which has become a more shaded area as the various trees we planted have matured.

Once the clivias bloom, we can be certain that spring has arrived!