FIERY SUNSET

A veld fire burned at the top of the hill behind where we live – an all too common feature when the grass becomes tinder dry as a result of a combination of drought and winter.

Small flames creating a lot of smoke

Flames are whipped by the wind

Smoke soon filled the valley

The sunset was all the more spectacular as a result

Leaving a glowing sky in its wake

BARK STRIPPING FOR MEDICINAL USE

Bark is a popular traditional medicinal product harvested from a range of trees growing in natural forests in this country. Sustainable bark collection is one thing – it is quite another if a tree is over-harvested or becomes ring-barked as it will die. Unless the bark is harvested in small quantities and with care, the injury caused to trees leads to wood deterioration as a result of insect damage and fungal infection.

It was while walking through the patch of natural forest tucked into the side of the mountain along the Dassiekrans Trail the other day that we came across these examples of bark harvesting:

A slice of bark has been carefully removed from one side of this tree trunk.

Although the gashes on this tree trunk look horrendous to me, the botanists accompanying us on the walk assured us that this too is a mark of sustainable bark collection and that it has not harmed the tree in terms of its longevity.

This is an example of of what was identified as unsustainable bark stripping.

One can already see signs of rot and the deterioration of the trunk.

DROUGHT SURVIVORS

We walked along a ridge on one of the nearby hills the other afternoon and were struck by the shrubs, flowers and succulents that have managed to survive not only a devastating fire that burned the area about a year ago, but the current severe drought conditions and the number of cattle that pass through the area from time to time – part of the Urban Herd I keep mentioning. These drought survivors are proof that it is best to focus on indigenous plants for one’s garden. I will focus on three of the succulents that we came across in the veld.

The first is Faucaria tigrina also known as Tiger’s Jaw.

It was exciting to come across these plants that are endemic to the Grahamstown area. They grow in Albany Thicket as well as on open sandstone patches and among rocks. Rather frighteningly though, they have become such an endangered species that they have been listed in the Red List of South African Plants! This is largely because their natural habitat is shrinking due to urban expansion as well as overgrazing.

As you can see, they grow in clumps of stemless, star-shaped rosettes with the threadlike structures that collect water vapour from the surrounding air and direct it down toward the roots of the plant. The seeds are borne in hard fruit capsules. The many whitish flecks on the reddish leaves resemble the lichens and reddish rocks in its natural surroundings – a good camouflage for, except for those growing in bare patches, they were difficult to see. Here is a picture of a lichen-covered rock nearby:

The first documented discovery of Faucaria tigrina was during an expedition in 1789 by Francis Masson, who collected plants for Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, where they were named by Adrian Haworth. The genus name comes from the Latin word faux meaning jaw and tigrina for tiger.

While on the subject of Adrian Haworth, the next interesting succulent is the Haworthia reinwardtii, commonly called Haworthia or as Zebra Wart. This genus is named after the same Adrian Haworth mentioned above in 1821.

These plants are also indigenous to the Eastern Cape, occurring south to south-east of Grahamstown between the Kowie and Fish Rivers and eastwards from the Fish River towards East London. They typically grow on dry rocky hillsides, often under taller emergent shrubs, or in the shade of rocks. It was disturbing to find a number of these plants had obviously become uprooted by cattle passing through the area – that Urban Herd again!

As you can tell from the photograph, the tightly-packed, columnar rosettes of this plant are comprised of small, pointy, fleshy leaves of dark green marked with bumpy, raised white bands that form a rosette. The mature specimens form into spreading clumps of numerous small rosettes connected by fleshy, fibrous roots.

The last of the succulents I want to show you is the Euphorbia obesa, also called a Zulu Hut or Baseball plant. This was a particularly exciting find out here in the veld, not only because they are so well camouflaged that they can be very difficult to see, but because they too are endangered. They are slow-growing and have been subjected to illegal over-collection in their native habitat – also in the Eastern Cape – and are now protected by national (Nature Conservation) and international (CITES) legislation and may not be removed from its natural habitat.

These plants contain water reservoirs that see to their survival during times of drought. Their preferred habitat is very stony and hilly and they grow in full sun or in partial shade. Young plants resemble a sea-urchin in shape, while older plants can become elongated. The flowers are produced on fork-branched peduncles – the dry remnants of which can be seen in the next photograph.

Professor Peter Macowan (1830-1909), a botanist from Gill College in Somerset East, discovered Euphorbia obesa growing near Graaff-Reinet in 1897. He collected this peculiar ball shaped succulent plant and sent it to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, where the plant named by Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911).

CLIVIA SEEDS

Despite the paucity of flowers during this very dry time of the year, the shadier parts of the garden are brightened up by the scarlet seeds on the clivia plants.

Clivias are South African bush lilies and I look forward to showcasing them once they are in bloom again. Meanwhile, it is interesting to learn that the plant is named after the Duchess of Northumberland, Lady Charlotte Clive, who died in 1866.

The ones growing in my garden are the Clivia miniata that grow in partial shade in forests and along the coast of eastern South Africa. They multiply over time and so, what started as a clump beneath the fig tree when we arrived, have now been planted in various other spots in our garden, in the gardens of neighbours and have even been successfully transplanted to a Gauteng garden. Sharing plants must be one of a gardener’s greatest pleasures.

YOU CAN’T EAT MONEY

I have just enjoyed a pot of delicious Sasini tea whilst catching a wintry sun in the garden. This is a time when I can be contemplative and enjoy watching the birds in peace – and what a variety there were too!

First, the tea: this packet of very fine loose tea leaves was a gift from a friend after a visit to Kenya some years ago.  Sasini is one of the major tea producers in that country, so I was pleased to try it out at the time and continue to dip into it now and again. Do not make the mistake of following the traditional recipe of one teaspoon per person and one for the pot if you are not fond of strong tea: this tea is strong, smooth and creamy to the taste. It is a perfect tea to drink slowly while watching birds, reading or enjoying good company. I like it with a splash of milk.

Then, the birds. I was outdoors for only half an hour and in that time noted twenty species of birds. First up was a Blackheaded Oriole drinking from the nectar pub. This was also visited several times by a pair of Forktailed Drongos and a number of weavers – both Cape Weavers and Village Weavers.

Laughing Doves abound as usual and this morning were joined by a pair of Redeyed Doves, a Cape Turtle Dove and the Rock Pigeons that live in our roof.

A Cape Robin cautiously inspected the apples on the feeding tray before it was ousted by a cheeky Blackeyed Bulbul and an overbearing Olive Thrush. The apples were also a drawcard for a Boubou, some Common Starlings, a Fiscal Shrike, and a Blackcollared Barbet.

A flock of Bronze Manikins feasted on the fine seed in the ‘bird house’ feeder and, as I was about to come indoors, a Knysna Lourie made its rasping call from the fig tree.

What has all of this got to do with money? A lot. You see, while I was sipping my tea and enjoying the birds, I got to thinking about how fortunate we are: even though we are in the grip of drought, the crassula is blooming,

Plumbago flowers are putting on a brave show, the air smells fresh, the garden is filled with the sound of birds, and the clear sky forms a beautiful backdrop for the emerging flowers of the Erythrina caffra. Not bad for a drought.

And then … I happened across this quotation by the filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

Yes, I thought, we can’t eat money despite so many people pursuing it at all costs. We can, however, become stewards of nature – even in our own gardens.

IN THE FOREST

Having walked down the Dassiekrans path from the top of Mountain Drive, we ascended through the forest.

Apart from the sweet dampness and the shadows cast by the trees, I was struck by the variety of mosses covering the tree trunks, creating an atmosphere of magical beauty.

There was lichen too.

Instead of the crunching of dry leaves underfoot, which is what we generally experience during this drought, we walked on a beautifully damp, soft carpet of variegated hues made by the leaf litter.

It is through this mulch that a young cussonia tree has started its journey towards the light.