THE OPEN SPACE OF MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Having been ‘pandemically confined’ for months and only recently being allowed to venture forth – almost inch by inch – or so it felt, it was a treat to spend a day in the Addo Elephant National Park. As soon as overnight accommodation was allowed, we opted to spend two nights at the Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock.

As you can see in the photograph below, the sky was heavily overcast when we arrived – that in itself has been a rare sight in our part of the Eastern Cape. Being the end of winter, the grass is dry and golden: look at the beautiful wide open expanse of the grassland with the mountain rising above it. Such space gives one the feeling of freedom!

Here is a closer look at the mountain, with an ostrich in the foreground.

The grassland in the valley seems to go on forever.

When you get close to the mountain, driving up to the plateau, you become entranced by the bulging rocks, loose boulders and the vegetation growing in between. The pale coloured trees are all Cussonia spp., known colloquially as Cabbage Trees.

Once on the plateau, you can almost see to the end of the earth – mountains and valleys that change with the light of the day. It is scenery that one can absorb in great gulps; difficult to take in all at once; the openness, the beauty, and all that space is ‘cleansing’ and healing. There is a feeling of freedom (one can forget about the pandemic there) and ‘wholesomeness’ that made me feel ‘normal’ for those few days.

CADABA APHYLLA

These bright red flowers stand out all over the Addo Elephant National Park, giving the Schotia brachypetala (Weeping Boer-boon) a run for its money. Its name has eluded me for some time until now: Cadaba aphylla is commonly known in Afrikaans as either Bobbejaanarm (arm of a baboon) or Swartstormbos (black storm bush). It is colloquially called a Leafless Wormbush in English. It looks a little like a broom plant.

These leafless tangled shrubs are often thorny at the tops. It is the clusters of red flowers that catch the eye as one drives through the park.

Characteristic of the flowers is that the long stamens protrude above the bright red petals – rather like a flag calling attention to passing pollinators!

The Cadaba aphyllum are hardy plants that survive frost as well as drought – which is why it is an ever-present delight to see in the park.

IT USED TO BE ASCLEPIAS

Birders have had to get used to the changes of familiar common names of birds – some I cannot get my head around, such as calling a Dikkop a Thick-knee. Ornithologists must have had fun as they scrutinised common names and looked at their classifications, scratched their heads, had a good laugh, got all serious – and then laid down the law. This has only applied to the English names – happily the (mostly) descriptive names in Afrikaans have remained intact. Botanists too have their fun.

Take Asclepias. I became familiar with this plant in the Milkweed family while we were living in what used to be Bophuthatswana – it grew all over in that unforgiving landscape that was regularly swept by dust storms and radiated with high temperatures and little rain. The bladder-like fruits were unusual and very attractive, especially where little else survived. It even survived the roaming goats there for its milky white latex is poisonous to livestock. Commonly known as the Balloon Plant, my wild flower guide at the time informed me its scientific name was Asclepias physocarpus. I have called them Asclepias ever since.

They are interesting looking plants and I was pleased to have one arrive in my Eastern Cape garden some years ago – alas, its presence only lasted a season or two. I occasionally see them growing in the veld near here – they are not particularly widespread around the fringes of town – and was delighted to find one growing on the neglected grass verge around the corner from my home. Since then I have watched the fruits balloon out, get dry, and burst open to reveal their silky seeds.

Asclepia what? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t appear in my newish guide to wild flowers and the ones I found on the internet looked nothing like the plant I had photographed. What now? Has my memory played tricks on me? Surely not: I have always called them Asclepias. Of course, I should have remembered that the taxonomists among botanists have also had their fun. It seems a scientist of whatever ilk loves nothing more than to fine comb names of species, to redefine families and to ‘bring order’ into the world of plants. Yes, this one has donned a new mantle in the form of Gomphocarpus physocarpus! I then remembered having written about this two years ago.

It is nonetheless worth revisiting this plant, which can grow to a height of about two metres, with its pendulous clusters of small, white to cream-coloured waxy flowers exuding a faint vanilla scent.

The flowers are followed by striking yellowish, ball-like fruits that look like hairy, inflated spheres. They start off being pale green, soft, and almost translucent.

The bladder-like follicles, covered with soft hair-like spines, swell until they turn yellowish, often tinged with red or brown.

Once these fruits have matured, they gradually split open to release brown seeds. Each seed bears a tuft of long, silky hairs at one end which aids their dispersal by wind. The seeds are dispersed by wind, aided by the tuft of silky hairs attached to each seed.

WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.

No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.

It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!

While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.

The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.

Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.

We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.

We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.

A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.

BITOU BUSH

The natural vegetation in South Africa has a way of surprising one: now, when everything is so dry and drab, splashes of yellow are appearing in the veld in the form of Bitou bushes (Osteospermum moniliferum), also known as Tickberry or Bosluisbessie in Afrikaans. Bitou is derived from the original Khoisan name for this plant.

The Bitou is widely spread in the Eastern Cape. It is an evergreen flowering shrub with glossy round leaves and are covered in pretty daisy-like yellow flowers during autumn and winter, followed by edible berries. These are visited by fruit-eating birds.

As we discovered when two ‘arrived’ in our garden (the seeds probably brought courtesy of a bird or two) many years ago, it is a fast growing shrub which soon bushed out. After about ten years though it became scraggly looking and eventually died. Even though its semi-succulent nature makes it drought tolerant, I imagine they endured one drought period too many.