SPRING: ERYTHRINA CAFFRA

There are no beautiful bulbs peeping through the ground and, so far, no pastel pinks of peach blossoms or the delicate white of flowers on the plum tree. The prolonged drought has meant that once again the arrival of spring has not been heralded by an array of pretty flowers appearing among the last of the winter grass. These will all have to wait until we finally receive a soaking spring rain. Not all is lost though, for at the end of winter and well into spring we are blessed with the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina caffra.

This is a relatively young tree growing just around the corner from where we live. If one walks to the top of Hill 60 and looks down on the town stretching out below, there are spots of red all over as these trees bloom profusely before putting out their new leaves. We have ancient, giant trees, in our garden that are far too large to fit into a photograph. The best I can do is use the opportunity to show you a closer view of these blossoms that brighten the post-winter landscape.

These flowers are low down on the tree and can easily be seen from our back gate.

I also have a delightful view of the tree in our neighbour’s garden and can observe the birds visiting it every day: Black-eyed blackcaps, Olive thrushes, Black-headed orioles, Common starlings, Red-winged starlings, Cape Weavers, Village weavers, Greater double-collared sunbirds, Amethyst sunbirds, Laughing doves, Red-eyed doves, Speckled pigeons, Fork-tailed drongos … and so many more.

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.

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.

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.