MAY GARDEN 2018

The bounty of fruit of the Natal Fig (Ficus natalensis) has been eaten, leaving lean pickings for the Redwinged Starlings and causing the majority of African Green Pigeons to seek fruit elsewhere – although some still return to roost here overnight. Apart from a wide variety of birds, such as Speckled Mousebirds, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Blackcollared Barbets, Cape White-eyes, Blackheaded Orioles, Olive Thrushes, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, and Grey-headed Sparrows, the fruit also attracts a variety of insects and the small insectivorous bats that swoop around the garden as the day ends. The latter often remind me of D.H. Lawrence’s description of bats in the poem of the same name:

Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop…
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,  
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

In the back garden, the Erythrina caffra (Coral tree) is sporting clusters of seedpods split open to reveal their coral-red seeds which, in due course, fall to the ground. These small, shiny seeds marked on the one side with a black spot are also known as lucky beans. Laughing Doves and Forktailed Drongos perch in the high branches to catch the warmth of the early morning sun and again in the late afternoon.

The Black Sunbirds and Greater Double-collared sunbirds as well as Blackcollared Barbets, Blackheaded Orioles, Cape- and Village Weavers as well as Redwinged starlings are regular visitors too.

I have mentioned before that the name Erythrina, originates from the Greek word erythros meaning red and alludes to the bright red flowers and seeds. Caffra is derived from the Arabic word for an unbeliever, and as used in older botanical works generally indicates that the plant was found well to the south of the range of Arab traders, that is, along the [south] eastern seaboard of South Africa. Carl Thunberg, known as the father of South African botany, gave the names in 1770.

In parts of South Africa, both the Erythrina caffra and the Erythrina lysistemon are regarded as a royal tree; much respected and admired in Zulu culture and believed to have magic properties. Specimens have been planted on the graves of many Zulu chiefs. In parts of the Eastern Cape, local inhabitants will not burn the wood of Erythrina caffra for fear of attracting lightning.

The indigenous Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) has come into full bloom, covering the trees and shrubs with a canopy of bright golden yellow flowers that attract the Barthroated Apalis, Cape White-eyes and a variety of butterflies. These flowers also exude a delightful aromatic scent that adds to the pleasure of being in the garden.

Equally beautiful are the bright orange tubular flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) that are coming into bloom. These attract the nectar-feeding Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared sunbirds, Streaky-headed Seedeaters, Cape Weavers and Village Weavers as well as several butterflies.

Trusses of the beautiful pale blue Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) flowers are also starting to appear.

The first aloes are coming into bloom too and are visited regularly by the Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, Streakyheaded Seedeaters, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, Blackheaded Orioles and Cape White-eyes.

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SCABIOSA COLUMBARIA

Scabiosa columbaria, also known as Bitterbos or Wild Scabious, is widespread in South Africa, occurring mostly in grasslands, on rocky slopes and in bushveld habitats. Scabiosa, is derived from the Latin scabies meaning ‘to scratch’ – possibly because the plants were used medicinally to relieve the itch of scabies and skin sores. The flowers attract a number of butterflies and make a beautiful show when growing en masse – it is not always easy to appreciate this effect in the grasslands though!

They are in bloom at the moment and are well worth looking out for.

References:

Gledhill Eily Veldblomme van Oos-Kaapland Cape Nature Conservation (undated).

Manning John Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa Struik Nature 2009.

GIANT CANDELABRA LILY

It was in March that I commented on the beauty of the Giant Candelabra Lilies (Brunsvigia grandiflora) blooming in the grasslands of the Addo Elephant National Park.

Now that summer has ended, these beautiful blooms have ‘disappeared’ and will surprise us again next year. All that we see now is the odd tumbleweed rolling across the veld, dispersing seeds as it goes. Here is one that has not yet set off on its journey:

Of course the plants don’t disappear, but as they grow in grassland, we tend not to be aware of their prostrate leaves unless we stumble across them while walking in the veld. This is what they look like:

ERYTHROS

Erythros is the Greek word for red. The genus Erythrina is derived from this word – an allusion to the colour of the flowers, such as this Erythrina lysistemon, photographed in the Addo Elephant National Park.

I have often mentioned the Erythrina caffra that towers over our back garden. Collectively, Erythrinas are known as coral trees these days, although some also refer to them as ‘lucky bean trees’. This is a reference to the bright red seeds that split from the black pods. These can be found scattered on the ground below the trees and are often collected simply to look pretty in jars, or to be made into necklaces or bracelets.

Combine erythros with phobia to form erythrophobia and you have the word to describe an extreme fear of blushing, or a hypersensitivity to the colour red. My dictionary also gives me erythrocyte, which is a blood cell of vertebrates that transports oxygen and carbon dioxide combined with haemoglobin.

Given all this information, could we then (just for fun) describe a particularly red sunset as an ‘erythrostic’ sunset? I present two examples, both taken in the Kruger National Park, for you to look at while you decide.

WILD FOXGLOVES

The Wild Foxglove (Ceratotheca triloba) reminds me of summer and early autumn in the Lowveld. Ceratotheca refers to the horned capsules and originates from the Greek kerato (horned) and theke (a case), while triloba refers to the plant having three leaves.

It might not be as ‘showy’ as the exotic ones favoured by gardeners, but it has a beauty of its own – especially when seen growing in clumps, as we did in the Kruger National Park.

The bottom flowers bloom first and form fruits while buds are developing higher up. Here a plant is being given a thorough going through by a Baboon.

This process left many of the tall spikes stripped of their blossoms and the stems bent and broken.

It is always pleasing to see them on our infrequent visits to KwaZulu-Natal too.

Here it is easier to get a closer look at the trumpet-shaped lilac flowers with their characteristic dark streaks at the throat. The latter are easier to see from close up as the flowers hang in clusters – hiding this beautiful aspect from the average passer-by.

They tend to grow in disturbed soil and so are commonly seen along the side of the road and in grasslands. Despite its name, this ‘foxglove’ actually belongs to the ‘sesame’ family!

BALLOON WILD COTTON

The changing of names of birds, trees and other plants can make seeking information rather puzzling at times. Take the strange looking plant, Balloon Wild Cotton (Balbossie) for example. I first came across it growing in the veld while we were living in Mmabatho during the 1980s. So little grew in that wind-blown, sandy place that we delighted in anything green. Then this plant was readily identified as Asclepias physocarpa. Quite appropriately, some gardening books of the time recommended planting it to provide something green in very dry areas (such as we were living in at the time) with the added recommendation that the seed pods could effectively be used in arrangements.

I have subsequently discovered that it is now known as Gomphocarpus physocarpus. Another surprising discovery – for this plant is widespread in South Africa – is that it is actually a naturalised plant from tropical Africa! I would love to know how it arrived here e.g. did it arrive on its own or introduced for the floral trade? It seems to thrive in the Eastern Cape.

According to http://pza.sanbi.org/gomphocarpus-physocarpus the genus Gomphocarpus is derived from the Greek gomphos meaning a club, and karpos, fruit. The species epithet physocarpa is derived from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. These swollen capsules can be clearly seen in the picture below:

There is a slight resemblance to cotton bolls, but more so once the seeds emerge from the pods. These are dispersed by wind, aided by the tuft of silky hairs attached to each seed, shown below:

KAROO IRIS

The autumnal Karoo landscape is dotted about with mauve flowers of the Karoo Iris (Moraea polystachya) which has distinctive yellow markings.

This flower was first described by Thunberg in 1782, from a collection he had made in the Eastern Cape ‘in the area of the Sundays and Fish Rivers’. I find it fascinating to discover that our flora was already being studied over two hundred years ago!

Seeing them blooming so prolifically, it is surprising to learn that each flower lasts for only a day. The flowering period lasts for six to eight weeks, however, ensuring a succession of flowers that brighten up the veld – even though they have proved to be toxic to domestic livestock. The photograph above shows withered blossoms, fresh blossoms, as well as tightly curled buds getting ready to open.