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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HERALDING AUTUMN

There is no dramatic recolouring of the landscape here. Instead, autumn in our garden is heralded by the subtle fullness of the Natal figs:

These attract African Green Pigeons and Redwinged Starlings by the dozen:

The aloes are swelling in readiness for their winter blooming:

Black-eyed Susan creepers twine around other plants to provide bright colour:

Other splashes of colour come from the plumbago:

Canary creepers and Cape Honeysuckle:

While self-sown butternuts ripen on their vines.

In these years of severe water shortages, I bless the indigenous plants that simply ‘get on with it’ and do their best.

A DOZEN INDIGENOUS FLOWERING PLANTS IN MY GARDEN

When we arrived in the Eastern Cape, our garden contained the remnants of a considerable collection of exotic cacti, roses on their last legs, and a number of other exotic shrubs which did not survive the subsequent years of drought and severe water restrictions. How fortunate we were to meet someone who actually wanted to swop the cacti for several aloe species she had growing aplenty on her nearby farm!

Those early drought years drummed home the value of planting indigenous trees and shrubs. Not only have these reduced the traffic noise from the main road into town, they provide glorious deep shade during our hot summers and are a haven for a variety of bird species. The wondrous aspect of indigenous plants is that they survive drought and high winds, are low maintenance and provide the right kind of sustenance for birds and insects in the garden.

These are some of the indigenous bounty that brighten our garden at different times of the year:

Aloes

I have read that these are the perfect plants for our sunburnt country. They are marvellous the way they provide bright splashes of colour in the veld during the otherwise drab-looking winter months. Several species grow in our garden and they all attract bees, wasps, beetles, sunbirds, Blackheaded Orioles, weavers, Blackeyed Bulbuls. Mousebirds, Streakyheaded Canaries and Redwinged Starlings.

Buddleia salviifolia

buddleia

The heavy clusters of purple flowers exude a lovely lilac-like fragrance and attract a variety of butterflies – hence it is also known as the Butterfly Bush – as well as bees, Cape White-eyes, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape Robins and the Barthroated Apalis. The shrub has attractive grey-green leaves reminiscent of the culinary sage. This plant is named after the Rev. Adam Buddle (1660 – 1715), an English amateur botanist and vicar of Farnham in Essex.

Canary creeper (Senecio tamoides)

canary creeper

The masses of golden yellow flowers with deeply fringed petals make this climber a very popular garden plant. When we were living in both Pietermaritzburg and Mmabatho we actually paid what seemed like a fortune for plants from the nursery. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape, however, and so – once the flowering season is over – I end up pulling it off trees and tossing bundles of it on the compost heap! The flowers have an aromatic scent that also attracts bees, butterflies, weavers, Cape White-eyes, mousebirds and the Barthroated Apalis.

Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)

cape chestnut

[kalos means beautiful, and dendron tree in Greek, capense is Latin for from the Cape]

This sub-tropical tree is truly beautiful to look at even when it is not in flower – the shape of the tree is marvellous. They take several years to establish themselves before producing their characteristic curly, pink-spotted-lavender flowers from November to January. The blooms are especially attractive to butterflies.

Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis)

cape honeysuckle

This vigorous growing scrambling shrub is another that we used to buy from nurseries until we found ourselves inundated with it in our Eastern Cape garden – turn your back on it and it can take over! It is popular as a hedge plant in this town. I am not into such fine and regular pruning but have to cut back masses of it throughout the year. Its bright tubular red-orange flowers appear erratically and are attractive to bees, butterflies, sunbirds, weavers, Streakyheaded Canaries, Blackheaded Orioles, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Redwinged Starlings as well as mousebirds.

Clivia

clivia

These beautiful flowers are a genus of monocot flowering plants from the Amaryllidacae flowers. They occur naturally in forested areas and so prefer to grow in shade or semi-shade. I have grown some from seed but also transplant the seedlings that cluster around the large clumps. Clivias were named after Lady Charlotte Florentina Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, who was the granddaughter of Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India.

Crossberry (Grewia occidentalis)

crossberry

I wrote about Crossberries in a recent blog (see 15 November). Suffice it to say they are coming into bloom now and are looking beautiful in the garden.

Dais cotonifolia

Dais cotonifolia

The clusters of starry pink flowers have given this tree the common name of Pom-pom tree. They lose their leaves briefly at the end of winter, but are wonderful to have in the garden when covered in blossoms. These trees are special to me for their first blooms used to herald the arrival of my late mother for her annual visit over the Christmas period. Be warned: turn your back on the seedlings and you will have a forest of them on your hands – I have!

Erythrina caffra

Erythrina caffra

This is one of several Coral trees that grow in this country. I often mention the Erythrina trees in my blog as we have three enormous ones growing in our back garden which have housed the nests of Hadeda Ibises, Olive Thrushes, Laughing Doves and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds over the years. These trees are alive with birds throughout the year and provide a sunny perch for African Green Pigeons too. Not only are the scarlet flowers beautiful to look at, but so are the scarlet seeds that fall to the ground and burst from the black pods.

Mesembryanthenum

mesembryanthenum

There are a number of these fleshy plants bearing bright flowers – all self-sown. Here they are commonly known by their Afrikaans name, vygies, probably because it is less of a mouthful.

Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)

plumbago

These beautiful blue flowers are very attractive to butterflies. The plant needs regular pruning to keep it in check. It is another wonderful indigenous plant that requires little attention and rewards one with masses of flowers in season.

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra)

spekboom

This bush is native to the Eastern Cape and forms an important part of the diet of elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example. We have seen swathes of it being replanted in the Great Fish Rover Reserve and elsewhere because of its ability to capture carbon and to restore natural ecosystems. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is comparable to that of moist, subtropical forests. It is drought-resistant and produces delicate pink flowers.

FEEDING GARDEN BIRDS

Years ago I read that providing seed and / or fruit to attract birds to one’s garden does not necessarily make them dependent on it for survival. Having been away for three weeks, I can attest that birds clearly seek their nourishment elsewhere when none is provided on a daily basis for I have not noticed a decrease in them since our return.

We have truly gardened for birds, transforming our garden from a cactus haven to one with a wild forested area, indigenous fruiting trees, aloes and other indigenous flowers as well as providing an area with natural grass that is allowed to seed at will. There is actually plenty of shade, water, fruit, worms, grains, nectar and insects for the local birds to live on without them depending on me to augment their intake.

I do though – for my own enjoyment when I have tea outdoors and wish to enjoy observing the presence of the birds in my garden. Otherwise the birds feast on whatever bounty they can find. The yellow carpet of canary creeper blossoms and the orange Cape Honeysuckle flowers currently attract Cape White-eyes and Village Weavers; the fig tree hosts African Green Pigeons, Redwinged Starlings and Blackeyed Bulbuls; while the Olive Thrushes appear to be finding all sorts of interesting things to eat after the recent rain – all without any help from me.

Two articles appeared in my inbox this week that set me thinking. One suggests that providing food attracts aggressive birds, such as doves and sparrows, to the detriment of indigenous species. Can one get a bird more aggressive than a Fork-tailed Drongo on a mission? I have often mentioned the way it whips food out of the beaks of weavers on the wing – yet they happily share the ‘pub’ with the weavers, white-eyes, Black-headed Oriole and sunbirds. The other really aggressive bird is the Pin-tailed Whydah – we had a resident one in our garden for years that actively chased away anything from a canary to a Rock Pigeon – yet even he had to retire from time to time to chase his wives or to gather strength for the next onslaught!

It is true that the number of Laughing Doves feeding on the seed I scatter on the lawn have increased – I counted seventeen of them perched on the Acacia tree today and often there are many more – but they move off when the seed is done to seek food elsewhere in the garden and wider afield. They jostle for the food along with weavers, bulbuls, thrushes, Bronze Manikins among others – each intent on getting what they can while it is still there and sometimes returning later in the day to glean what had been missed. They certainly do not hang around waiting for the next feeding session.

I mix the finer wild bird seed with crushed poultry grain for the hanging feeder as this gives the smaller birds, such as the Bronze Manikins and various canaries a better chance of getting something more suited to them.

Granted, the findings described in the article refer to gardens in New Zealand. In South Africa we are fortunate to have a wide variety of bird species that have adapted to urban living and which enjoy the natural food in addition to whatever I might provide.

Of greater concern is a warning against using artificial sweeteners in bird feeders. The article specifically mentions Xylitol, an alcohol sugar used in many brands of sweeteners. It refers to such concoctions having caused the death of up to 30 Cape Sugarbirds in one area.

Some people are opposed to the provision of providing sugar ‘nectar’ while others actively encourage the practice – especially in times of drought. My experience is that when there are many other natural sources available, our ‘pub’ is hardly visited at all.

What are your thoughts on providing some food for the wild birds that visit your garden?