LAST SPLASHES OF COLOUR

There has been no soft introduction to spring this year. Even the peach blossoms shrivelled within a day or two before disappearing in the dry wind. For two or three days I thought the jasmine flowers would fill the garden with their scent after each hot day – they too shrivelled and died without ceremony. There are not even single flowers to herald the spring in my garden – and not many in the veld either! I think anything that pops its head above ground in the latter gets grazed by wild and domestic animals eager for moisture and the taste of anything other than short, dusty grass.

At least indigenous trees know how to survive in this heat (we have already experienced 41°C without reaching the official summer) and dry weather. Most sport green leaves in different hues, even though some remain bare and skeletal looking. The last vibrant splashes of winter colour come from the Erythrina trees.

The Erythrina caffra in our back garden has been flowering for weeks and is only now beginning to cover itself with green leaves.

Several Erythrina lysistemon trees grow in the suburbs and their scarlet flowers are balm for the soul.

FOUR HUNGRY BIRDS

The birds in our garden are regularly supplied with seeds and fruit, although there are a number of berries on indigenous trees at this time of the year as well as succulent flowers on the Erythrina caffra tree especially. Weavers and other smaller birds are provided with fine grass seeds in the hanging feeders and coarse seeds, such as crushed maize and millet are scattered on the ground for doves and pigeons. Well, that is the way it is supposed to work. Here is one of many Cape Weavers making the most of the abundance of Erythrina caffra flowers.

Amethyst sunbirds, Speckled Mousebirds, Common Starlings, Black-headed Orioles, Fork-tailed Drongos, Laughing Doves, African Green Pigeons, Black-eyed Bulbuls and a variety of other birds visit these blossoms during the day. Laughing Doves, Red-eyed Doves and the Speckled Pigeons also gather below the hanging feeders to eat the seeds that fall to the ground. These Laughing Doves have decided to get to the source:

Not to be outdone, a Speckled Pigeon has usurped Morrigan’s feeder for a good meal:

There are a lot of berries and seeds around for the Speckled Mousebirds to feed on, but here they have homed in on an orange I put out on the feeding tray:

CHANGING SEASONS

As the cycle of life continues, the seasons gradually bring change with them. We can already see the end of winter and an early start to spring in our garden. These range from dry seed pods, to the bright blooms of the Erythrina caffra, to a peach tree that is hastening from blossoming to sprouting leaves – as if there is no time to waste.

Some birds have already hatched their first batch of young, while others, such as this Cape Weaver, are sporting snazzy new courting colours.

NOTE: Click on a photograph should you wish to see a larger version.

BLACK-HEADED ORIOLE

Most of the photographs I have posted of a Black-headed Oriole (Oriolus larvatus) have been taken while one has been visiting the nectar feeder. It has been easier this way as they tend to frequent the tall trees and so are hidden by the foliage. The latter is thinning out now that winter is upon us, making it easier to spot this one perched in the branches of the Erythrina caffra growing in the back garden.

There were two of them – too far apart to frame together – calling to each other, their liquid sounds passing to and fro between them. This one has been captured whilst calling to its mate. You can see its strong bill, which aids its diet of fruit, berries and insects – apart from nectar, which it is partial to.

ERYTHRINA SEEDS

The Erythrina caffra trees in our back garden epitomise the strange weather patterns that have characterised the past year: they are sporting green leaves and yellow leaves, are shedding brown leaves and have clusters of open seedpods clinging to them in the gusty wind, exposing their scarlet seeds.

This is one of many pods that have been detached and scattered by the wind.

COMMON CORAL TREE

At this time of the year the brilliant scarlet flowers of the coral trees are giving way to the bright green of new leaves. Soon black pods will form that will, in time, pop open to reveal the hard scarlet seeds. The trees in our garden are all Erythrina caffra, which has a fairly limited distribution along the coastal regions of the Eastern Cape and Kwa Zulu Natal – which is why it is sometimes called the Coast Coral Tree. Their vermillion flowers are the most common variety, which you can see in combination with the new leaves in our back garden.

Some trees bear flowers that are more orange and others cream-coloured flowers, such as this specimen photographed in Port Elizabeth.

The tree I grew up with in Mpumalanga, is the widely distributed Erythrina lysistemon. Because it grows over much of the country, it is known as the Common Coral Tree. It is a particularly spectacular tree as the flowers are usually a bright scarlet. They produce abundant nectar that attracts many birds and insects.

Several of these trees have been blooming in and around Grahamstown.

 

HERITAGE SITES IN GRAHAMSTOWN: BOTANICAL GARDENS

The Botanical Gardens in Grahamstown are situated on land granted to the Albany Botanical Gardens by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Cathcart, with the transfer of Erf 3282 being passed on 19th October 1853. More land was allocated to the project a year later and the gardens have expanded since then.

An avenue of oak trees runs through the centre of the gardens – clearly these are replacements of the original trees. This was the oldest plantation of oaks in or near Grahamstown at the time. This avenue historically formed an important carriageway from Lucas Avenue to Mountain Drive.

The gardens, affectionately known as ‘Bots’, but now officially called Makana Botanical Gardens, are adjacent to the beautiful campus of Rhodes University. Owing to the neglect of the gardens over a number of years, a rehabilitation and redevelopment programme was initiated by SANBI between 2004 and 2006. The Makana District (formerly Albany) granted Rhodes University a 99 year lease on the understanding that the gardens would be maintained by that institution during that time.

For some time afterwards the gardens were a joy to walk through with a variety of indigenous flowers blooming at different times of the year and an interesting array of paved paths winding up towards the top of Gunfire Hill. The paths are still there but an air of genteel neglect is pervasive.

Given the prolonged drought, it is perhaps understandable that the lily ponds have been drained. One of these lily ponds was created to commemorate Captain Fordyce (who died in the Amatolas in 1851 in the War of Mlanjeni). Only the hardiest of flowers are blooming in the overgrown and neglected garden beds. One being Felicia aethiopica.

The other is a Sour Fig.

A number of mature trees have survived both drought and neglect – there is a lovely grove of Erythrina caffra.

The very tall Bunya Pine Tree (Araucaria bidwillii) near the entrance has a sign warning visitors to be careful of falling pine cones. Read the sign and you will understand why!

This and other exotic trees hark back to an era when the gardens showcased plants from all over the world.

A military cemetery, dating from 1819 to 1822, lies within the grounds of the botanical gardens – overgrown with grass and weeds. A seedling white ironwood is growing right next to one of the head stones.

Apart from one, the remaining headstones can no longer be read because of weathering and the growth of lichen on them. The earliest grave is that of Captain R. Gethin, who died in the Battle of Grahamstown in 1819.

These botanical gardens, once part of the Drostdy Estate, are the second oldest in South Africa and bear the status of a Provincial Heritage Site. They were officially proclaimed a National Monument in July 1984.

Interesting background reading about the history of this area can be found at:

https://www.sahra.org.za/sahris/sites/default/files/remoteserver/sahrisdepot/scannedfiles/Part%202%20Vol3%20%209-2-003-2.pdf