The first house we moved into on arrival in Mmabatho, Bophuthatswana, had been plonked onto the semi-desert sand. All the houses there were newly constructed from bricks and the garden areas had been surrounded by a wire fence. The winds howled, and dust storms regularly swept through the area, whipping up the sand loosened by the many construction projects that were involved in the process of starting a new town in the veld. We tried growing a patch of lawn, carefully watering it and marvelling as the kikuyu grass began to spread over the hot, dry sand. Then we watched in awe as the entire ‘lawn’ was carried away by harvester ants! A row of tall, sturdy marigolds was eaten by goats. Gardening there was obviously going to be a challenge.
A group of us decided to tackle our respective ‘gardens’ in earnest and drove to the nearest nursery in Lichtenburg. A neighbour strongly advocated purchasing rosemary on the grounds that “it is hardy and I have grown it everywhere we have settled.” She and her husband had indeed lived in India and various parts of Africa in the course of his work, and so rosemary made its way into my garden too – and I have always grown rosemary wherever we have moved to.
This is not about rosemary though, but the Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum) which – given the harsh conditions we were faced with – the helpful people at the nursery recommended to us. All four of us purchased more than one of these plants and duly planted them in our respective gardens. They proved to be tough and their fragrant bright yellow flowers delighted us from about August onwards. In the Eastern Cape they are still in full bloom during December.
The Spanish Broom, as its name implies, is a native of the Mediterranean region of Europe, was imported here both for ornamental purposes and, interestingly enough, for the control of erosion: fast-growing, tough and pretty – all qualities gardeners look for when starting a garden from scratch, particularly in an inhospitable environment. What we didn’t realise at the time is that this would become an unwelcome invasive species that has proved to be particularly problematic in the Eastern and Western Cape, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga.
As attractive as they are when in bloom, the Spanish Broom is now listed among the most problematic weeds in South Africa. Given that it is estimated they can produce up to 12 000 seeds per plant, it is not surprising to learn that they tend to block light and use up water required by the indigenous plant species. The plants are unpalatable to both domestic and wild animals and the large stands of them obviously reduces available forage. These are not thoughts that cross one’s mind when starting a garden and – at the time – were certainly not expressed by the enthusiastic sales people at the nursery!
The Spanish Broom has been declared a Category 1 plant, which means they may no longer be grown anywhere in South Africa. Gardeners are expected to remove them and nurseries may no longer sell them. So much for laws: unless they are vigorously implemented the march of the Spanish Broom will continue unabated – here is only a small patch of the swathes that have established themselves along the disused railway line cutting through the bottom end of our suburb.