Dr Keith Bensusan is the Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, ‘The Alameda’, on the Rock of Gibraltar. He writes of his recent trip to South Africa with his colleagues Rhian Guillem and Leslie Linares, to see our wildflowers. Our sincere thanks to Keith for this memory of his recent trip.
“We’re going to organise a braai for tomorrow night,” said Bobby and Pat Beckman, our most amiable hosts at Disa Lodge, “you must meet our friends”.
We had travelled from Gibraltar to visit western South Africa, from Springbok to Cape Town, and view the incredible wild flower displays. Nieuwoudtville in particular had been spectacular, with vast carpets of colour, and we had already rummaged around many of Darling’s well-conserved flower sites. Places such as Tinie Versfeld, Waylands and Oudepost may not quite match the kaleidoscopic shows of other areas along the West Coast and in Namaqualand, but they hold a staggering diversity of intricately patterned bulbs and other plant groups that are far more rewarding for the serious botanist than fields of daisies. For visitors from other parts of the world, searching for these is a magical experience.
The Beckmans had decided that, since we were botanists, we should meet their friends Con and Jenny Meyer for a meal and a drink. Luckily Con (‘the Meyer of Darling’), who was until recently the president of the Darling Wild Flower Society, decided to drop by Disa Lodge during breakfast. “You are out today? Where? I’d made plans, but I’ll see whether I can join you”.
We headed to the Darling Renosterveld Reserve as the morning warmed up. Renosterveld is an important habitat of short, open scrub that typically hides an impressive variety of flora. (There is a dazzling variety of habitats in this part of South Africa, each with its own name, and we owe it to the industry of those who studied and categorised them so meticulously to learn their names and features.) All of the flower reserves around Darling hold at least some Renosterveld. We traipsed through the reserve and, just as we were finding our first Kalkoentjies Gladiolus alatus, we were spotted by Con, who had kindly cancelled his plans for the day to join us.
Con steered us around the reserve ably, pointing out all of his favourite flowers. “I know the common names,” Con told us, “not the scientific names”. Those Afrikaans names sounded exotic and so much prettier than the often clunky, latinised binominals (surname first, followed by first name). I wished I knew them all as Con does. We saw the pretty white form of the Poublom Spiloxene capensis, Agretjie Ixia scillaris, Bleek Kalossie Ixia lutea, Kelkiewyn Bobejaantjie Babiana rubrocyanea and, best of all, we were finally led to a multitude of Kalkoentjies, which Con knew would crown a very successful visit.
We walked through an area that had recently been cleared, close to the entrance. “This was full of Kalkoentjies” we were told, “but it was flattened as a car park, to allow closer access to the water supply during the drought”. Access to water is understandable, but the tanks were close enough to the road as it is and, what is more, it had been carried out without following the necessary legal processes. This was challenged by conservationists, with the courts declaring not only that the clearing had been illegal, but that the authorities were now required to strengthen protection of the reserve. Justice works here for plants and so it should, when the flora is of global importance.
Time was getting on and reaching Rondeberg Private Nature Reserve was now our priority. The entrance lies along the N7 and it can be accessed through prior arrangement. As soon as we entered, we realised how lucky we were to be here with Con. He and his wife Jenny live here and know the place and its plants inside out. Moreover, Con is the cousin of Mark Duckitt, who owns the reserve with his wife Carol.
Our first stop was the Meyer household, a wonderfully eco-friendly, entirely sustainable place with incredible character. It suited the Meyers perfectly. After lunch with some lovely Darling wine, Jenny suggested that we visit ‘the Pan’, which turned out to be a clearing covered in flowering bulbs, among which dainty Butterfly Uintjie Moraea papilionacea and showy Geel Poublom Spiloxene canaliculata stood out, together with striking Snotrosie Drosera cistiflora.
By this stage Mark Duckitt had joined us and we sought out Carol next, who was with their collection of herbarium specimens and botanical paintings, which she curates skilfully. What a treasure they hold! We studied these marvels with care, one by one, as Carol told us about them. Mark and Carol were incredibly friendly and welcoming people, but we eventually had to move on, as there was still much of the reserve to see.
We continued along the sandveld, screeching to a halt when a flash of red was spotted along a sandy track, our first Rotstert Babiana ringens. Now a word about this incredible plant. The name Rat’s Tail does an enormous disservice to the plant’s beauty, and to the incredible adaptation to which the name refers. For the species flowers around its base and the main stem serves only a single function: to act as a perch for its pollinator, the Malachite Sunbird Nectarinia famosa. A highly diverse flora is a factory of evolutionary marvels and here, in the Western Cape, Babiana ringens is one of the poster boys for Darwinism. The very different Sandveld Bobbejaantjie Babiana nana was further testament to the physical changes that closely-related species can undergo due to evolutionary pressures.
The next stage of our visit was an ascent to a series of granite outcrops on a hill, where the flora changes suddenly. Thousands of Chinkerinchee Ornithogalum thyrsoides were beginning to open in clearings on the hill, where striking Blousysie Geissorhiza aspera were also common. At the summit, the beautiful Kaneelbol Pelargonium lobatum grew among an array of shrubs and succulents. Con pointed to a seemingly insignificant puddle among the granite boulders that implausibly holds a population of a very rare brine shrimp. Another outcrop further down supported a population of the rare and localised Kleinaalwyn Aloe distans, as well as a beautiful form of the Spinnekopblom Ferraria crispa, which is surely one of the region’s star attractions.
It was now getting late and we were all due back at the Beckman’s for dinner, where we were also joined by Peter and Cat Hall. The food, drink and company were first-rate and the conversation flowed. Peter even asked me whether I would write something for his online newspaper. He must have heard that I become especially agreeable after drinking good wine. “Write about today” suggested Con. How could I say no?
“We take for granted how lucky we are to live in Africa”, Peter had remarked during the evening. And that took me back to Con’s words over lunch: “This is a beautiful country, and it is where I am from. A lot of people have left, but I am not going anywhere”. For if you love flowers, warm-hearted people, good food and wine, there can be nowhere better on Earth.