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About Deviant Willem van der MerweMale/South Africa Groups :iconliving-earth: Living-Earth
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Cardinal Woodpecker by WillemSvdMerwe Cardinal Woodpecker :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 187 23 White-Winged Flufftail by WillemSvdMerwe White-Winged Flufftail :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 300 27 Tiarajudens fighting by WillemSvdMerwe Tiarajudens fighting :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 57 9 Tiarajudens eccentricus by WillemSvdMerwe Tiarajudens eccentricus :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 97 12 Choerosaurus dejageri by WillemSvdMerwe Choerosaurus dejageri :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 86 18 Glanosuchus macrops by WillemSvdMerwe Glanosuchus macrops :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 160 23 Inostrancevia alexandri (new version) by WillemSvdMerwe Inostrancevia alexandri (new version) :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 69 14 Black-shouldered Kite by WillemSvdMerwe Black-shouldered Kite :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 541 45 Regisaurus jacobi by WillemSvdMerwe Regisaurus jacobi :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 55 18 Bauria cynops by WillemSvdMerwe Bauria cynops :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 100 20 Thrinaxodon liorhinus by WillemSvdMerwe Thrinaxodon liorhinus :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 105 12 Eurypterids by WillemSvdMerwe Eurypterids :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 162 33 Scaloposaurus constrictus by WillemSvdMerwe Scaloposaurus constrictus :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 127 19 Black Crake by WillemSvdMerwe Black Crake :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 150 19 Inostrancevia new version by WillemSvdMerwe Inostrancevia new version :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 59 13 Suminia getmanovi by WillemSvdMerwe Suminia getmanovi :iconwillemsvdmerwe:WillemSvdMerwe 136 23

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Twine mirror... by Omoidenoki Twine mirror... :iconomoidenoki:Omoidenoki 51 60 Young Rock Hyraxes by kaenguruu Young Rock Hyraxes :iconkaenguruu:kaenguruu 7 0 Sweet green eyes by gigi50 Sweet green eyes :icongigi50:gigi50 119 28 A1170 - I see the whole world. by Lothringen A1170 - I see the whole world. :iconlothringen:Lothringen 57 10 The observation by IsabellaJainePhoto The observation :iconisabellajainephoto:IsabellaJainePhoto 32 1 Like a painting by LautaroVincon Like a painting :iconlautarovincon:LautaroVincon 63 5 The Darkest Part of the Woods by mcrassusart The Darkest Part of the Woods :iconmcrassusart:mcrassusart 19 10 FREE STOCK !! Kinder Scout Derbyshire by mzkate FREE STOCK !! Kinder Scout Derbyshire :iconmzkate:mzkate 58 8 Amargasaurus Skeletal Study by TheDragonofDoom Amargasaurus Skeletal Study :iconthedragonofdoom:TheDragonofDoom 89 6 Hauntingly peaceful by zardo Hauntingly peaceful :iconzardo:zardo 1,079 24 Tauren shaman by AlexeyZaporozhets Tauren shaman :iconalexeyzaporozhets:AlexeyZaporozhets 69 8 Daman Kapsky Procavia Capensis by Hrasulee Daman Kapsky Procavia Capensis :iconhrasulee:Hrasulee 7 2 Wolf World by TerribleTer Wolf World :iconterribleter:TerribleTer 152 19

Activity


On Saturday, the 2nd of June, the Tzaneen Eco-Club hosted an outing to the Modjadji Cycad Forest.  I attended with my friend Cecilia, also from Polokwane.  The forest is not far from Polokwane, but this has been the first time I've visited it.  I want to thank Marianne McKenzie for organizing the outing, Cecilia for giving me a ride, and everyone else for making it a pleasant and informative day.

Typical Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


'Modjadji' is actually the title of the Rain Queen, the ruler of the Lobedu People.  The institution dates back a couple of centuries; the queen and her people first came here from our neighbour country of Zimbabwe.  The queen passes the title on to her eldest daughter; there has never been and cannot be a king.  She is allowed to have several 'wives' … she doesn't ever marry a husband, but has children usually fathered by a relative.  The queen's life is very secretive, and she only interacts with the outside world through representatives.  This mysterious African queen with supposed magical powers has likely been the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard's novel 'She'.


Cycad Upward by WillemSvdMerwe

Currently there is no actually actively reigning Modjadji.  The last one died in 2005 but left a daughter who's now thirteen.  She's being prepared to become the active Modjadji as soon as she turns 21; in the meantime she is leading a kind of double life, the one steeped in mystery, tradition and the rituals she has to go through in being groomed for royalty, the other one of educating herself about the modern world in which she and her people will have to exist and adapt themselves.

Cycad and Ib by WillemSvdMerwe


So where do the cycads come in?  The Modjadji is considered by her people to have the power to bring rain.  So seriously do they take it, that during a year of excessive rain which brought flooding and destruction, she had to apologise publicly!  The power of bringing rain is apparently demonstrated by the location of the queen's kraal, situated on a hill that is much moister and more verdantly vegetated than the dry surrounding lands.  Especially noteworthy on this hill is a forest of cycads, strange and primeval-looking plants that are now rarities, found only in patches here and there.  The luxurious growth of these unique trees has become associated with the queen's powers, and they are held to be sacred.  The forest as a whole, and all cycads growing in the surroundings, are consequently revered and protected.

Inspecting Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe




There are now likely tens of thousands of cycads on the hill and in the area.  They certainly date back well before Modjadji and her people arrived.  Cycads are slow growers; even one with a stem of one to two metres can be a couple of centuries old.  The tallest ones in the forest stand about 13 m/43' tall, and must be aged many centuries or even more than a thousand years.  This forest must represent one of the largest concentrations of cycads in Africa, if not the world. The cycad below, with Cecilia standing next to it, is about 9m tall.  The larger ones were hard to photograph, having been squeezed in between many others.

Cycad 925 cm by WillemSvdMerwe

Cycads are 'primitive' plants in the sense of having been around for a very long time; they flourished even before the dinosaurs became dominant.  But they are also modern plants in the sense of still being around, and doing quite well in certain places like this hill.  If they're rare today, much of that has to do with humans. They've been exploited for food, and being such slow growers, even a low rate of destruction may leave them unable to restore their numbers.  In recent times their numbers have also been denuded by plant collectors.  Again because of the slow growth, people are impatient to have big trees and don't want to wait for seed-grown plants to grow to a substantial size, but would rather take already big cycads from the wild.  As a result of this practice some populations have entirely been destroyed and a few species of cycad are now extinct or almost extinct in the wild.

Me and Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


But not here!  Medium to large cycads abound, and we've also seen many seedlings, so the population is healthy and propagating itself.  In addition, the locals grow new cycads from seeds in large numbers and sell them to the public along with permits to have them, so fulfilling the demands of cycad-loving gardeners in a sustainable way.  It is fairly certain that at least this species is not going to go extinct anytime soon.

Us on rocks b by WillemSvdMerwe


The cycad forest is actually not composed solely of cycads.  It is a natural thing, and the cycads grow along with a great many other species of tree, shrub, herb and climber.  It is also not really a true closed-canopy forest, but a more open woodland.  Only in a few places does the canopy close overhead, and it's interesting to see that small cycads grow very well in the mild to dense shade.  We weren't meticulous about counting plants, and yet my friend Cecilia had logged over sixty species in her notebook by the end of the day.  We agreed among each other that this would be a wonderful place to bring novice tree enthusiasts to quickly and easily show them and teach them to identify a variety of tree species.

Canopy View b by WillemSvdMerwe


So here are some noteworthy other species we found along with the cycads.  We encountered two charming orchid species.  The large one with the long stems is Ansellia africana.  This is a huge epiphyte, the stems often reaching 1.5 m.  It usually grows in forks in large trees, often quite close to the ground as here.  The flowers are yellow, and frequently bearing darker spots, for which it's named the Leopard Orchid. 

Ansellia 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



The smaller orchid is a Polystachya transvaalensis, a new species for me.  This one was growing in colonies just below the leafy crowns of the cycads, along with ferns and clumps of moss.  Not every cycad had them, but some sustained substantial colonies.  Sadly, this being winter, the orchids weren't flowering.  I do hope to be able to go again in December, which should be a good time for finding flowers.

Polystachya transvaalensis 1 by WillemSvdMerwe

Polystachya transvaalensis 5b by WillemSvdMerwe

Another interesting species in the forest was what we call the Bushman's Tea, Catha edulis<.  Elsewhere this plant, and particularly its edible leaves, is called Khat.  This is used as a stimulant especially in Arabian countries.  Our local trees are not as potent as some from East Africa.  The Ethiopian Airline owes its existence to the species; harvested in Africa, the leaves are flown over to Arabia and sold.  It's still a strong market.  Here in South Africa, the species is a slender tree reaching 30m/100' in height.

Catha edulis 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Catha edulis 3b by WillemSvdMerwe

Many species of climber scramble over the cycads and other trees.  This one with the many whitish, downy flowers is called a Traveller's Joy, Clematis brachiata. 

Clematis brachiata by WillemSvdMerwe



Lending some colour was the one we call a Redwing, Pterolobium stellatum, for its lovely reddish seed pods.  They're shaped like little propellers and when they drop they twirl and 'fly' a distance from the mother plants.

Pterolobium stellatum 1b by WillemSvdMerwe



Another new one for me was the tree-like shrub Solanum giganteum, or Healing-Leaf Tree.  This relative of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, grows to 5 m/17' and has large, soft leaves borne on thorny twigs.  The leaves are used traditionally as a healing dressing for wounds and ulcers.  The sap is used for making an ointment, and the fruits are used to treat throat ulcers.  The bright red berries you see here are pretty in themselves; unlike many wild species of the family, they're not toxic, and can be eaten or used to curdle milk.  I'm going to try to grow some; it's quite an attractive plant, and likely fast-growing.

Solanum giganteum 4b by WillemSvdMerwe

This is the flower of the broad-leaved beech, Faurea rochetiana.  These are related to the Proteas, a group which have wonderfully beautiful compound flowers.  This ones' flowers aren't quite as showy, but still wonderful to find and look at. The small, tubular individual flowers crowd together to form the inflorescence.

Faurea rochetiana 2 by WillemSvdMerwe

Here's a common cluster fig tree, Ficus sycomorus.  This is actually a small specimen, in optimal habitat they can grow much larger!  Birds and monkeys love the figs of these trees.

Ficus sycomorus b by WillemSvdMerwe


Lastly we have here a wonderful tree, the Stem-Fruit, Englerophytum magalismontanum.  Not at all rare, it is usually shrubby but in the cycad forest we found some that were substantial trees.  This species has some of the tastiest fruits of any local South African plant.  But the trees themselves are quite picturesque.  Here you see, against the blue sky, some of the leaves.  They're stiff and leathery, glossy dark-green above, and covered in dense rusty hairs beneath.

Stamvrug 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Stamvrug 2b by WillemSvdMerwe



The forest and environs were also a wonderful habitat for animal life.  We encountered a few different bird species, most only heard, but we were awed by the sight of a crowned eagle flying and calling high above our heads.  Monkeys patrolled the cycads up at the picnic site, and many species of butterfly fluttered by, even though it's now officially winter.  Here's a little critter we spotted and who didn't seem to mind us - a little grasshopper.  Very well camouflaged, but Cecilia spotted and photographed it, and I picked it up and let it perch on my hand so she could get a clear shot of it.

Grasshopper 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Grasshopper 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



As a last word I want to say that photos don't do this forest justice.  I'd seen photos of it and of the cycads but it's an entirely different experience to be there amidst them.  Only this way can you really get an impression of how many there are and of their primeval strangeness and of the entire atmosphere of mystique of this sacred place.  If you're ever touring South Africa, please consider making this one of your prime destinations.  The roads leading to it are a bit rough, so if possible get someone with a 4-wheel-drive to take you there.  The forest itself is easily experienced and explored by way of the walking trails going through it. 

On Saturday, the 2nd of June, the Tzaneen Eco-Club hosted an outing to the Modjadji Cycad Forest.  I attended with my friend Cecelia, also from Polokwane.  The forest is not far from Polokwane, but this has been the first time I've visited it.  I want to thank Marianne McKenzie for organizing the outing, Cecelia for giving me a ride, and everyone else for making it a pleasant and informative day.

Typical Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


'Modjadji' is actually the title of the Rain Queen, the ruler of the Lobedu People.  The institution dates back a couple of centuries; the queen and her people first came here from our neighbour country of Zimbabwe.  The queen passes the title on to her eldest daughter; there has never been and cannot be a king.  She is allowed to have several 'wives' … she doesn't ever marry a husband, but has children usually fathered by a relative.  The queen's life is very secretive, and she only interacts with the outside world through representatives.  This mysterious African queen with supposed magical powers has likely been the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard's novel 'She'.


Cycad Upward by WillemSvdMerwe

Currently there is no actually actively reigning Modjadji.  The last one died in 2005 but left a daughter who's now thirteen.  She's being prepared to become the active Modjadji as soon as she turns 21; in the meantime she is leading a kind of double life, the one steeped in mystery, tradition and the rituals she has to go through in being groomed for royalty, the other one of educating herself about the modern world in which she and her people will have to exist and adapt themselves.

Cycad and Ib by WillemSvdMerwe



So where do the cycads come in?  The Modjadji is considered by her people to have the power to bring rain.  So seriously do they take it, that during a year of excessive rain which brought flooding and destruction, she had to apologise publicly!  The power of bringing rain is apparently demonstrated by the location of the queen's kraal, situated on a hill that is much moister and more verdantly vegetated than the dry surrounding lands.  Especially noteworthy on this hill is a forest of cycads, strange and primeval-looking plants that are now rarities, found only in patches here and there.  The luxurious growth of these unique trees has become associated with the queen's powers, and they are held to be sacred.  The forest as a whole, and all cycads growing in the surroundings, are consequently revered and protected.

Inspecting Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe




There are now likely tens of thousands of cycads on the hill and in the area.  They certainly date back well before Modjadji and her people arrived.  Cycads are slow growers; even one with a stem of one to two metres can be a couple of centuries old.  The tallest ones in the forest stand about 13 m/43' tall, and must be aged many centuries or even more than a thousand years.  This forest must represent one of the largest concentrations of cycads in Africa, if not the world. The cycad below, with Cecelia standing next to it, is about 9m tall.  The larger ones were hard to photograph, having been squeezed in between many others.

Cycad 925 cm by WillemSvdMerwe

Cycads are 'primitive' plants in the sense of having been around for a very long time; they flourished even before the dinosaurs became dominant.  But they are also modern plants in the sense of still being around, and doing quite well in certain places like this hill.  If they're rare today, much of that has to do with humans. They've been exploited for food, and being such slow growers, even a low rate of destruction may leave them unable to restore their numbers.  In recent times their numbers have also been denuded by plant collectors.  Again because of the slow growth, people are impatient to have big trees and don't want to wait for seed-grown plants to grow to a substantial size, but would rather take already big cycads from the wild.  As a result of this practice some populations have entirely been destroyed and a few species of cycad are now extinct or almost extinct in the wild.

Me and Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


But not here!  Medium to large cycads abound, and we've also seen many seedlings, so the population is healthy and propagating itself.  In addition, the locals grow new cycads from seeds in large numbers and sell them to the public along with permits to have them, so fulfilling the demands of cycad-loving gardeners in a sustainable way.  It is fairly certain that at least this species is not going to go extinct anytime soon.

Us on rocks b by WillemSvdMerwe


The cycad forest is actually not composed solely of cycads.  It is a natural thing, and the cycads grow along with a great many other species of tree, shrub, herb and climber.  It is also not really a true closed-canopy forest, but a more open woodland.  Only in a few places does the canopy close overhead, and it's interesting to see that small cycads grow very well in the mild to dense shade.  We weren't meticulous about counting plants, and yet my friend Cecelia had logged over sixty species in her notebook by the end of the day.  We agreed among each other that this would be a wonderful place to bring novice tree enthusiasts to quickly and easily show them and teach them to identify a variety of tree species.

Canopy View b by WillemSvdMerwe


So here are some noteworthy other species we found along with the cycads.  We encountered two charming orchid species.  The large one with the long stems is Ansellia africana.  This is a huge epiphyte, the stems often reaching 1.5 m.  It usually grows in forks in large trees, often quite close to the ground as here.  The flowers are yellow, and frequently bearing darker spots, for which it's named the Leopard Orchid. 

Ansellia 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



The smaller orchid is a Polystachya transvaalensis, a new species for me.  This one was growing in colonies just below the leafy crowns of the cycads, along with ferns and clumps of moss.  Not every cycad had them, but some sustained substantial colonies.  Sadly, this being winter, the orchids weren't flowering.  I do hope to be able to go again in December, which should be a good time for finding flowers.

Polystachya transvaalensis 1 by WillemSvdMerwe

Polystachya transvaalensis 5b by WillemSvdMerwe

Another interesting species in the forest was what we call the Bushman's Tea, Catha edulis<.  Elsewhere this plant, and particularly its edible leaves, is called Khat.  This is used as a stimulant especially in Arabian countries.  Our local trees are not as potent as some from East Africa.  The Ethiopian Airline owes its existence to the species; harvested in Africa, the leaves are flown over to Arabia and sold.  It's still a strong market.  Here in South Africa, the species is a slender tree reaching 30m/100' in height.

Catha edulis 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Catha edulis 3b by WillemSvdMerwe

Many species of climber scramble over the cycads and other trees.  This one with the many whitish, downy flowers is called a Traveller's Joy, Clematis brachiata. 

Clematis brachiata by WillemSvdMerwe



Lending some colour was the one we call a Redwing, Pterolobium stellatum, for its lovely reddish seed pods.  They're shaped like little propellers and when they drop they twirl and 'fly' a distance from the mother plants.

Pterolobium stellatum 1b by WillemSvdMerwe



Another new one for me was the tree-like shrub Solanum giganteum, or Healing-Leaf Tree.  This relative of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, grows to 5 m/17' and has large, soft leaves borne on thorny twigs.  The leaves are used traditionally as a healing dressing for wounds and ulcers.  The sap is used for making an ointment, and the fruits are used to treat throat ulcers.  The bright red berries you see here are pretty in themselves; unlike many wild species of the family, they're not toxic, and can be eaten or used to curdle milk.  I'm going to try to grow some; it's quite an attractive plant, and likely fast-growing.

Solanum giganteum 4b by WillemSvdMerwe

This is the flower of the broad-leaved beech, Faurea rochetiana.  These are related to the Proteas, a group which have wonderfully beautiful compound flowers.  This ones' flowers aren't quite as showy, but still wonderful to find and look at. The small, tubular individual flowers crowd together to form the inflorescence.

Faurea rochetiana 2 by WillemSvdMerwe

Here's a common cluster fig tree, Ficus sycomorus.  This is actually a small specimen, in optimal habitat they can grow much larger!  Birds and monkeys love the figs of these trees.

Ficus sycomorus b by WillemSvdMerwe


Lastly we have here a wonderful tree, the Stem-Fruit, Englerophytum magalismontanum.  Not at all rare, it is usually shrubby but in the cycad forest we found some that were substantial trees.  This species has some of the tastiest fruits of any local South African plant.  But the trees themselves are quite picturesque.  Here you see, against the blue sky, some of the leaves.  They're stiff and leathery, glossy dark-green above, and covered in dense rusty hairs beneath.

Stamvrug 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Stamvrug 2b by WillemSvdMerwe



The forest and environs were also a wonderful habitat for animal life.  We encountered a few different bird species, most only heard, but we were awed by the sight of a crowned eagle flying and calling high above our heads.  Monkeys patrolled the cycads up at the picnic site, and many species of butterfly fluttered by, even though it's now officially winter.  Here's a little critter we spotted and who didn't seem to mind us - a little grasshopper.  Very well camouflaged, but Cecelia spotted and photographed it, and I picked it up and let it perch on my hand so she could get a clear shot of it.

Grasshopper 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Grasshopper 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



As a last word I want to say that photos don't do this forest justice.  I'd seen photos of it and of the cycads but it's an entirely different experience to be there amidst them.  Only this way can you really get an impression of how many there are and of their primeval strangeness and of the entire atmosphere of mystique of this sacred place.  If you're ever touring South Africa, please consider making this one of your prime destinations.  The roads leading to it are a bit rough, so if possible get someone with a 4-wheel-drive to take you there.  The forest itself is easily experienced and explored by way of the walking trails going through it. 
Cardinal Woodpecker
The Cardinal Woodpecker, Dendropicos fuscescens, is one of South Africa's commonest and also smallest woodpeckers - about the size of a sparrow.  This is the male; the female has a black cap to her head instead of red.  These occur in a variety of habitats so long as there are trees or large shrubs; their small size means that they can more easily fit their nest holes in a tree trunk or branch in regions where there aren't large trees.  Like many other woodpeckers, they sharp, hard, barbed tips to their tongues with which they can spear and pull out a grub after locating and uncovering it.  They have four types of pecking: drumming to proclaim their territories - rapid and fast, on wood or bark with a hollow behind for louder sound; exploratory tapping on bark to try and discover grub-holding cavities; purposeful pecking to expose these; finally, hard pecking and chiseling to excavate their nest holes.  Small acrylic painting.
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White-Winged Flufftail
These are White-Winged Flufftails, Sarothrua ayresi, which are some of Africa's most endangered bird species. They live in high-altitude marshy regions and have suffered from large-scale destruction of their wetland habitats.  They're found in South Africa, and in Ethiopia ... at first it was thought they didn't breed here, but migrated between the two regions, but recently a camera trap here in South Africa showed a mother with a couple of chicks.  We have only a few birds here, while there might be 200 in Ethiopia.  They're hard to see, being very secretive and hiding in dense clumps of reeds or grasses.  Flufftails constitute a unique family of birds, related to rails and cranes, and only found in Africa and Madagascar.  This is the smallest species, reaching only about 15 cm/6" in length.
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Tiarajudens fighting
Here I portray two Tiarajudens eccentricus males fighting.  The long teeth mean that they could strike at each other without opening their mouths.  They likely raked at each other rather than stabbing each other, which would have been too lethal.
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On Saturday, the 2nd of June, the Tzaneen Eco-Club hosted an outing to the Modjadji Cycad Forest.  I attended with my friend Cecilia, also from Polokwane.  The forest is not far from Polokwane, but this has been the first time I've visited it.  I want to thank Marianne McKenzie for organizing the outing, Cecilia for giving me a ride, and everyone else for making it a pleasant and informative day.

Typical Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


'Modjadji' is actually the title of the Rain Queen, the ruler of the Lobedu People.  The institution dates back a couple of centuries; the queen and her people first came here from our neighbour country of Zimbabwe.  The queen passes the title on to her eldest daughter; there has never been and cannot be a king.  She is allowed to have several 'wives' … she doesn't ever marry a husband, but has children usually fathered by a relative.  The queen's life is very secretive, and she only interacts with the outside world through representatives.  This mysterious African queen with supposed magical powers has likely been the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard's novel 'She'.


Cycad Upward by WillemSvdMerwe

Currently there is no actually actively reigning Modjadji.  The last one died in 2005 but left a daughter who's now thirteen.  She's being prepared to become the active Modjadji as soon as she turns 21; in the meantime she is leading a kind of double life, the one steeped in mystery, tradition and the rituals she has to go through in being groomed for royalty, the other one of educating herself about the modern world in which she and her people will have to exist and adapt themselves.

Cycad and Ib by WillemSvdMerwe


So where do the cycads come in?  The Modjadji is considered by her people to have the power to bring rain.  So seriously do they take it, that during a year of excessive rain which brought flooding and destruction, she had to apologise publicly!  The power of bringing rain is apparently demonstrated by the location of the queen's kraal, situated on a hill that is much moister and more verdantly vegetated than the dry surrounding lands.  Especially noteworthy on this hill is a forest of cycads, strange and primeval-looking plants that are now rarities, found only in patches here and there.  The luxurious growth of these unique trees has become associated with the queen's powers, and they are held to be sacred.  The forest as a whole, and all cycads growing in the surroundings, are consequently revered and protected.

Inspecting Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe




There are now likely tens of thousands of cycads on the hill and in the area.  They certainly date back well before Modjadji and her people arrived.  Cycads are slow growers; even one with a stem of one to two metres can be a couple of centuries old.  The tallest ones in the forest stand about 13 m/43' tall, and must be aged many centuries or even more than a thousand years.  This forest must represent one of the largest concentrations of cycads in Africa, if not the world. The cycad below, with Cecilia standing next to it, is about 9m tall.  The larger ones were hard to photograph, having been squeezed in between many others.

Cycad 925 cm by WillemSvdMerwe

Cycads are 'primitive' plants in the sense of having been around for a very long time; they flourished even before the dinosaurs became dominant.  But they are also modern plants in the sense of still being around, and doing quite well in certain places like this hill.  If they're rare today, much of that has to do with humans. They've been exploited for food, and being such slow growers, even a low rate of destruction may leave them unable to restore their numbers.  In recent times their numbers have also been denuded by plant collectors.  Again because of the slow growth, people are impatient to have big trees and don't want to wait for seed-grown plants to grow to a substantial size, but would rather take already big cycads from the wild.  As a result of this practice some populations have entirely been destroyed and a few species of cycad are now extinct or almost extinct in the wild.

Me and Cycads b by WillemSvdMerwe


But not here!  Medium to large cycads abound, and we've also seen many seedlings, so the population is healthy and propagating itself.  In addition, the locals grow new cycads from seeds in large numbers and sell them to the public along with permits to have them, so fulfilling the demands of cycad-loving gardeners in a sustainable way.  It is fairly certain that at least this species is not going to go extinct anytime soon.

Us on rocks b by WillemSvdMerwe


The cycad forest is actually not composed solely of cycads.  It is a natural thing, and the cycads grow along with a great many other species of tree, shrub, herb and climber.  It is also not really a true closed-canopy forest, but a more open woodland.  Only in a few places does the canopy close overhead, and it's interesting to see that small cycads grow very well in the mild to dense shade.  We weren't meticulous about counting plants, and yet my friend Cecilia had logged over sixty species in her notebook by the end of the day.  We agreed among each other that this would be a wonderful place to bring novice tree enthusiasts to quickly and easily show them and teach them to identify a variety of tree species.

Canopy View b by WillemSvdMerwe


So here are some noteworthy other species we found along with the cycads.  We encountered two charming orchid species.  The large one with the long stems is Ansellia africana.  This is a huge epiphyte, the stems often reaching 1.5 m.  It usually grows in forks in large trees, often quite close to the ground as here.  The flowers are yellow, and frequently bearing darker spots, for which it's named the Leopard Orchid. 

Ansellia 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



The smaller orchid is a Polystachya transvaalensis, a new species for me.  This one was growing in colonies just below the leafy crowns of the cycads, along with ferns and clumps of moss.  Not every cycad had them, but some sustained substantial colonies.  Sadly, this being winter, the orchids weren't flowering.  I do hope to be able to go again in December, which should be a good time for finding flowers.

Polystachya transvaalensis 1 by WillemSvdMerwe

Polystachya transvaalensis 5b by WillemSvdMerwe

Another interesting species in the forest was what we call the Bushman's Tea, Catha edulis<.  Elsewhere this plant, and particularly its edible leaves, is called Khat.  This is used as a stimulant especially in Arabian countries.  Our local trees are not as potent as some from East Africa.  The Ethiopian Airline owes its existence to the species; harvested in Africa, the leaves are flown over to Arabia and sold.  It's still a strong market.  Here in South Africa, the species is a slender tree reaching 30m/100' in height.

Catha edulis 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Catha edulis 3b by WillemSvdMerwe

Many species of climber scramble over the cycads and other trees.  This one with the many whitish, downy flowers is called a Traveller's Joy, Clematis brachiata. 

Clematis brachiata by WillemSvdMerwe



Lending some colour was the one we call a Redwing, Pterolobium stellatum, for its lovely reddish seed pods.  They're shaped like little propellers and when they drop they twirl and 'fly' a distance from the mother plants.

Pterolobium stellatum 1b by WillemSvdMerwe



Another new one for me was the tree-like shrub Solanum giganteum, or Healing-Leaf Tree.  This relative of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, grows to 5 m/17' and has large, soft leaves borne on thorny twigs.  The leaves are used traditionally as a healing dressing for wounds and ulcers.  The sap is used for making an ointment, and the fruits are used to treat throat ulcers.  The bright red berries you see here are pretty in themselves; unlike many wild species of the family, they're not toxic, and can be eaten or used to curdle milk.  I'm going to try to grow some; it's quite an attractive plant, and likely fast-growing.

Solanum giganteum 4b by WillemSvdMerwe

This is the flower of the broad-leaved beech, Faurea rochetiana.  These are related to the Proteas, a group which have wonderfully beautiful compound flowers.  This ones' flowers aren't quite as showy, but still wonderful to find and look at. The small, tubular individual flowers crowd together to form the inflorescence.

Faurea rochetiana 2 by WillemSvdMerwe

Here's a common cluster fig tree, Ficus sycomorus.  This is actually a small specimen, in optimal habitat they can grow much larger!  Birds and monkeys love the figs of these trees.

Ficus sycomorus b by WillemSvdMerwe


Lastly we have here a wonderful tree, the Stem-Fruit, Englerophytum magalismontanum.  Not at all rare, it is usually shrubby but in the cycad forest we found some that were substantial trees.  This species has some of the tastiest fruits of any local South African plant.  But the trees themselves are quite picturesque.  Here you see, against the blue sky, some of the leaves.  They're stiff and leathery, glossy dark-green above, and covered in dense rusty hairs beneath.

Stamvrug 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Stamvrug 2b by WillemSvdMerwe



The forest and environs were also a wonderful habitat for animal life.  We encountered a few different bird species, most only heard, but we were awed by the sight of a crowned eagle flying and calling high above our heads.  Monkeys patrolled the cycads up at the picnic site, and many species of butterfly fluttered by, even though it's now officially winter.  Here's a little critter we spotted and who didn't seem to mind us - a little grasshopper.  Very well camouflaged, but Cecilia spotted and photographed it, and I picked it up and let it perch on my hand so she could get a clear shot of it.

Grasshopper 1b by WillemSvdMerwe

Grasshopper 3b by WillemSvdMerwe



As a last word I want to say that photos don't do this forest justice.  I'd seen photos of it and of the cycads but it's an entirely different experience to be there amidst them.  Only this way can you really get an impression of how many there are and of their primeval strangeness and of the entire atmosphere of mystique of this sacred place.  If you're ever touring South Africa, please consider making this one of your prime destinations.  The roads leading to it are a bit rough, so if possible get someone with a 4-wheel-drive to take you there.  The forest itself is easily experienced and explored by way of the walking trails going through it. 

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WillemSvdMerwe
Willem van der Merwe
South Africa
I was born in 1972, Pretoria, South Africa. I started painting and drawing at the age of 5. I stopped doing that for a while to study some other fields, but recently I've been getting back into it. I love wildlife and nature but I also paint or draw people. I also paint and draw fantasy creatures or scenes, as well as extinct animals.
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:icontigon1monster:
Tigon1Monster Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2018
I'd thought you might want to see this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpGqj8…
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LautaroVincon Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2018  Hobbyist Photographer
Thanks for the fav on

Like a painting by LautaroVincon
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:iconphototubby:
Phototubby Featured By Owner May 26, 2018  Hobbyist Photographer
:iconthankyoutailsplz:
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:iconlucytherescuedcat:
lucytherescuedcat Featured By Owner May 25, 2018  Hobbyist Photographer
Hi, Hi!
Welcome to :iconamazinganimalart:  
Thanks so much for joining our group! We are happy to have your work in our galleries, looking forward to seeing more of it! If you have any questions please feel free to send us a note! 

Have a great day! Heart
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:iconplumita1:
plumita1 Featured By Owner May 15, 2018
Thanks a lot for commenting! :iconflowerthnxplz:    She's the Best by plumita1
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Phototubby Featured By Owner May 14, 2018  Hobbyist Photographer
:iconthankyoutailsplz:
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PaulDarkdraft Featured By Owner May 12, 2018
Hi:)Yes, hi was great:)
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:iconnaturallightphotos:
NaturalLightPhotos Featured By Owner May 11, 2018  Hobbyist Photographer
Wow! You are an amazing painter! I'm so glad I came across your page from a feature. You will probably notice by my favs that I love cats, Galagos, and Lemurs. 
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:iconwillemsvdmerwe:
WillemSvdMerwe Featured By Owner May 11, 2018
Thanks!  I'll hopefully doing many more cats, galagos and lemurs!
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:iconuakimov09:
UAkimov09 Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2018
Good day to You ! You are a Great Artist ! :)

and Movement of Greens Forever ! :)
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