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.
'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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.