Makgeng is a small community not far from Polokwane. It is also close to 'Zion City Moria', where millions of a local Christian group congregate every Easter. The region we were targeting, was a hilly part close to a local indigenous nursery. Lots of Mountain Aloes, Aloe marlothii, grow there, showing a spectacle right now in mid-Winter when they're flowering. Officially, the outing was an 'Aloe ramble', to admire the tall, flowering aloes and also to see what other plants and wildlife we could spot. The mountain aloes are especially important, since right now they're the main source of food for many bird and insect species. The tubular, orange flowers produce copious nectar, and are not very deep, meaning that even birds not specialized for drinking nectar can get some. Species that make use of the aloes in the wintertime include bulbuls, woodpeckers, orioles and weavers. Indeed they can even at this time create identification problems for novice birdwatchers – who might be quite stumped at the new orange-tinted plumage some of these will now be sporting on their heads and faces, courtesy of the aloe nectar and pollen!
I was interested to see what other plants grow there, and there was another keen plant watcher with us, Wiam Haddad. I learnt much from him, and I hope he learned a bit from me also! Wiam was much encouraged with how pristine the habitat was, especially high up in the hills. At the lower levels, unfortunately, there was disturbance – people were even chopping down the tall aloes! Luckily there are many left, but still. These giant succulent plants are a treasure of the Limpopo Province, lending a unique air to the habitats in which they grow, and we've already lost a few colonies of huge and centuries-old plants. They're protected by law, but this doesn't always mean much.
Another concern of mine on the outing, was whether the people running the nursery were removing wild plants to sell them. I didn't see any evidence of that. There are still lots of lovely plants sought-after by gardeners on the hill; the populations appeared very healthy.
It was just a day outing; most folks didn't want to go all the way up the hill, the hike being a bit exhausting. Wiam and I climbed all the way, though, after saying goodbye to the others. We were rewarded with an excellent view of the Wolkberg mountains a few kilometers away, and also by some amazing plants growing mainly along the crest of the hill.
There was much too much to report in detail here, so just a few notes. We didn't see wild mammals, or reptiles, but we saw a few bird species, including woodpeckers and white-necked ravens. Insects were in evidence, including some grasshopper nymphs hopping about in large numbers, making a rustling sound audible from some distance. The vegetation was mixed woodland, fairly open and dry, with a good growth of grass. In spite of it being mid-winter, there was still green grass and lots of fresh green leaves on the trees and shrubs. Some species had dropped their leaves already, while others were in their autumn colours. There were many species of succulents, growing everywhere from open grassy patches to shady spots underneath the trees to the shallow soil and cracks between and around the rocky outcroppings. The mountain aloes included a few individuals standing close to 20'/6m tall.
So here are a few photos of the most noteworthy plants we found.
It wasn't only the tall mountain aloes that were there, and flowering. There were also these smaller species. This is an Aloe greatheadii, one of the commonest of the smaller, spotted aloes of our region. These were lovely, bearing lots of orange-pink flowers.
Another aloe was Aloe aculeata, bearing tall, sparsely-branched spikes of yellow to orange flowers. This species, with its spiky, in-curved leaves, used to be portrayed on the five-cent coins of South African currency. They're quite widespread in northern South Africa, in grassy and rocky habitats.
On the crest of the hill we found these tiny plants, Avonia rhodesica, in cracks amidst the rocks. Avonia includes the smallest South African succulents; these were barely 1 cm/0.4" tall! What you see here are the stems which are clad in tiny, white, scale-like, succulent leaves. Avonia is locally very rare and under some pressure: it is reportedly a psychedelic which is much used wherever it occurs. The fact that there were many of them on the hill shows how pristine the region is!
A relative of these, is Anacampseros subnuda. These are bigger than Avonia, but still tiny. They form these small tufts, always growing in very little soil, such as thin gravelly layers over sheet rock, or in small cracks in rocks. They have these white hairs covering the succulent leaves. In dry times, the leaves shrink and the white hair becomes denser, covering the plants and reflecting sunlight to prevent them from overheating and desiccating.
Crassula swaziensis is a common species, but nevertheless charming. It is a succulent with round leaves with a rough surface texture. It grows in cracks or in shallow soil, making small colonies. The leaves turn an attractive red if the plants are stressed by drought. These were flowering! The flowers are tiny and white, carried on pretty pink stalks.
Kalanchoe paniculata is related to the Crassula, and also gets lovely red leaves in the dry winter, as you can see here. It is a much larger plant, though … the rosette you see here is about 8"/20 cm in diameter. In spring and summer, this one develops an inflorescence that can stand more than a yard/metre tall, bearing tubular, yellow flowers. These, too, are used by nectar-drinking birds and insects.
Euphorbia schinzii is not much of a looker but I like them all the same. It is a small, spiny succulent – the Euphorbias of South Africa are to some extent the ecological equivalents of the cacti of the Americas. These ones were abundant in this region – the most I've ever seen in one place. The stems form small, spreading, flat 'cushions'. Here you can see one. The stems are densely crowded and short, on average 5-10 cm/2"-4", but longer in moist, shady spots. (These plants actually seem to be somewhat intermediate with another species, Euphorbia clivicola, found in the Polokwane region.) When dry, the stems get yellow, red and purple tints. When they flower, the plants can be quite attractive, the small, yellow flowers (actually cyathia, an inflorescence of highly simplified individual flowers) covering the plants.
But here you have a most impressive Euphorbia – a Cushion Euphorbia, Euphorbia pulvinata. Again there were several on the hill, forming these big mounds of very densely crowded stems or 'heads'. This one, in my estimation, has more than a thousand heads! These were also bearing some leaves – unusually for Euphorbias where the leaves either are turned to spines, or fall off quickly. You can also see a nice purple tint towards the back of the mound. The cushion Euphorbia grows in somewhat cooler, moister situations than most other Euphorbias; I was happy to find them here, this being the second locality in the region where I've seen them.
This next plant is an Orchid! It is Eulophia petersii, and again we found quite a lot of them. It is the most robust and drought-tolerant orchid of our region. The leaves you see here, and the above-ground pseudobulbs, are very stiff and fibrous. It can thus take a lot of damage. A cow can kick a clump apart, and the bits will likely survive and root where they've fallen. The leaves reach a length of 12"/30 cm, and the inflorescence can stand up to 6'6"/2 m tall.
The flowers are quite pretty, greenish and purplish. We were too late for the flowers – but we found these cool seed pods!
It's the first time I see these in the wild. Like other orchids, the seeds of this one are tiny – microscopic – and only germinate in association with a particular fungus. This makes orchids very hard to grow from seeds – but it is done, usually in labs with specialized equipment. The trick is to grow the seeds on a nutrient-rich, sterile medium. I hope I can try that sort of thing one day … South Africa has an absolutely awe-inspiring diversity of native orchids, many of which are rare.
These leaves arranged like a fan belong to Boophone disticha, the sore-eye flower or headache flower. It is so-called because the entire plant is very toxic … even if you go close to admire it, you can start being affected, causing sore eyes or an headache. It is used by the San people for making poison arrows; it also has medicinal uses. The flowers are spectacular, carried in a round inflorescence above the leaves. After the flowers are pollinated, the inflorescence dries out and detaches so that it can be blown about, tumbling over the landscape and scattering the seeds. This species tends to flower only after veld fires. The bulb covered in fibrous old leaf remains can easily survive these fires; the ash from the fire is quite nutritious for a young plant, and grass and shrub cover is temporarily removed, leaving the new young plant with little competition. So, fires of the right frequency (not too frequent or too infrequent) are vital to the natural propagation of this and many other species.
Another species that flowers after fires is the Black Stick Lily, Xerophyta retinervis. These black sticks are the fibrous, branching stems – very unusual for a monocotyledonous plant. The tufts at the tips are the old leaves, already dried out; new, fresh leaves will emerge come spring. The flowers, which can be produced in masses, are light pink to purple. I'm going to try to get shots of them flowering this spring!
Here you see just one of the many beautiful tree species we found on the hill. This is a Cussonia natalensis, or Rock Cabbage Tree. These are generally medium-sized trees… there were quite large specimens. Some were still looking fresh and green, while others were getting beautiful yellow autumn colours. This cabbage tree has five-lobed, hand-shaped leaves (I'll try to get leaf photos the next time I encounter them). They are quite drought resistant and have thick, succulent roots. They're great for BIG gardens or for public parks.
Another kind of tree that grows on hills like these, is Ficus glumosa, the mountain fig. Our wild figs are quite closely related to the domestic fig tree, but their figs are not quite as tasty! Still, they're much beloved by many species of birds. Wiam provides a sense of scale.
For me, the plant-highlight of this trip was this species – Khadia media! It is a vygie or mesemb – a group of small, succulent plants that is amazingly diverse and species-rich in South Africa. Most mesembs, however, occur in the three Cape Provinces, regions that are either quite dry, or that have winter rainfall, with long, hot and dry summers. The vast majority of the mesembs thrive in such climes. Here in far-northern South Africa, only a few mesembs occur – and this is one of them! Indeed, the entire genus, Khadia, is restricted to northern South Africa: Gauteng, Northwest Province, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The only record of Khadia outside of these is from far-northern Kwazulu-Natal, almost on the border with Mpumalanga.
Khadia has, at present, six known species, each confined to a specific region. Khadia acutipetala is the best-known species, occurring in densely-populated Gauteng. The other species grow to the North and East: Khadia alticola, K. borealis, K. beswickii, K. carolinensis, and K. media. The latter, the one we found, was only discovered and scientifically named in the late nineteen-nineties! And it is not rare at all – the crest of the hill where we found these, had hundreds of them, all flowering! For now it's only known from around here. This gives you an idea how easily species can escape detection, and how many new species might still be out there, simply because no botanists have yet managed to enter and explore the place where they grow. The plants are quite small, rarely exceeding 4"/10 cm in width. The leaves are succulent, and the clumps are anchored by thick roots in the shallow soil amidst the rock outcrops. The flowers are about 1"/2.5 cm in diameter, and white, sometimes with delicate pink tints.
The well-known Khadia acutipetala is used to give beer an extra 'kick': the sap from the roots is added during the process of brewing. Indeed the word 'khadi' denotes plants used for beer brewing, such as the Khadi root (Raphionacme sp.) which is not at all closely related. I don't know if these Khadia media's can also be used in this way.
Note this interesting photo: a Khadia media, which (perhaps) increases the potency of alcoholic drinks, alongside some Avonia rhodesica, which are reportedly used as hallucinogenics! A wild party growing in a small rock crack. I'm not going to tell people where exactly to find these!