A Taste of the Drakensberg

This article was first published in our newsletter in summer 2010 and described a trip made in February 2010. The World Cup was held in South Africa that summer, hence the reference to football! 

‘Gladiolus, Kniphofia, Orchids and those funny papery-flowered things!’

by Colin Moat

 

You are probably sick to death of seeing football in South Africa, so, to try and redress the balance I have been bullied by your editor into covering the journey I and a few fellow Hardy Planters (Kent chaps too) made with Green Routes to the Drakensberg in the last two weeks of February this year. To put the seasons into context, our February is their mid to late summer and, if that isn’t disconcerting enough, they have wet summers and dry winters – similar to the UK, apart from the dry winters! If you then factor in that we were staying in hotels at a similar height to Ben Nevis and doing walks from there, it sets the scene. But what a scene! Whilst I know this is meant to be about plants, you can’t mention the Drakensberg without mentioning the scenery – the mountains are simply stunning. The hotels are at 3,000 feet, the mountains are up to 10,000 feet! The major difference between this and the West Coast Spring flower tour, apart from the topography, or in fact, because of the topography, is that most of the botanical sight-seeing was on foot. On the West Coast you only have to pull over to the hard shoulder to find half a dozen flowers that you have only seen in hanging baskets or photographs or, in a lot of cases, not seen at all. In the Drakensberg you have to work for it.

The group soon settled into roughly two camps, the ‘walkers’ and the ‘wimps’. At our morning meeting point to set out on our day’s excursion, there would be the ‘NorthBerg Facehaus’ group doing gentle warming up exercises, jogging on the spot, 50 press ups and that sort of thing. Whereas ‘the rest‘ would be checking they had all their camera equipment and weighing up the option of jettisoning the waterproofs to make room to cram more sandwiches in their backpacks. As my physique falls/flops into the ‘built for comfort, not speed’ category, you can imagine I slumped into the last group. It was more apparent when I later looked at my photographs and there were a number with a long line of people stretched out in a ‘crocodile’ along the trail in front of me – well someone has to be last, and I did take a lot of photographs.

 

I was, however, driven on by my desire to re-acquaint myself with the sensation of surprise that so often comes with South African plants and in particular the gladiolus part of the iris family. Having been seduced by the elegant and scented (yes scented!) charm of Gladiolus alatus, G. venustus and the striking G. watermeyeri, on the West Coast, I was looking forward to seeing what the Drakensberg had to offer. I was not to see as wide a range as I was hoping for, but what there were, mainly G. crassifolius and G.oppositiflorus, were certainly worth finding. These are similar to G.papilio in habit but slightly daintier as the flowers are more in proportion with their slender stems. I have grown G. papilio (apparently introduced to the UK in 1866) and whilst liking it, the flowers can get a little top heavy. For those of you whose experience of Gladiolus is the floristry sort, and are reading this whilst waiting to be put through to the Plant Police on the grounds of ‘harmed snobbery’, I would urge you to do a Google search for some of these species and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
Another plant that seems to have fallen from favour lately is Kniphofia. I can remember a lecture by Bob Brown where he was really unpleasant about them, although I think it was the way they were used rather than necessarily the plant themselves. Having said that, I think, given enough time, Bob has the capacity to be rude about most things, but funny with it. I like ‘pokers’ and I grow them with mixed success combined with grasses, where the bulk of the grass leaves masks the fairly coarse ‘poker’ leaves and their flowers add excitement and rigidity against the softness of the grass. But I garden on sand and, whilst this provides good drainage over winter for their fleshy roots, having now seen them growing in their natural habitat, I see what the problem is and why I have mixed success. They grow in marshland and if I take you back to the first paragraph, they enjoy summer rainfall and dry winters and, whatever I may think, our summers aren’t wet enough. We were delighted to see quite a range of them though, including K. laxiflora, K. linearifolia and K. uvaria. But the most striking of all was on our way up (and down!) the Sani Pass to the Kingdom of Lesotho when we were treated to a vast drift of K. caulescens at about 8000 ft! This did take our mind off the rather hairy trip up, where the unmade road to Lesotho was one hairpin bend after another. We travelled in three 4x4 vehicles of varying vintages and whilst I believe our driver had left school, I wouldn’t be certain he’d received his results! There wasn’t a huge amount of light conversation on our journey, although there were a few whimpers (I apologised later) when he took three goes to get round one corner. Each time he dropped back for a ‘run-up’, he got nearer the edge! So we were relieved to reach the border when we got to the top.
Lesotho could be an article in itself. It just instantly made me think ‘National Geographic’, with a vast landscape with minimal human habitation, round stone huts with thatched roofs, and then there were three Lammergeier (bearded vulture) circling about half a mile above our heads. Under pressure from your editor for space I will just mention three of the many plants seen, the first being a tiny white Dianthus basuticus. I don’t know why but I just didn’t expect to see a dianthus at 10,500 feet. It takes its name from Lesotho’s old name of Basutoland, for the stamp collectors amongst us. (Philately will get you everywhere! – sorry, I couldn’t resist it.) On a little exploratory walk we saw, peeking coyly from a roadside bank, Diascia integerrima. Back once again in our carriage I had my revenge on our driver by frightening the life out of him with a yell of ‘Stoooop!’ Fair play to him, there was no ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’, he just slung on the Land Rover’s brakes. The cause of the excitement was a patch of white, which turned out to be what I still know as colchicum, but which, ‘they who must be obeyed’ deem to be Androcymbium striatum. It has keel-shaped, white-striped-green, six-inch-tall flowers (strictly bracts) and the sight of it will stay with me for many a year.
Anyway, back on theme, I have to say, over the two weeks, I have never before seen such quantity or variety of orchid. Orchids in South Africa are not the ‘hothouse’ varieties. These are tough, by the roadside, on the moorland or in the hills varieties, and in these quantities they can obviously compete. A good example of this was the very tall Satyrium longicaude, also known as the Blushing Bride, which can have up to 60 pink-veined white, hooded flowers with pink tips, up a stem over twelve inches tall. There was also the very pretty, moist shade-lover, Disperis fanniniae, with its white, flushed pink or green, hooded flowers with bright apple-green stems. Its relative, Disperis cooperi, was spotted on the same marshy site on the road down from Lesotho as the Kniphofia caulescens – when we stopped to hyperventilate! The white split-lipped Brownleea parviflora was also an exciting find, but the robust Disperis oxyglossa with its rusty brown/red acanthus-like flowers on strong stems summed up their ability to cope with all that the elements could throw at them.

Of the 600 species of Helichrysum worldwide, 245 of them occur in South Africa with 102 species in the Drakensberg, making it the largest genus there. I only knew of them as an annual I grew about half a lifetime ago – ‘everlastings’ as they were quaintly known. They are a fairly strange range of plants but you can see how they are perfectly adapted to the climate. When I mentioned ‘summer rain’ above, you were probably thinking of a nice gentle shower. What you actually get is a monsoon-like thunderstorm with lightening and the works, so you don’t get too many delicate daisy-like flowers as they would get smashed to pieces in the deluge and just rot. Instead you get these imitations made of sterner stuff and able to withstand all nature throws at them. In addition, quite often they have silver hairy foliage to cope with the sun. Whilst a good proportion of them are yellow flowered and, I don’t know why, but they seem less interesting because of it, Helichrysum auriceps had a flower head comprised of what appeared to be very shiny, golden ball-bearings (so shiny it made them very difficult to photograph). There were a number of them that had a low growing habit and were really pretty with loads of flowers. One that we seemed to come across in various places was H. adenocarpum with red, pink or white flowers, which all looked good against its grey woolly foliage.

And finally, I can’t let you go without describing the excitement of seeing Asclepsis macropus, which seems like a drumstick primula head, but in auricula colours of greeny-yellow and fawn, in perfect condition on our last walk. Just a stumble away we found the striking Zalunzianskya natalensis, whose four petals are zingy red on the outside and pristine shiny white on the inside. However, the most impressive plant saved itself till last. We brought the airport-bound coach to a screeching halt when a flash of red, seen the previous day from the coach window, was located and turned out to be Brunsvigia grandiflora, with its bright pink starburst flower heads. What an encore on behalf of the Drakensberg!

 

If this has whetted your appetite you can find another article here and a gallery of these plants and the beautiful South African landscape here.