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Gardener of prehistoric plants.

A little known ‘southern alpine’ habitat: Altimontane fynbos

The Earth’s mountains form some of the most important areas for biodiversity and host about half of its biodiversity hotspots. Varying elevation gradients, aspects, geology and soils allow a huge diversity of habitats to exist in close proximity of one another.

Often, the species found in the mountains are endemic to their own individual micro-habitat.

Climate change, with its associated rising air temperatures and subsequent changes in precipitation, is having effects at both an international and local level and is increasingly seen as a real threat to mountain biodiversity. Individual species are having to either adapt to these changes or move to escape them. Plants cannot move as quickly as animals and, thus, are slower in being able to migrate. Many plants exhibit a narrow climatic tolerance, which when linked to their needs of specific soil conditions, leave them unable to move. Those at the very tops of mountains may find themselves with nowhere higher to move to or being out competed by those migrating upwards to higher altitudes.

The Cape Fold Mountains from the summit of Wemmershoek Peak

The Cape Fold Mountains from the summit of Wemmershoek Peak

The Cape Floristic region, the smallest of the six floral kingdoms, is the most floristically diverse region on earth. It holds an estimated 9,000 vascular plant species of which 69% are endemic. This diversity has been driven by the huge topographical, geological and climatological ranges created by the Cape Fold mountains – a series of parallel mountain ranges created though geological fold and thrust (when the Falkland plateau collided with southern Africa compressing the cape supergroup sediments in the Agulas sea) and uplifted about 180 million years ago. The Cape fold mountains range in height with a maximum altitude of 2325m at Seweweekspoortpiek located in the Klein Swartberg mountain range.

On the very tops of these peaks at elevations above 1800m a unique vegetation type can be found; Altimontane Fynbos. This high-altitude ‘Southern Alpine’ fynbos is found in two unique forms, Western Altimontane sandstone fynbos and Swartberg Altimontane sandstone fynbos, each with an individual assemblage of plant species.

The silent impacts of climate change coupled with their small distributions and limited altitudinal ranges mean that, whilst these unique Altimontane habitats and the species they hold are in no, immediate and obvious, danger, they are certainly threatened should humanity be unable to mitigate global warming (if current models for mountain environments are used). In addition, the impacts of non-native, invasive species and disease are also having their toll. There is no abrupt interface between altimontane and other sandstone fynbos types, the change is gradual and other factors dictate the change in vegetation from one to the next. Due to the occurrence at the very tops of the highest peaks in the Western Cape Province (WCP) the Altimontane fynbos forms islands with each being slightly different from the next. These small islands of Altimontane fynbos find themselves nested within other forms of sandstone fynbos; North Hex Sandstone Fynbos, South Hex Sandstone Fynbos, Hawequas Sandstone Fynbos, North Langeberg Sandstone Fynbos, South Langeberg Sandstone Fynbos, North Swartberg Sandstone Fynbos, South Swartberg Sandstone Fynbos, North Kammanassie Sandstone Fynbos, South Kammanassie Sandstone Fynbos and  Swartruggens Quartzite Fynbos.

Altimontane fynbos not far from the summit of Mannetjiesberg

Altimontane fynbos not far from the summit of Mannetjiesberg

Altimontane fynbos is one of the least studied vegetation types found in the WCP, due to the inaccessibility of the mountains in which it is found. It is also home to an assemblage of species of which many are endemic or near endemic and do not qualify for one of the 5 IUCN red list categories but do fall into one of two additional South African red list categories.

Rare A species is Rare when it meets at least one of four South African criteria for rarity but is not exposed to any direct or plausible potential threat and does not qualify for a category of threat according to one of the five IUCN criteria. The four criteria are as follows:

Restricted range: Extent of Occurrence (EOO) <500 km2, OR

Habitat specialist: Species is restricted to a specialized microhabitat so that it has a very small Area of Occupancy (AOO), typically smaller than 20 km2, OR

Low densities of individuals: Species always occurs as single individuals or very small subpopulations (typically fewer than 50 mature individuals) scattered over a wide area, OR

Small global population: Less than 10 000 mature individuals.

 

Critically Rare A species is Critically Rare when it is known to occur at a single site but is not exposed to any direct or plausible potential threat and does not otherwise qualify for a category of threat according to one of the five IUCN criteria.

 

Endemic Species found in Altimontane fynbos

Western Altimontane fynbos

Agathosma foleyana RARE

Agathosma tulbaghensis RARE

Amphithalea esterhuyseniae VU

Amphithalea. purpurea LC

Cliffortia esterhuyseniae RARE

Cyclopia glabra RARE

Erica brevicaulis RARE

Erica cameronii LC

Phylica intrusa RARE

Esterhuysenia alpina RARE

Helichrysum solitarium VU

 Swartberg Altimontane fynbos

Erica toringbergensis DDT

Calotesta alba CRITICALLY RARE

Cyclopia aurescens RARE

Cyclopia bolusii VU

Erica gossypioides EN

Erica hebdomadalis RARE

Erica jugicola RARE

Erica lignosa RARE

Erica oreotragus LC

Erica roseoloba RARE

Protea pruinosa EN

Selago esterhuyseniae CRITICALLY RARE

Pentameris glacialis RARE

Pentameris swartbergensis RARE

Restio papyraceus VU

Thamnochortus papyraceus VU

Staberoha stokoei RARE

There are also number of Proteaceae species associated with these habitats and it is these that interest us. One, Protea pruinosa, is endemic to Altimontane fynbos and is Endangered. The others are all montane species and whilst not endemic to the Altimontane fynbos the majority only occur within or just below the altitudinal range of Altimontane fynbos.

  • Protea punctata LC
  • Protea venusta EN
  • Protea effusa NT
  • Protea scabriuscula LC
  • Protea scolopendriifolia LC
  • Protea cryophila NT
  • Protea montana VU
  • Protea rupicola EN
  • Spatalla confusa LC
  • Spatalla incurva LC
  • Leucadendron dregei E
  • Leucadendron singulare VU
  • Leucospermum wittebergense LC

What is more, most of these species have either proven unsuccessful or, at best tricky, in cultivation. With this in mind we, on our two collecting trips to the Western Cape, set out to visit areas of Altimontane Fynbos and the ecotonal vegetation between it and other fynbos types.

Protea scolopendriifolia on the slopes of Mast Peak

Protea scolopendriifolia on the slopes of Mast Peak in an area that wasnt quite Altimontain yet.

Swartberg Altimontane Sandstone Fynbos on Waboomsberg and Bothashoek Peak

Of all the mountain ranges visited in South Africa in 2015, the Swartberg is the most extreme; the highest, the driest, the coldest and the hottest. It is bounded on both the north and the south by the arid lands of the Great Karoo and Little Karoo respectively. During the summer, temperatures can soar to between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius; however, during the winter frequent snow storms close the mountain passes to vehicular traffic. Sunlight levels are high, and humidity is low. Consequently, the vegetation is distinctly different from the other more coastal mountain ranges we have visited. Our first impression, having stepped out of the car at the summit of the Swartberg Pass, was that we were in a very different climate to both South Africa’s coastal mountains which we had previously visited and also to our home in the mild west coast of the UK. This place was not mild, but it did get cold, and it was for this reason that we wanted to collect seed here. Was it possible that the plants from here would tolerate cold better and just deal with our cool summers? Or would they need that summer heat to thrive? We reached our highest point on our 2015 collecting trip here, on the summit of Waboomsberg, at just shy of 2000m in altitude. Would we find those high-altitude specialists we were after here?

On approaching the mountain, we were confronted with the aftermath of fire. Burnt remains of Protea montana were found as well as the skeletons of a few Leucadendron dregei. It seemed that the previous summer had affected many different mountain areas in the Western Cape, but we did not lose hope of finding some survivors. We headed for the rocky outcrops that often make good refuges for plants during a fire and low and behold, survivors we found. At the top of a cliff and surrounded on all sides by large boulders was a creeping beauty. The prostrate mass of Protea venusta was unscathed and growing well. We saw another couple of plants of this species at the top of the same cliff that were not so well protected by rocks and which had been partly burned away from the cliff edge. Because they are only found at the tops of high mountains, populations of this endangered species are predicted to reduce significantly over the coming decades due to more frequent fires as a result of climate change (SANBI Red List justification). This species is actually in cultivation already, but it forms hybrids with other white-water sugar bushes and provenance is often difficult to determine. Plants labelled as this species in cultivation are sometimes obviously hybrids due to their upright nature.

Protea venusta sprawling over the top of Waboomsberg

Protea venusta sprawling over the top of Waboomsberg

Another endangered species we found growing further away from the cliff edge but still among rocks was Leucadendron dregei. These cone bush plants actually had many cones on them from previous years and in areas where they had been burned, seedlings were already growing. This species is another high-altitude specialist suffering from similar population reductions as Protea venusta. One vulnerable species which we did collect seed of near the summit was Protea montana. This mat forming plant had not been burned and looked like a green carpet dotted with goblets for flower-heads at ground level. This rodent pollinated species is one that we have high hopes for being hardy in the UK and it was growing in depressions and seeps that water from surrounding areas would be channelled into; though given the low rainfall in this area it certainly was not wet.

BMR-15048 02.a76ef047d8d24c03823acdf41c4ee7c8

Leucadendron dregei

Continuing to boulder-hop around the slopes surrounding the summit, we stopped to catch our breath and gaze down the length of this mighty chain of folded mountains. We were now in a dip between the main peak and a shoulder just to the north of it, which dropped away to the west via a smooth triangular slab of rock, broken up by narrow cracks.

Wanting to look more closely at what appeared to be the silhouette of a bonsaied shrublet growing out of one of these cracks, we climbed up this slab for a short way, being careful to keep to the rock and avoid the vegetation. “its Protea rupicola!” we both exclaimed, containing our excitement in order to keep clinging on. We had not expected to find this plant so easily, although come to think of it, it was exactly where it is always described as being – growing out of the side of a cliff. The plants we saw had large seed-heads and flower-head buds coming on. This is another endangered high-altitude species which is suffering population losses due to climate change (SANBI Red List) and we were very pleased to eventually find plants from seedling to mature on this rocky slab. Needless to say, the fire had not touched them here. Historically, plants of this species have been grown in cultivation in South Africa but very few times and never to maturity. Pleased as punch, we trotted back down to the pass and continued to our overnight stay at the Ou Tol Hut, which compared to the Helderfontein Hut in Boosmansbos, was luxury. Similarly, to that hut, we used it as a base for exploring the surrounding area.

The following day we started early, heading back up to the summit of the Swartberg Pass, this time turning east, along the trail which rides the crest formed by the highest peaks, towards the Bothashoek Hut. The fire which had engulfed much of Waboomsberg had also affected the south side of the pass itself and slightly east of it as well. The path went through alternating patches of burnt and unburnt vegetation, including Protea punctata. This species of white water sugarbush formed many small trees but did not occur much higher than the level of the pass and seemed to grow quite happily in some shady and damp areas. Also, in the area, just east of the pass, was a handsome stand of Leucadendron album in a flat, open, sunny spot near the ridge itself. It was a joy to see so many plants in this population compared to that which we found in Boosmansbos earlier in the trip. Full of pink, strawberry-like cones at various stages of ripening and with glaucous leaves, it was a wonderful sight to behold, even though the leaves were distinctly shorter than in Boosmansbos. We also passed several burnt shrubs of Protea lorifolia. This species was growing almost exclusively on the sunny side of the ridge and was a rather untidy plant when we did find an unburnt individual. At the first and second summits we reached, were plants of Leucadendron dregei. Never in high numbers and well placed in fire safe areas, we were pleasantly surprised to see the number of individuals that we did. At the top of the second summit (we think this is called Bothashoek Peak) we decided to head down the south facing ridge that descended below us. After a short while, we found a couple of small plants of Protea rupicola. How nice to see this species again, even though these were relatively young plants. But where were the parents? Further down, we saw what looked like a large mass of protea like leaves and large dark pink flowers on a rock pinnacle a little distance down the ridge. Scrambling towards the pinnacle, we came across another couple of plants of Protea rupicola, this time with a few old flower-heads. But what was the plant in flower up there? Climbing up to get a better look, we were rewarded with a sight neither of us shall forget. In the airy and lofty heights, a very large Protea rupicola, in full flower, basked in the midday sun. We stopped and admired this wonderful veteran for quite some time along with a rather splendid blue lizard below it. Feeling that we had gone down the ridge far enough and knowing we had to retrace our steps back to the hut, but still wanting to explore this superb habitat further, we traversed to the west facing side of the ridge to start heading back. On our return we found several other groups of Protea rupicola; this must be one of its strongholds.

Protea rupicola with the Ou Tol Hut far below in the valley

Protea rupicola with the Ou Tol Hut far below in the valley

Swartberg Altimontane fynbos in the Kammanassie mountains

At the eastern end of the Swartberg and a little to the south of it, a separate area of altimontane fynbos can be found on the highest peaks of the Kammanassie mountains. Whilst these peaks are dry, they certainly see a lot of cold and can be covered in heavy snow for extended periods on an annual basis. It was this fact and that the species we had collected in the Swartberg were doing so well in North Wales that lead us to explore this region in 2017, along with Di Turner and Peter Thompson from the Outramps CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) group. Travelling with Di meant that apart from our own observations and collections, we would also be assisting with data collection for the Outramps.

Leucadendron rourkei with the Kammanassie as a backdrop.

Leucadendron rourkei with the Kammanassie as a backdrop.

The Drifter (Di’s bakkie) made little work of the 4×4 track leading up towards the high saddle below Mast Peak where we would make camp. A brief encounter with the Reserve Manager, Philip Esau, on route saw Di step out of the Drifter to exclaim, “Oh my! That is the biggest puffy I have EVER seen!”. The puff adder was not on the road when we drove off, so it was assumed to have hitched a lift with us by coiling itself into the under carriage. When we reached camp, we were all highly aware of our potential unwelcome guest. Camp involved our little tent, an awning attached to the side of the Drifter, proper camp chairs, chilled wine and a large lasagne. Certainly, higher standards than we are used to. Peter had not brought his tent and thus would be sleeping under the awning with camp tables as a wind break. The rest of the day was spent split up. Peter ascended Mast Peak, Di explored the track beyond our camp, while we walked back along the track we had come up. We were instructed by Di to take lots of photos of everything and collect a small sprig of every Erica we came across for identification. Along the road, we came across Leucadendron rourkei. John Rourke, its namesake, described this species as “the ugliest, most scruffy species in the genus”. This it might be, however with a small distribution and a fairly high altitudinal range, it was a target species for us. We also saw Leucadendron album nearby, which in contrast is a stunningly beautiful, silver leaved conebush. Protea scolopendriifolia, a snow sugarbush that had evaded us in 2015, taunted us on the side of the road with its stiff leaves but lack of seeds. Back at camp Peter, on hearing we had encountered this species, informed us of a large population on the slope just above camp, where we were able to make a good collection. Peter also brought back a sprig of a pincushion he found high up on the ridge west of Mast Peak. This was Leucospermum wittebergense and a very high observation of it too. Unfortunately, the plants were just coming into flower and a seed collection would not be possible.

Camp in the Kammanassie

Camp in the Kammanassie

The next morning, we woke early to ascend Mast Peak through the cool swirling mists of dawn. On the way up, we found more plants of Protea scolopendriifolia, this time in flower, as well as one plant of Protea venusta. At the summit we encountered a host of altimontane Proteaceae species. Spatalla confusa, a matt forming plant was in full flower and Leucadendron singulare bore both flowers and seed-heads. The most dominant member of the Proteaceae at just shy of 2000m was the endangered Protea rupicola. There were aged plants, dead plants and young plants here on the rocky fire refuges that it likes to inhabit. There was a large population of it here and we would carry on seeing this plant all along the high ridge between this peak and Mannetjiesberg.

Protea rupicola

Protea rupicola

Between the two peaks, we also found very high plants of Protea punctata and Protea repens. We only saw one other plant of Protea venusta during the whole day, even though we passed many suitable habitats for it. On reaching the summit of Mannetjiesberg, the highest peak in the Kammanassie, we found pristine altimontane fynbos, with sprawling matts of Protea montana alongside the now familiar Spatalla confusa and Leucadendron singulare. The sea of red flowers of Erica inordinata against the grey foliage and rocks really was spectacular, but we were warned by Di that this was by far the stickiest Erica and that should we choose to collect a spring that we should put it in a separate bag or risk everything else sticking to it. The day ended with an exciting show and tell of all the species seen by each member, including Agathosma zwartbergense and Liparia genistoides by Di, innumerable Ericas and a beautiful gladiolus discovered by Peter.

Western Altimontane fynbos on Wemmershoek Peak

On a separate day during our 2017 expedition, we climbed past a high valley in Mont Rochel Nature Reserve, near Franschoek, where we had previously looked for Disa x brendae (a naturally occuring orchid hybrid that hadn’t been seen since 1985) and headed towards Wemmershoek Peak, via a high peak called Perdekop. This trail winds through fynbos dominated by graminoids, mainly in the form of restios. These ‘snow fields’ were interspersed with small areas of taller vegetation, mainly along seeps. It was in one of these that we found the first altimontane species, Spatalla incurva, in both flower and seed. We had not expected to see this species here as it is more populous further north. This was not the last Spatalla of the day though.

Spatalla confusa on Wemmershoek Peak

Spatalla confusa on Wemmershoek Peak

 

Past Perdekop, along a south facing peaty ridge we found a small population of young plants of Spatalla setacea that had not yet reached maturity. The trail then became indistinct and we had to simply follow the ridge, picking our way through rocky terrain adorned with the pink flowering spires of Watsonia borbonica. On making the final ascent to Wemmershoek Peak, we came across an area of short south facing cliffs with restio covered ledges between them. It was in these cliffs that we found the western form of Protea rupicola. These hard to reach plants had a few flowers but were mainly half burnt.

Protea rupicola again but this time the western forma and very hard to reach!

Protea rupicola again but this time the western forma and very hard to reach!

 

At the 1700m summit, the habitat changed to one of huge, wind sculpted boulders on top of a fairly flat plateau. It was on the flatter areas that we found Spatalla confusa, a plant we had also seen growing near Protea rupicola in the Kammanassie. These were small plants and few and far between. The leaves here were broader and longer that those of the population we had seen further east and sat outside the parameters given by their taxonomic description, however we have subsequently had their identification confirmed. Between the minibus-sized boulders we found the enchanting Cape Edelweiss (Lachnaea macrantha) a member of the Thymelaeaceae, whose complex white flowers and pointy, succulent, glaucous leaves dumbfounded us. The plant was so unlike other members of its family that it was not until we showed the photo to Anthony Hitchcock at Kirstenbosch that we got an identification for it. It was particularly ornamental, growing next to an orange, long, tube-flowered Erica that Anthony thinks may be E. abietina subsp. aurantiaca. On the way back we took a longer, but less steep route, passing a small population of Protea magnifica. As we descended, we went through an area that had burnt three years ago. The fresh, young growth of Leucadendron spissifolium was bright green and tinged with pink, while the multitude of post-fire flowers was reminiscent of an alpine meadow. A truly beautiful sight! It was here that we found plants of Aulax pallasia, the only resprouting member of this genus.

Cape Edelweiss (Lachnaea macrantha)

Cape Edelweiss (Lachnaea macrantha)

The Altimontane fynbos is certainly a habitat type we have a need to explore further, however, the pockets of this habitat are difficult to access and to navigate once there. There are many areas that should hold Altimontane fynbos that so far have been little explored and thus little recorded. Who knows what they may hold? We have a need to explore the mountains of both the Klein Swartberg and the Hex River mountains, the second highest mountain range in the Western Cape. The Hex in particular is a draw for us with its highest peak being Matroosberg at 2,249 metres. The high areas of North and South Hex Sandstone Fynbos have the largest area of Western Altimontane Sandstone Fynbos embedded in them. And with altitudinal zonation known to be clearly evident here they demand further investigation. However, the habitats they hold remain very little documented – A future trip (or a full on alpine expedition) maybe?

Thanks to Di and Peter from the Outramps CREW GroupCapeNatureStellenbosch University Botanic GardenThe Royal Horticultural Society, the staff at SANBI and BAM clothing for all of your assistance with our trip.

You can read more about some of the subjects I have covered in this blog by downloading the Western Cape State of Biodiversity Report 2017

Visiting the most threatened habitats on earth.

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here but today is an important day – today sees the start of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation conference at Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in South Africa. http://www.plants2020.net/gppc/.

‘The Global Partnership for Plant Conservation brings together international, regional and national organisations in order to contribute to the implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC).

Over 180 countries backed the Global Strategy at the Convention on Biological Diversity when it was first introduced to the CBD in April 2002. They recognised that up to two thirds of the world’s plant species could be threatened by the end of this century unless urgent steps are taken to safeguard tens of thousands of species.

The original strategy set 16 targets in plant conservation to be achieved by 2010. In October 2010, an updated strategy with revised targets for 2020 was adopted by the Parties to the CBD. To help nations meet the targets, a consortium of international and national plant and conservation agencies have formed the Global Partnership. The Partnership is working to implement the GSPC and provide tools and resources on how each country can plan and act to meet the targets.’

We, at Fossilplants, are also stepping up to the challenges and goals of the GSPC and it is very relevant to us that the GPPC conference should be taking place in South Africa. Our work with the Proteaceae of South Africa is actively working towards Target 8 of the GSPC‘At least 75 per cent of threatened plant species in ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin, and at least 20 per cent available for recovery and restoration programmes.’

The proteas of South Africa are flagships for conservation in a country which holds a whopping 6% of the world’s plant diversity. Our own conservation work deals with the species that are found high up in the mountains of the Western Cape of South Africa and in particular a vegetation type called Altimontain Fynbos (both the western form and the Swartberg form) which occurs at altitudes of around 2000m and is a tiny and fragmented habitat type with a range of unique Proteaceae species such as Leucadendron dregei, Protea montana, Protea rupicola, Protea scolopendriifolia, Protea venusta, Spatalla confuse, Protea effusa, Protea scabriuscula, Spatalla incurva and Protea punctata. Whilst the plants of this habitat have proven difficult to cultivate in the low altitude botanic gardens of South Africa we are having some success with them here in cool mountains of North Wales and we are lucky to have many of them in our care. We are working, as part of the ‘proteas With Altitude’ project, to understand the unique requirements of these southern alpine species of protea in cultivation and to create protocols for their ex-situ conservation and restoration. The main threat to these species is that of climate change; their mountain top homes are getting warmer and seeing more frequent fires. With nowhere higher to go and very small areas of occupancy many of these species are threatened with extinction in the wild.

Protea rupicola is only found in Altimontain fynbos

Protea rupicola is an endangered species found in Altimontain fynbos.

Nearly all of the Swartberg Altimontain fynbos  and a third of the Western Altimontain Fynbos is found within protected areas and, thus, for these vegetation type Targets 4 and 5 of the GSPC are looked after.

Swartberg Altimontain Fynbos
Endemic to the Western Cape Province
Threat status – Secure
Total extent – 5080 Ha
Area under conservation – 87.4%

Western Altimontain Fynbos
Endemic to the Western Cape Province
Threat status – Secure
Total extent – 3751 Ha
Area under conservation – 33.9%

 

It is not, however, the wonderful high-altitude Fynbos I came here to write about.

In December 2017, during our second ‘mountain fynbos’ collecting trip, we took some time to step out of our comfort zone to visit some of the most threatened vegetation types and plant species on earth. Our friend, Rupert Koopman (CapeNature’s [only] botanist) and his colleague, Chanel Rampartab; CapeNature ecologist, had invited us to join them as they spent a day working in the Southern Overberg.

What we saw that day shocked us to the very core. The trip took us far out of our comfort zone and into the front line of plant conservation in South Africa. It allowed us to see for ourselves the difficulties faced in marrying the preservation of the area’s high botanical diversity with the needs of the people.

The Overberg, the bread basket of South Africa, is an area of land stretching from the Hottentots Holland in the west, across to the Breede river in the east and incorporates the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its UNESCO heritage status is due to the high levels of floral diversity found in the region and certainly the mountain areas form the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom (the world’s smallest floral kingdom).

The area is split between rolling Mediterranean lowlands which produce large quantities of both grain and fruit and high mountainous areas which have cool wet winters and warm, windy summers. The geology and climate lend themselves to the occurrence of multiple different vegetation types.

Our first stop….

An area of Agulas limestone fynbos

The vivid green of Agulas limestone fynbos

The vivid green of Agulas limestone fynbos

Agulas Limestone Fynbos
Endemic to the Western Cape Province
Threat status – Vulnerable D1
Original extent – 29438 Ha
Current extent – 23626 Ha
Area under conservation – 39.59%

Species of Protea are not normally associated with alkaline soils, so it was interesting to see the habitat in which Protea susannae, a Near Threatened species, grows. Protea susannae is one of the more widely grown protea species within the gardens of the UK and Europe. Whilst it is not a particularly frost hardy species it is adaptable to soils with a higher ph. thus making it easier to cultivate. Our overriding feeling of limestone fynbos was the very different foliage colour palette; a healthy, vibrant green that stood out against an almost beige background. It took the ability to look deeper into the habitat to realise that although many of the leaves looked very similar you were looking at a multitude of different species from a multitude of genera and families.

The road from the Limestone fynbos to our next port of call took us through Grootbos Nature Reserve and close to the famous Flower Valley Conservation Trust, a farm where fynbos is sustainably harvested for the cut flower industry. We headed to an area where Rupert had been told that a large tract of vegetation had been cleared to make way for vineyards. On arriving at this area of ecotonal Overberg Sandstone Fynbos and Elim Ferricrete Fynbos the report proved to be correct and the reality faced for conservation in the lowland areas of South Africa became immediately apparent.

Illegal destruction of Fynbos in the Overberg.

Illegal destruction of Fynbos in the Overberg.

Just very small areas of natural vegetation remained on the margins of what was a very large area of ploughed land. Having confirmed the report, we moved on to see an area of Ferricrete fynbos on the edge of a road. This area was home to one of the remaining populations of Leucadendron elimense ssp. elimense, a species that has seen a 50% decline, due to crop cultivation, in the past 60 years. To travel directly from an area of destroyed habitat to a species so heavily affected by habitat loss made a stark point. The ferricrete soils overlying ironstone gravels make for fertile land in a country where soil nutrients are few and far between. With a growing population, South Africa must play a fine balancing act between crop production and species conservation.

Paranomus abrotanifolius in the Elim Ferricrete fynbos.

Paranomus abrotanifolius in the Elim Ferricrete fynbos.

Elim Ferricrete Fynbos
Endemic to the Western Cape Province
Threat status – Critically Endangered
Original extent – 66528 Ha
Current extent – 16694 Ha
Area under conservation – 10.38%

 

Moving on, we stopped again at an area of ecotonal ferricrete/sandstone fynbos so that we could get an understanding of what had been lost at the earlier vineyard site. It was immediately obvious that the level of biodiversity lost at the vineyard was irreplaceable. The patchwork of small pockets of different vegetation types, each dominated by a different range of species, that graded into one another is very difficult to describe. One moment you are stood amongst scrubby, silvery vegetation and the next among a firework display of reds, oranges and yellows. This display became even more evident as we entered the Agulhas National Park.

Again, stopping at the side of a road we stepped out of the car to find ourselves in a new habitat altogether. The Overberg sandstone fynbos we had just entered challenged any habitat we had previously seen for the level of diversity it held. This tapestry of vibrant and unusual plant species   against a sandy soil gave the impression of a megadiverse coral reef. Leucospermum truncatulatum, Mimetes cucculatus, Serruria elongata and Aulax umbellata (all Proteaceae) were the main players amongst a cast of innumerable other species. This area was younger than the areas of sandstone fynbos we had encountered in the ecotonal area and many of its species were flowering for the first time since its last burn. This youth and freshness gave the whole area a kaleidoscopic feel and we were lucky to have an experienced Cape botanist with us to identify the many species that would have otherwise left us stumped.

Overberg sandstone fynbos with diversity akin to a coral reef.

Overberg sandstone fynbos with diversity akin to a coral reef.

Overberg Sandstone Fynbos
Endemic to the Western Cape Province
Threat status – Critically Endangered (D1)
Original extent – 116853 Ha
Current extent – 95847 Ha
Area under conservation – 33.25%

 

Heading off from this perfect example of Overberg sandstone fynbos we went on to see another example of Elim Ferricrete fynbos; this time on the outskirts of the village that gives it its name.

Geelkop Nature Reserve is owned and managed by the Elim community and is a prime example of how community engagement and involvement can make a difference in habitat conservation. This small reserve forms an island, among the vast expanse of agriculture in the area, that acts as a refuge to several threatened Proteaceae species such as Protea pudens, Protea aspera, Paranomus abrotanifolius and Leucospermum heterophyllum. Unfortunately, there are other small islands of Elim ferricrete fynbos dotted around the area that will not find themselves as lucky as Geelkop.

the vivid blue Pdeudoselago pulchra

the vivid blue Pdeudoselago pulchra

Our final stop of the day was a privately-owned nature reserve on a mountain called Akkedisberg. Owned and managed by the surrounding area’s farmer, this land sported a host of Overberg sandstone fynbos species alongside a handful of mountain specific species. Whilst the Proteaceae on this mountain were species we had come across in multiple places on our travels of the day we also found many plants that we had not seen before such as the vivid blue Pdeudoselago pulchra (Scrophulariaceae). Whilst the habitat and flora of this mountain was special the real point of visiting was for the vantage point it gave to look out across the Agulhas plains. The view was once a network of intricately woven habitats and was now a virtual monoculture of farmed arable land.

Fynbos in the foreground and a mono-culture of grain crops for as far as the eye can see.

Fynbos in the foreground and a mono-culture of grain crops for as far as the eye can see.

People say ‘What a difference a day makes’ and on this occasion the adage could not have been truer. In the most floristically diverse region of the world occur some of the most threatened habitat types on earth too. The three that we visited are just some of the many threatened vegetation types in South Africa.

65 of the 163 vegetation types found in the Western Cape Province (64% of which are endemic to the WCP) are threatened with extinction and South Africa has 2842 threatened plant species.

If we had started the day with a desire to conserve the plant life of the Cape Floral Kingdom we finished it with a feeling of desperation and urgency.

Thank-you to Rupert Koopman and Chanel Rampartab for allowing us to join them and see some of these amazing places before they disappear.

Thanks also to CapeNature, Stellenbosch University Botanic Garden, The Royal Horticultural Society, the staff at SANBI and BAM clothing for all of your assistance with our trip.

You can read more about some of the subjects I have covered in this blog by downloading the Western Cape State of Biodiversity Report 2017

 

R is for……. Rhoiptelea chiliantha

Rhoiptelea chiliantha used to be in its own family, the Rhoipteleaceae, until the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group moved it into the Juglandaceae in their review in 2009 (APG III). This review immediately made it the oldest of the walnuts.

The only member of the monotypic genus Rhoiptelea, the ‘Horsetail’ tree is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. Growing in Southern China and across the border into Vietnam the tree is found only singly or in small groups. However it is also a re-coloniser of cleared ground and thus the Cardamom plantations that are encroaching on its forest habitat also provide this species with an opportunity. Alas seedling mortality is high  and thus the re-population of cleared areas does not compete with the clearing itself.

Its fossil history places it securely in the latest Cretaceous and proves that the genus at least had a much wider distribution than it currently boasts. Fossilised pollen grains that are assigned to the genus Plicapollis from the Late Cretaceous are very similar to the pollen of Rhoiptelea and there are also pollen fossils that are actually assigned to Rhoiptelea from the Maastrichtian (the very latest stage of the Cretaceous) of North America. There is a macro-fossil record of fossilised fruit that has been assigned to Rhoiptelea from the Maastrichtian of Europe too but alas these seeds have few identifiable characteristics and thus their relationship to the Rhoipteleaceae needs to be reviewed.

Here in the ‘Fossil’ garden we have a plant of Rhoiptelea chiliantha which, on receiving it from a good friend, soon became a favorite tree. Little grown and very little known this species truly deserves to be more widely appreciated for its wonderful multi-pinnate leaves, with their winged petioles, that emerge the deepest red in the spring.

rhoiptelea

 

 

Joinvillea – the grass before grasses.

A recent addition to the ‘Fossil Garden’ came in the form of Joinvillea ascendens Gauduch ex. Brongn & Gris (Syn. Joinvillea gaudichaudiana Brongn & Gris) from Hawaii ; a kind gift from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. It’s member of the Joinvilleaceae which in turn is a member of the ‘Graminid clade’ of the Poales – In short it is a sister to the world’s grasses.

Whilst the Poales certainly have their earliest roots in the late Cretaceous there is little fossil evidence to help us understand when and where they first evolved. The earliest recognisable fossils of this ethnobotanically important group come from 66 million years ago in what was South America. The Cyperaceae (The Sedges) have no fossil evidence from this period and their close relatives the Juncaceae (Rushes) have an even more limited fossil history. The earliest fossil evidence of this group belong to members of the Poaceae (the true grasses) and there is some fossil evidence that suggests that the Restionaceae was around at this time too. Another genus in the Poales known from Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) fossils is Typha (the true Bull Rushes) who’s fossil record is that of leaves, found in the Negev desert of Israel, called Typhacites negevensis. So what has all of this got to do with the Joinvilleaceae? Joinvillea is very closely related to grasses indeed and on first inspection you would believe it to be a grass. It is currently placed as sister group, with the Ecdeiocoleaceae, to the grasses. It’s flowers are pollinated by wind just like its kin yet it bears berries making it a real oddity in evolutionary terms. This feature is relictual for the Graminids and believed to be a earlier occurring feature than the dry seeds of the grasses. It also bares multi-cellular micro hairs like the grasses which alongside some other features proves that the three groups have a common ancestor.

Joinvillea’s obscure occurrence and unusual, relictual, features certainly demand it a small place among the ‘fossil’ plants in our little garden. I am certainly pleased to see this new piece in the puzzle of plant evolution take up its position as the only grass in our garden.

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens  Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Joinvillea ascandens

Joinvillea ascandens

 

‘Fossilplants’ at the Natural History Museum, London!

30 years ago a little boy sat cross legged under a giant Monkey Puzzle tree and dreamed about the habitats of the time that the tree, and its kin, first evolved. Fascinated, the boy traced his fingers around the silhouettes of the plants in the background of the pictures in his brother’s dinosaur books. He sat there wishing (quite hard) to see these strange worlds, so very different from 1980’s suburbia, desperately needing to understand what they were really like. What would it sound like in a world dominated by insects? What did a Diplodocus eat that allowed it to get so large? And how did the first flowers appear on this planet? Family visits to London meant desperate pleas to his parents to visit the Natural History Museum and to see the few plant fossils that were on display – fossils which only fuelled his imagination.
Three decades have passed and the little boy’s dreams of time machines are, alas, not the reality promised in ‘Back to the Future’ but his need to understand that ancient past is still there.
That little boy was me.
A while ago someone said ‘Robbie, the Natural History Museum in London are going to redevelop their grounds and they are going to have a whole area devoted to the history of plants on earth’. Well from the moment I heard this that ‘little boy’ (the one still inside me) just knew he had to be part of such a project.
Many, many months later and I am very pleased to say that I AM part of it. I am, to say the least, INCREDIBLY EXCITED! It feels a little like all those childhood dreams are coming true.
The idea of being involved in such a jaw dropping project as turning the eastern grounds of the museum into a giant, imagining of those habitats from a distant past, complete with dinosaur fossils, has made the little boy from all those years ago very, very happy.

A artists impression of what the Eastern grounds may look like.

A artists impression of what the Eastern grounds may look like.

I have already started on the planning stages of the NHM’s grounds redevelopment project and whilst we are waiting for the planning permission to be considered there is more than enough for me to be getting on with.

There is a lot more to all this though than just making my childish dreams come true. Have you visited the museum’s grounds recently?
The Natural History Museum’s purpose is to challenge the way people think about the natural world; its past, present and future. Whilst the architecture of the museum is astounding, the total sum of the grounds is an opportunity lost. The east side is bare and fragmented while the west side is occupied by the beautiful but rarely visisted wildlife garden. The museum wants to join up the whole space so that everyone’s experience of the natural world starts the second they arrive and not just when they step foot through the door of the building itself. Five million people a year visit the museum and if all of those people are learning about and engaging with living nature from the second they set foot through one of the wrought iron entrance gates then that goal will be surely achieved.
For a number of years I worked for the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and during that time I found my passion to inspire people with nature. The RSPB taught me that all you have to do is to introduce people to the natural world and then nature will do the rest itself. The prehistoric garden that I now have the opportunity to plant and grow will not only introduce people to a past that is quite difficult to comprehend but also teach people about the planet we live on right here and now and challenge them to consider what a future world may look like too.
That little boy of thirty years ago suddenly has the opportunity to inspire other little (and big) boys and girls with a world he had thought he could only imagine.

 

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 10

Its not everyday that you get to meet both the plant and the man it was named after. This is exactly what happened the day we ventured up onto the Hermon mountain on the Israeli border with Syria. Whilst the summit sits on the border between Syria and Lebanon at over 2800m in altitude the area we visited was one of the satellite peaks at 2236m. With no fenced borders and a high military presence we really had to watch we didn’t stray into a area we shouldn’t.

This rocky mountain range, in the north of Israel/ west of Syria, is home to a unique flora as it falls into the alpine zone. We were a little late to see Iris westii (and besides we would have needed special permits from the army to visit it) and the native Eremurus were also over but the botanical treats abounded.

Glaucium leiocarpum in the carpark near the ski lift at Israels only ski resort!

Glaucium leiocarpum in the carpark near the ski lift at Israels only ski resort!

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stunted and windswept trees at over 2000m altitude

stunted and windswept Juniperus drupacea trees at over 2000m altitude

The increadible view from the top.

The incredible view from the top.

Cool enough for roses to grow.

Cool enough for roses to grow.

Terrific Taraxacum species (haven't a clue which though)

Terrific Taraxacum species (haven’t a clue which though)

There where many spiny specimens up there too.

There where many spiny specimens up there too. (Thanks Ori Fragman-Sapir of Jerusalem Botanic Gardens for the identification of Cousinia hermonis)

Yep those white spots over there in Syria are snow!

Yep those white spots over there in Syria are snow!

Cotoniaster sp

Cotoniaster nummularia

Euphorbia sp

Euphorbia anrilibonatica

We just couldnt get away from the army presence and felt like our every move was being watched (which it probably was).

We just couldn’t get away from the army presence and felt like our every move was being watched (which it probably was).

Astragalus sp

Astragalus cruentiflorus

Boraginaceae

Cynoglossum montanum

Poppies and verbascum a Chelsea Flower show mix if ever I saw one!

Poppies and Verbascum damascenum a Chelsea Flower show mix if ever I saw one!

Ixolirion tataricum

Ixolirion tataricum

Salvia microstegia

Salvia microstegia

Its not often you find broomrapes so to find this one, Orobanche cohenii, was quite special.

Its not often you find broomrapes so to find this one, Orobanche cohenii, was quite special.

Scutellaria utriculata

Scutellaria utriculata

Rosularia lineata was growing in every crack in the rock alongside the Scutellaria utriculata

Rosularia libonotica was growing in every crack in the rock alongside the Scutellaria utriculata

Seed heads of the endemic Bellevalia hermonis

Seed heads of the endemic Bellevalia hermonis

The Bellevalia grew in the greenest areas; the hollows where the snow melted last.

The Bellevalia grew in the greenest areas; the hollows where the snow melted last. (that’s Ben in the pic)

I was amazed to find my 4th species of Aristolochia on the trip; Aristolochia scabridula.

I was amazed to find my 4th species of Aristolochia on the trip; Aristolochia scabridula.

 

Bare patches of ground made by the cows. We found a group of local batanists intently looking at the patches and I had to ask why.......

Next to bare patches of ground made by the cows we found a group of local botanists intently looking at the patches and I had to ask why…….

.....it seems that this cushion forming Alyssum only grows in these patches and whilst it keys out as a much taller species that grows nearby it seems to be remarkably different in many ways.

…..it seems that this cushion form of Alyssum only grows in these patches and whilst it keys out as a much taller species, Alyssum szovotsii, that grows nearby it seems to be remarkably different in many ways.

One of the botanists turned out to be Simon Cohen after whom Orobanche cohenii is named

One of the botanists turned out to be Simon Cohen after whom Orobanche cohenii is named

 

It was these botanists that led us to see the highlight plant of our trip Astragalus ehrenbergii.

It was these botanists that led us to see the highlight plant of our trip Astragalus ehrenbergii.

A very small population up a tiny path that you would never notice unless you knew where it was.

A very small population up a tiny path that you would never notice unless you knew where it was.

Only found here in Israel on the Hermon Mountain and in a small area of Turkey its two populations have become divided by aridity.

Only found here in Israel on the Hermon Mountain and in a small area of Turkey its two populations have become divided by aridity.

This increadibly beautiful species is now protected......

This increadibly beautiful species is now protected……

......by its proximity to the army road leading to the border with Syria.

……by its proximity to the army road leading to the border with Syria.

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 9

A trip to the Israel/Lebanon border in search of the habitat of Iris lorteti found us in quite a cool Mediterranean climate at 1200m in altitude . We didn’t find iris but we did find plenty of other wonderful wild-flowers!

Right on the border with Lebanon.

Right on the border with Lebanon.

That's Lebanon over there!

That’s Lebanon over there!

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Wild hollyhock with Lebanon in the background.

There where lots of familiar plants around, particularly the Wild hollyhock, Alcea setosa. Thats Lebanon in the background.

ggggg

Echinops adenocaulos was another familiar species

Carrots

Wild carrots, Daucus carota, the wild relative of that mainstay of the British diet

pink convolvulus

Convolvulus dorycnium stood out like a saw thumb amongst the dry grasses. its completely unlike any other bindweed i have ever seen.

irish bells

A real cottage garden favorite – Moluccella laevis

Caparis

Capparis spinosa the pickled buds of which we eat as Capers.

allium

We soon realised it was onion flowering season in the Eastern Mediterranean when we saw lots of this wonderful Allium phanerantherum

allium

We also spotted this white form of Allium ampeloprasum

allium

We found Allium stamineum growing in small holes in the limestone rocks.

alliums

The little Alliums shared their rocky home with Rosularia

Townsendia

Rosularia libonatica

Bears breackes

Acanthus syriacus stood out as the thorniest plant in the incredibly spiny vegetation

spiny

the acanthus was however beaten on the spikey stakes by Gundelia tournefortii

dont know

I wish I knew what this sharp character is!

an absolutely delightful Dianthus.

an absolutely delightful Dianthus strictus. A delicate flower finding protection in the thorns

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Iris lorteti habitat

Iris lorteti habitat

The nearest we came to finding Iris - a few dried sticks. It was always going to be a long-shot!

The nearest we came to finding Iris – a few dried sticks. It was always going to be a long-shot!

Often the best places for wildlife to flourish are those where man cannot!

Often the best places for wildlife to flourish are those places where humanity has made it impossible for itself to flourish!

To be continued…….

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 7

I am in Tel Aviv and it’s now over a year since my last Israel post. A family wedding has brought me here at a different time of year.

Most of the wildflowers here are over for the year and only their dry golden brown seedheads remain. So in order to find some green we headed to Tel Aviv’s rock garden in Yarkon Park, a real tribute to the world’s succulent plants, and we found lots of flowers.

Calotropis procera

Calotropis procera

 

Calotropis procera

Calotropis procera

 

Mother in laws cushion cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Mother in laws cushion cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Echinocactus grusonii flower

Echinocactus grusonii flower

Aloe
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Saurauia – a kiwi from the Cretaceous

Its not often we find a really great new plant, with potential to be hardy, that fits right into our ‘Fossil Plant’ remit. Lets face it there aren’t that many extant genera of plants out there that are so close to their fossil relative that they are pretty much indistinguishable. When, through tireless research, we do come across something that fits the bill it is often the case that we exclaim ‘Where on earth would we get one of those from?’ and the genera or particular species gets added to the list of ‘one-day we will grow one of them’ plants.

Just such a case is that of the genus Saurauia.

A member of the Actinidiaceae (related to Kiwi fruit) in the Ericales (the order that includes Heathers, the American pitcher plants, Primulas and Tea) the genus Saurauia can be found in Asia and, interestingly for its family, also in Central and South America. With around 250 species the genus is distinguishable by having only 3 to 5 carpels and being either monoecious or dioecious unlike the rest of the family.

What is more interesting for us though is that it is quite clearly represented in the fossil record of the late Cretaceous. Small well preserved flowers of Parasaurauia allonensis and two species of Saurauia (in the form of fossilised seed) are found in North America and Europe respectively. The only major difference between the Parasaurauia of then and the Saurauia of now being the presence of ten stamens arranged in two whorls in the androecium (the male reproductive section of a flower) instead of the fifteen to numerous number of stamens of modern Saurauia - Phylogenetic studies have subsequently placed Parasaurauia as sister to the rest of the Actinidiaceae.

Recently we were lucky enough to be able to strike Saurauia off that ’one-day we will grow one of them’ list. So without further ado I would like to introduce you to Saurauia napaulensis. A Kiwi fruit from the late Cretaceous.

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich's 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores' of 1831

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich’s ‘Plantae Asiaticae Rariores’ of 1831

 

Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis

Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis