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

 

In search of Proteas; an easy start to our South African adventure.

After 14 hours, 3 excellent movies (thank-you Dame Helen Mirren) and absolutely no sleep we stepped off the plane into a country neither Ben nor I knew. We had in our minds what we expected and what we hoped for but after a life time of negative news reports we couldn’t help but feel a little concerned about what we may be letting ourselves in for. The concerns however were quickly put to one side when we were greeted by the most helpful taxi driver either of us had ever met. We were whisked off to our hotel – seeing little of the city in which we had landed.

waiting to board

Waiting to board

For practicality we had booked to stay at the Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House.  Owned and run by SANBI (South Africa National Biodiversity Institute) the guest house was built in 1914 and is surrounded by SANBI’s flagship gardens; Kirstenbosch.

Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House nestled into the top of the garden with Table Mountain in the background

Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House nestled into the top of the garden with Table Mountain in the background.

We arrived quite late and tired so didn’t really appreciate the beauty of the surroundings at the time but we woke in the morning to the sound of cicadas and an increadible view over the gardens and down to Cape Town and the sea beyond. We would need to make the most of the two more nights we had as guests of Kirstenbosch as this was going to be as luxurious as our trip would get.

the view from the guesthouse although the mist obscured Cape Town and the sea beyond

The view from the guesthouse; the mist obscuring Cape Town and the sea beyond.

Growing only native species (and a few historic non-native trees such as Oaks) Kirstenbosch is considered South Africa’s most beautiful garden. Nestled into the Table mountain hillside its slope creates the ideal environment to grow a huge range of South Africa’s native flora. We had hoped to wander around this garden in beautiful South African spring sunshine but the rain gods had other ideas and what we got was a very rare Cape Town thunderstorm.

An increadible stand of Cussonia paniculata (Araliaceae) not far from our room.

An increadible stand of Cussonia paniculata (Araliaceae) not far from our room.

That same morning we had arranged to meet up with our friend and Kirstenbosch’s wholesale nursery manager Cherise Viljoen for a tour of the garden and a look around the production nursery and Proteaceae propagation centre.  So, waterproofs on, we walked down through the gardens, trying not to get distracted on the way, to meet her.

Ben and Cherise on the Boomslang

Ben and Cherise on ‘the Boomslang’ as the thunderstorm passed by.

Laportia grossa a native stinging nettle that i took quite a shine too. It is quite a bit more stingy than our native nettle and certainly brought a tear to my eye!

Laportia grossa a native stinging nettle that I took quite a shine too. It is quite a bit more stingy than our native nettle and would really bring a tear to the eye!

An exhibition of full sized metal dinosaurs amongst the cycad grove. Some of these plants were centuaries old and are some of the most endangered living things on earth.

An exhibition of full sized metal dinosaurs amongst the cycad grove. Some of these plants were centuaries old and are some of the most endangered living things on earth.

I was really pleased to see the Welwitschia on show in the Botanical Society Conservatory

I was really pleased to see the Welwitschia on show in the Botanical Society Conservatory

But the ones behind the scenes were way more impressive!

But the ones behind the scenes were way more impressive! (Ben and Cherise are pretty impressive too!)

Behind the scenes in the Protea propagation centre

Behind the scenes in the Protea propagation centre

I really was not prepared for all that we saw. Normally able to at least identify the genus of the plant I am looking at; the flora left me totally stumped. We decided to call anything we didn’t know either ‘probably Asteraceae’ or ‘probably a pea’ as this is what things seemed to turn out to be when we further investigated them.

Knowltonia vesicatoria, I believe this species has now been sunk into the genus Anemone!

Knowltonia vesicatoria, I believe this has now been sunk into the genus Anemone!

 

Moraea sp (out of my depth here)

Moraea sp (out of my depth here)

Another Moraea sp. (again I just didnt know the species)

Another Moraea sp. (again I just didnt know the species)

 

Pelargonium sp ????????

Pelargonium sp ????????

Cheilanthes sp. we forgot to bring our guide to South African fern id!

Pellaea sp. we forgot to bring our guide to South African fern id!

There were however lots of Proteaceae to see and we spent some time honing our id skills in preparation for the field.

Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum with the cliffs of Table Mountain.

Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum with the cliffs of Table Mountain.

Protea rubropilosa

Protea rubropilosa

Leucospermum formosum

Leucospermum formosum

Leucospermum mundii

Leucospermum mundii

Leucadendron argenteum endemic to the slopes of Table Mountain

Leucadendron argenteum endemic to the slopes of Table Mountain

Our first day ended in dinner with, the man that pushed so hard to make this all possible for us, Rupert Koopman and his lovely, and at the time heavily pregnant, wife Flo;  an evening of amazing Italian food, the best of company and lots of talk of how horticulture can help plant conservation. A very perfect ease into our adventure.

NB: A huge congratulations to Flo and Rupert on the birth (since our return home) of Amelia #Fynbosbaby!

 

 

 

In search of Proteas.

The Proteaceae evolved over 100 million years ago on the supercontinent Gondwana, the subsequent breakup of which led to the family being distributed across the Southern Hemisphere and resulted in their high levels of speciation. As a perfect example of the Antarctic flora of Gondwana their story is of major importance to paleo-botanists, geologists, botanists and taxonomists alike.

Burnt Protea

Burnt Protea by Barbara Munro

Such a level of speciation has come at a high price for many members of the family. They have evolved to exist in very specific ecological niches. This has led to many members of the family becoming threatened with extinction, especially in a world changing so fast that they are unable to keep up.

South Africa’s Proteaceae are particularly at risk, their lives linked inextricably to highly specific environmental factors. Many of the high altitude species, adapted to cooler growing conditions, less frequent fires and unable to cope with the influx of non-native invasive plants and pests, are at the mercy of the biggest threat to biodiversity, Climate Change. They are being pushed higher and higher up their mountain homes leaving them isolated, eventually with nowhere left to go.

Growing so many species of Proteaceae already, we believe that many species will grow successfully in the UK climate yet many of the higher altitude species have never been tried here. This is largely due to the lack of availability of seed or plants as well as a lack of horticultural knowledge and endeavour.

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK

 

The largest collection of Proteaceae ever in the UK was that of George Hibbert in his garden, considered at the time finer than Kew, in Clapham, London. Most of the, over 200, species of Proteaceae in this collection were grown in pots in his extensive conservatory; taken outside during the summer months and brought in again for the winter. Collected by James Nevin, as seed from the wild, Hibbert’s plants were exchanged only with George III and Empress Josephine of France and in edition 592 of Curtis’s Botanical magazine published in 1802 it reads “Introduced by Mr Nevin into the garden of Mr Alderman Hibbert, a gentleman whose munificence and urbanity leave to no lover of science a regret that so extensive and invaluable a collection should be the property of a private individual”. Hibbert’s plants were regularly illustrated, often by James Andrews, and furnished the pages of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. He has the honour of having many species named for him and the Genus Hibbertia, in the Dilleniaceae, is named for him also.

Hibbert’s gardener wrote about the Proteaceae in his book published in 1807. This was the last book to be published exclusively and in any detail about the cultivation of Protea in the UK.

September this year will see Ben and I heading off on quite a big adventure. We will realise a dream, long held, to visit the Western Cape of South Africa and see Proteas in the wild. We will follow in the footsteps of Nevin and collect seed of the Proteaceae species we find there.

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

The aim of this trip is to study the habitat and growing conditions of high altitude Proteaceae in the Western Cape of South Africa; to gain information on their horticultural needs and hence facilitate their ex situ conservation in the UK.

We will

  • Explore the cold, high rainfall mountain areas of the Western Cape of South Africa.
  • Analyse growing conditions. Including climate, soil structure and composition.
  • Collect seed of species from these areas.
  • Record location, environment and altitude as well as what other species are growing nearby
  • Upload this data to iSpot so that others can share in our findings easily
  • Cultivate plants arising from seed collected
  • Keep notes on the process and horticulture of resulting plants
  • Analyse the ability to grow these plants in the British climate under varying conditions.
  • Publicise the project and its findings both nationally and internationally, write articles  and blogs about it and the process of growing the plants.
  • Write reports to be made available to interested parties, including the Royal Horticultural Society, The Scottish Rock Garden Club, the Botanical Society of South Africa, BGCI, Cape Nature and SANBI.
  • Raise awareness of the difficulties faced by South Africa’s native flora as well as providing suggestions on which species are more suitable for UK horticulture.

Of course we will be tweeting from the expedition using the @fossilplants twitter account.

I hope the information we gain will act as a valuable update to the work of Hibbert over 100 years ago and I really hope it benefits the plants which Ben and I adore so much.

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro

 

Our expedition would not be possible if it wasn’t for the team at Cape Nature: who have helped us so much with getting all the relevant permits and permissions, Rupert Koopman: who has advised and helped us all along the process, The Royal Horticultural Society and The Scottish Rock Garden Club: for their generous financial help and Martin Smit, of Stellenbosch University Botanic Gardens, for his support and encouragement.

Thank-you, also, to Barbara Munro for the stunning pictures that illustrate this blog. Barbara’s work can be found at www.botanicalart-barbaramunro.co.uk and will be on show at Annual Open Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists. It is held in Westminster Central Hall 15th to 24th April 2016 http://www.soc-botanical-artists.org/exhibitions.php

Protea…#Mylittleproblem

Hello my name is Robbie and I am a proteaholic. It’s not really helped by the fact that my boyfriend has P.O.C.D (protea obsessive compulsive disorder) too.
I can’t help it. I just can’t get enough of the proteaceae!
It all started as a child, as these things often do. My grandmother gave me a calendar, which she had received from one of our many relatives down under, of the birds of Australia. The amazing colours of the rosellas and lorikeets were inspiration enough, however, alongside the birds the native flora was also depicted. Especially the bird pollinated Banksias and Grevilleas, they blew my mind! Alas, there wasn’t any chance I would be able to grow them, unless I moved to Australia that is.

Grevillea barklayana

Grevillea barklayana

Fast forward 25 years. I had built a garden full of weird and wacky plants with a fossil record. I already knew that the Proteaceae should be in the garden, but was so resigned to never being able to grow them that I hadn’t even looked for any ‘hardy’ ones.
Then one day I met a strange man and woman at RHS Tatton park flower show. In a similar way to the trader with the magic beans, in Jack and the beanstalk, they were trying to sell me ‘Hardy’ Proteas and Banksias. I, unlike Jack, didn’t bite. I couldn’t quite believe what they were saying. I went away and did quite a lot of research.

It was at this point that Ben discovered that Crug Farm Plants  just down the road from us, sold 2 hardy Proteaceous plants; Lomatia feruginea from South America and Telopea truncata from Tasmania. Ben placed an order and next thing I knew I not only had my first two members of the Proteaceae but also a new job working for plant hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones.

Lomatia ferruginea a protea from South America

Lomatia ferruginea

The ball had started to roll and soon the lure of MORE was just too hard to resist. A friend bought for our birthdays two Leucadendrons (L. leureolum and L. ‘safari sunset’) and guess what… she bought them from the ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ people.
The point had come when, in order to grow these plants successfully, we would have to make some serious decisions. Do we forgo the small border, in the sunniest part of the garden that had been kept for edibles and cut flowers, and turn it into a bed purely for Protea? Yes.

Protea Bed

Protea Bed

We dug down a couple of feet and raised the bed slightly. We also replaced every bit of soil with a mix of flint gravel, horticultural sand and an ericaceous compost. Read more about the construction of the Protea bed here.
We built an open sided structure made of hazel posts. These were coppiced in a woodland on the other side of the lake by which we live. We floated the posts across the lake, towing them behind our kayak. See the video. We added a polycarbonate roof that would keep the rain off during the coldest months but could be removed during the summer. Crazy? Maybe. Worth it? Oh, yes.
From that point on we have been testing as many ‘hardy’ species of proteaceae as we can. They are an eclectic bunch that have vastly varied needs. Some come from damp, cool forests others from dry, scrubby heath. The important factors affecting their cultivation are that they die at even the thought of phosphate and they can’t cope with continuously damp roots.

Grevillea victoriae

Grevillea victoriae

We have been growing them for some time now and have found a few things out along the way. Some species, for example, really do fall into the category ‘hardy’, as long as you are prepared to bow to a few of their needs. Grevillea victoriae, for instance, is tough as old boots and flowers profusely in the deapths of winter.

There are some that positively relish the high humidity and rainfall here in the West. The Lomatias, Gevuina and Telopea really don’t do well without it.

We have also discovered that we really can grow species from more arid areas of the world in our garden. Banksia ericifolia and Protea cynaroides are doing well for us, and with a little care and attention even flowering. Keeping them dry over the winter with good air circulation and not necessarily protecting them from cold, causes them to produce harder wood and so become more frost resistant. Don’t get me wrong after a good hard frost they look awfull.

Protea cynaroides

Protea cynaroides

We also discovered that if you grow species which produce a lignotuber, it doesn’t matter too much if they get hit by the cold. This adaptation to fire also allows them to bounce back from frost damage. We believe we have the furthest north Protea cynaroides flowering outside in the world (according to staff at Kirstenbosch botanic gardens in Cape Town, South Africa).

Banksia ericifolia, a protea relative.

Banksia ericifolia just coming into flower in our garden in North Wales.

And what of the Jack and the beanstalk people? They are in fact Claire and Geoff, brother and sister in law, from Trewidden nursery in deepest, remotest Cornwall.

The Protea people

Team Trewidden

Unfortunately they aren’t open to the public (don’t despair they do mail order). Having been lucky enough to  visit Claire and Geoff recently we found a spotlessly clean set up with some of the best grown plants we have seen. Not scared of something new, Claire has mastered the sometimes difficult propagation of Proteaceae. Having concentrated on South Africa, until recently, she is now revisiting the proteaceae of Australia. Geoff on the other hand keeps things real and makes sure the plants they sell really are ok for UK gardens. We now, with thanks in part to Trewidden, have over 40 different species of proteaceous plants growing for us.

Protea repens

Protea repens – flowering at Trewidden Nursary

Admittedly some just won’t cope with lower than -3C and spend their winter in the greenhouse, but others spent the whole of last winter outside, saw -6C and are flourishing. Let’s see what this winter brings.

Lambertia formosa

Lambertia formosa

Grevillea lanigera

Grevillea lanigera

So, do I really have a problem? Do I really need to start seeing someone for this? I really think the answer is NO. But maybe I am just deluded?