Monday, August 19, 2013

New species found along roadside - promptly destroyed.

An Amazing Finding:
I am a botanist who undertook a ten year PhD on a fascinating group of 250 plant species, the dolls roses. I recently found a new species of dolls rose growing on the roadside - a beautiful creature with an evocative scent, flame-coloured petals, heart-shaped leaves, and star-like hairs. I decided to tie in awareness of this flagship species, with an article on the value of roadside reserves to conservation. The key finding of my research is that the road reserves have a 25% higher diversity than the world’s richest nature reserve, Table Mountain National Park (TMNP). Additionally, these road reserves are more than seven times the area of TMNP. These delicate ecosystems are being systematically degraded by municipalities throughout the country, acting on insensitive, misguided and outdated legislation.

A Grave Shock: 
Two weeks later I drove past the locality, and to my horror found two tractors with brushcutter attachments careening through the remaining natural vegetation, not two kilometres from the new species. Alongside were a team of seven workers wielding weedeaters, all bent upon the same task of pointless destruction. Although I tried stopping them, the massacre continues across the country. I have witnessed the loss of vegetation at the bulb capital of the world - Niewoudtville, the previously beautiful roadsides around Darling. For that reason, and 9600 others, we need to change legislation to conserve rather than destroy these man-made arteries of the world's smallest floral kingdom. Less than 3% of the renosterveld remains, and its diminishing fast. Its time to act before all we have left is weed infested grass.

The Plan:
To change legislation to conserve our flora I need to spread awareness and raise funds - urgently, so that the spring flowers have a chance to set seed, and the woody plants remain. Today I launch an auction of the right to name the new Hermannia, and for this enchanting pendant made by Nic Bladen ( cast from the flower of this new species. Bid at:

Next week I embark on a series of talks, known as my my Springtacular to raise publicity and funds which would be to give evening talks at six venues across Cape Town. This is part of my lecture series in which I showcase the most astonishing plants I have encountered in my 17 years as a botanist. Book here (, find updated information here at, or contact David directly on or (South Africa) 072 368 9244

This is just a start. I also want to enthuse school children to become explorers of our own natural treasures, and thus give schools an opportunity to raise funds towards this objective. This forms part of my Bucks4Biodiversity programme.

So please. Spread the word of the auction (, come to the talk, or donate directly to the NGO:
Twitter: @TNBloganist

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hermannia mysteriosa - lost to science due to road maintenance?

The Plant Collective #5 outing to Piketberg yielded a few gems with various strategies to promote outcrossing - transferring pollen between plants rather than within a plant. All these plants were found along the road reserve - in dire peril of being trashed. The vast majority of the road reserve had been mowed or herbicided, and thus was a combination of weeds and grass. Our target for the trip was Hermannia mysteriosa m.s.. It was first collected by Elsie Esterhuysen without flowers in 1956, and thus never described. I accidentally chanced upon it twelve years ago, also a sterile specimen, and vowed to return to collect it one day. Twelve years later I returned, but the area I collected it in was unrecognisable. The vegetation has been transformed into wheatfields, and the entire stretch  of road that used to house the most delightful assembly of plants had been "maintained" to the detriment of H. mysteriosa. Is it lost to science forever?
Hermannia mysteriosa from between Piketberg and Het Kruis - another casualty of road maintenance


Our first entrant in the Mr. &Mrs Road Reserve beauty pageant is Serruria. Serruria (Proteaceae) is a bisexual genus of 65 species endemic to the Cape Floristic Region (CFR). As with many Proteaceae, the pollen is held on the inside of the petals at the top of the flower tube. The stigma is unreceptive at first, and merely presents the pollen that it gathers from the stamens, hence being called a pollen presenter in the Proteaceae. After a few days, it becomes receptive, and ready to receive pollen from other plants. I stand open to correction, but I would say this is a form of dichogamous outcrossing known as protandry.

Hemimeris racemosa

Hemimeris racemosa - front view

Hemimeris racemosa - rear view

Hemimeris racemosa (Scrophulariaceae) is the next endemic to the CFR, this time with only four recognised species, although I'm convinced that close scrutiny will reveal more species. Despite being bisexual, with a big bulging father christmas beard and a firemans hat, it has got to be Mr. Roadside Reserve. It has the intriguing and unusual feature of being didynamous (male and female seperate), with a peculiar strategy coined by Anton Pauw (2005) as inversostyly ( To ensure outcrossing, each plant will either have the style in the upright position, or the down side, with the stamen countering it. This means that when a bee collects the nectar, it gets a dab of pollen on its head, and if that is the case, that pollen will only be transferred to a plant with the style in that position. I presume the lower position would dab the pollen under its abdomen.

Even more intriguing is that Anton Pauw (2005), that living legend of nature photography and pollination ecology found that Rediviva bees visit these flowers. Whereas most bees gather pollen or honey, Rediviva bees are solitary bees (they don't live in a hive) that are known for their ability to harvest oils. They have legs with brush-like hairs that mop up nectar - in this case from the pits visible from the back. This energy-rich substance they feed to the young developing bees. Incidentally, Kim Steiner discovered 13 new species of Rediva bee by examining the pollinator of the closely related genus Diascia. Diascia is distinguished from Hemimeris by being pink not yellow, and having spurs not sacs. It appears that each species of Diascia has its own spur length, and thus its own  pollinator. Kim coincidentally also discovered 13 new species of Diascia. Take a look at the amazing pictures on his webpage of bee leg hairs and bee leg-lengths (

Two plants of Cytinus sanguineus. Most of the plant is underground

The exposed male bits (left) and female bits (right).

A ring of anthers on the male plant

The two glorious lobes. Zoom in for a close look at the glandular hairs.

The male with enormous nectar wells below.

Aah, the heterosexuals make a grandiose entrance in the form of Cytinus sanguineus (Cytinaceae). On the left we have Mr. Road Reserve with a ring of white anthers, and on the right, his Mrs with giant stigmatic lobes. This species is dioecious from the greek meaning seperate households - the sexes are completely separate. Look closely at the close-up of the female plant and you will notice the wetness. This is nectar that I couldn't resist sticking my tongue into. It was copious and delightfully sweet, the perfect reward for a foraging rodent, and a delight for a team of enthusiasts. Thanks Marion, Boet and Dee.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stripped! A new spate of bark stripping threatens Newlands Forest.

Last week Newlands Forest came under a fresh wave of attack from bark strippers reaping bark for cash. The targeted species this time is boekenhout (Rapanea melanophloes), a species most prevalent in the younger forest, and easily identifiable by its lenticelled bark and pink flush of young leaves. Patricia Littlewort, "custodian" of Newlands Forest who has been walking and documenting the forest for over sixty years found the trees following a description of the locality by Sean Archer.

Over 25 trees were counted in an initial assessment by Patricia and myself, representing the largest single attack on Newlands Forest to date. Bark stripping has been responsible for some of the largest trees in the forest, including a massive >500 year old cape olive, succumbing to starvation. The phloem in bark carries the nourishment for the plant from the leaves to the roots. By ringbarking the tree this nourishment is effectively cut off, leaving the tree to slowly die from root starvation over several months.

It has been argued that trees regenerate after bark stripping - not so in Newlands Forest. The summer-drought period in the SW Cape means that the plant dessicates and experiences stress during summer. This is the period when growing and regeneration of stripped bark would take place in summer-rainfall regimes. If this stress doesn't kill off the tree, the tree is left defenseless without its bark, so the stripped area becomes a site of both insect and fungal infection.

What is to be done about it? More policing? Fix the holes in the fence? 
I recommend coming up with a technological solution providing electronic eyes and ears for the forest. A similarly technological solution has been implemented in the amazon with cellphones that "listen" for the sound of chainsaws ( 
We could use relatively cheap Arduino chips or something similar (eg. linked to mobile phones, cameras and trip beams. These should be placed strategically, and if the switch is triggered, a photo gets sent to headquarters or an internet site for threat assessment. This could be locally developed, and would cost a fraction of the cost of increased policing. 

Contact David on to get involved in funding or developing such a system.
Twitter: @TNBloganist