Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

Bulbs ablaze - a miracle of survival
By Cameron and Rhoda McMaster.

We are constantly amazed at the tenacity of some geophytes. Not only can they survive drought and fire, but also such extreme conditions as three
decades and more under commercial pine plantations. This was dramatically demonstrated last summer after the most devastating fire ever to be
experienced in the Amatola Mountains near the town of Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape, swept through the area in September 2000.

Sudden high winds caused a routine controlled spring burn on adjacent private farmland to spread into the South African Forest Company (SAFCOL) pine plantations on 5 September. Constant high winds and warm weather over the next week made a mockery of all efforts to quell the blaze, and it was only rain on 13 September that eventually put the fire out. Approximately 1600 hectares of  commercial pine plantation at various stages of
maturity, and over 1000 hectares of the adjacent mountain grassland were burned. It is estimated that damage to the plantations under the care of
SAFCOL's Kubusie Forest Station amounted to no less than R18 000  000.

By fortunate coincidence, we had at this time just been approached by
SAFCOL's Ecologist, Karen Kirkman, to do a survey of the mountain grassland  in the area under supervision of the Kubusie Forest Station. This unique stretch of grassland, preserved in a near-pristine condition for more than a century under the former Colonial and Provincial Deparments of Forestry, is now being threatened by various factors such as alien invader encroachment and overgrazing by cattle from neighbouring former homeland communities.  The area is particularly rich in bio-diversity and is important as a water
resource for the surrounding communities and urban and industrial areas
further away. It is hoped that the survey will establish the richness of the flora and its importance  as a repository of the bio-diversity of the
Afromontane floristic region, including the medicinal plants used by traditional healers. At the same time it is hoped to establish guidelines for the future management of the mountain grassland and to provide motivation for upgrading the conservation status and formal protection of the area.

The fire, so devastating to the commercial timber industry, provided a great stimulus to the indigenous plant communities in the undisturbed high
grassland, and also the surviving populations scattered in the pine
plantations - all of which soon burst into growth and flower. This provided us with a unique opportunity over the ensuing summer season to record and
photograph the flowering species and to observe the effects of the fire on these plant communities. We were able to visit six different sites between
Mt. Thomas in the west and Dohne Peak in the east, at least twice a month throughout the summer. We were privileged to observe a complete summer cycle from first shoots to flowering and eventually to fruiting for a wide range of different flowering species.

Our first sortie through the burnt-out plantations was on 27 September,
almost exactly two weeks after the fire. As we drove up the winding road to Dohne Peak through the charred trees, we were amazed to observe hundreds of
Cyrtanthus tuckii virdiloba in full flower. The effect of fire as a stimulus for many Cyrtanthus species to flower is well known, but we were surprised
because we had considered
C. tuckii to be exceedingly scarce in this area and it was at least a month earlier than its normal flowering time. Above all we were surprised because this plantation block (T5) was planted in 1985, which meant that these bulbs had survived for 15 years under the pine trees!

Clearly the fire had been a stimulus to flower but also, as a result of the fire, sunlight could once again penetrate the trees, the mat of dead pine needles had been consumed and the rain that had put the fire out had restored soil moisture. The flowering was quite spectacular. This was not the first time we had observed the survival of Cyrtanthus under pine plantations. In 1995 there was a remarkable blooming of
C. suaveolens shortly after the felling of a block that had been established 35 years previously, but in this case fire was not a factor (see Veld and Flora Vol 82(1), March 1996, page 32). Further up on the burnt mountain plateau we observed thousands of Cyrtanthus breviflorus in full flower in the seepages and wet areas - also clearly stimulated by the fire.  However, it was significant that Cyrtanthus suaveolens which occurs in the same area, was not stimulated to flower to the same extent and in places where the fire had been particularly hot it seemed that flowering was inhibited and even leaf development was slower. Also in areas where C.tuckii and C. suaveolens overlap, the latter flowered sparsely at its usual time at least a month later. This illustrates the fact that not all Cyrtanthus species
react in the same way to fire.

C. tuckii put on by far the most impressive show after the fire, a
number of other bulb species at this particular site had also survived under the pines and were induced to make spectacular growth and  eventually
flowers. These included
Gladiolus longicollis, Gladiolus pubigerus, a number of Hypoxis species, Dierama igneum and a small orange Watsonia related to
W. pillansii but as yet of indeterminate species, previously observed only in very localised populations in the high grassland. The fire demonstrated a far wider distribution of this interesting and little known Watsonia than had
previously been noted. It also appeared that our observation of the
inconspicuous but sweetly scented
Gladiolus pubigerus in the Amatola
mountains, was the first record since Thomas Cooper's collection in 1860 in "British Kafraria" (Goldblatt and Manning, 1998). 

The effect of the fire on regrowth of the orignal species in various parts of the plantation varied considerably according to the intensity of the fire. In some blocks, where a second cycle of young pines had been established after a
previous felling, a lot of debris and slash  had accumulated which resulted in prolonged burning and intense heat. One such area was block D17(b) in the SAFCOL Kubusie plantations where in 1995 we had observed
Cyrtanthus suaveolens flowering after the felling of 35-year-old pine trees. Only species with the deepest and toughest bulbs and rootstock survived this fire. 
It appeared that all seed in the surface layers of the soil were destroyed as no germination, even of grasses, was apparent throughout the summer that
followed. Species that did eventually make regrowth some weeks after the fire, included
Cyrtanthus suaveolens, Moraea reticulata, Eucomis autumnalis,
a large Albuca species,
Tulbaghia acutiloba, Agapanthus praecox and Senecio oxyrifolius. Flowering in such areas of intense fire was severely inhibited.

One remarkable exception was the late-flowering
Nerine angulata which
occurs occasionally in dense stands in the high mountain grassland from the Bosberg near Somerset East to the Amatola mountains at Stutterheim. While not stimulated to flower any earlier by the fire, the conditions following the fire clearly had a positive effect on some relic populations of this spectacular large Nerine that had not only survived in the pine plantations for longer than forty years, but also the intense heat of the fire in the second cycle of pines. The sight of  the marvellous display of Nerine blooms emerging from the blackened soil between the charred logs and stumps on 7 April this year is one I will never forget. The flowers were taller,  bigger and more vigorous than I had ever see them before in their usual grassland habitat and the seed set was profuse. The bulbs had clearly not been damaged by the heat and with absolutely no competition since the fire seven months earlier, the bulbs had put on a grand performance.

For the record, this pine plantation had been established in virgin grassland in 1960. Upon maturity in 1995 it was felled and the slash and debris from this felling was not cleared, which is standard forestry practise. Seedling pines were re-established in the slash the following year (1996) and were 2- 3
meters tall when the fire destroyed them in September 2000. The survival of the Nerines through this 41-year period of timber production and the
devastating fire that followed, is a remarkable testimony to the tenacity and persistence of some of our most beautiful bulbous plants.

It is gratifying to note that as a result of our discovering some impressive populations of wild flowers within the pine plantations managed by the Kubusie Forest Station, and which became evident as a result of the fire of September 2000, SAFCOL has indicated their willingness to set aside some areas that are most prolific or which support rare species, to remove the pines, and  manage them as small reserves. SAFCOL is also making a fine effort to conserve and maintain the mountain grassland above the pine plantations and Afromontane forests of the Amatola mountains. Some outstanding hiking trails have been established, making the floral wealth of the region accessible to all who wish to see it. The trail that commences at the Kologha picnic site near Stutterheim is highly recommended.

We would like to express our gratitude to SAFCOL and in particular to Chief Ecologist Karen Kirkman for affording us the opportunity to make an intensive study of the wild flowers in these mountains under their control. We also
acknowledge with gratitude the generous sponsorship from Bayer (SA) Ltd of all the AGFA film donated for this project and to Barbara Garner for her role in arranging this.

Goldblatt and Manning, 1998. Gladiolus in Southern Africa, Fernwood Press, p158.

You can view these plants in their wild habitats
by joining a botanical tour offered by African Bulbs