The Eastern Cape as a repository of bio-diversity
The Border region of the Eastern Cape is so named because it was historically the border between the Cape Colony and the traditional homelands of the Xhosa tribes. It lies between the Great Fish and Great Kei Rivers comprising the former Ciskei homeland and the area south of the Great Winterberg range from East London to Queenstown. It is a region of exceptional natural beauty but because it is off the popular tourist routes, its botanical richness and
diversity are not as well known as regions such as the Western Cape and Namaqualand. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the floral wealth of this region, the threats to the survival of rare species and the role of propagation for preservation.
Being situated at the convergence of major African Plant Kingdoms, namely the Afro-montane, Sub-tropical Maputoland-Pondoland, African-Namib, and the Cape Fynbos, the flora is influenced by elements of each region, giving rise to very high biodiversity with a large number of endemic species.The province contains a vast variety of landscapes, from the stark Karoo (the semi-desert region of the central interior) to mountain ranges with lush grassland and forest and gentle green hills rolling down to the sea. The climate and topography give rise to the great diversity of vegetation types and habitats in the region.
Except along the coast and along the southern slopes of the mountain ranges that form a series of escarpments, the annual rainfall seldom exceeds 500mm and occurs mostly in summer. The topography is hilly and in places rugged, with a series of mountain ranges extending from east to west, rising to altitudes of up to 2000 metres. Considerably drier areas of rain shadow occur to the north of the escarpments as well as in a number of deep river valleys, such as the Great Fish and Kei Rivers. Fire is an integral part of the grassland ecology, occurring mainly in early spring when the moribund grass is burnt to make way for spring growth, stimulating a blaze of spring flowers, bulbs and orchids.
These diverse climatic and topographical features give rise to a very wide range of vegetation types embracing coastal dune forest, acacia savannah, various types of grassveld ranging from lowland mixed grassveld to highland sourveld, valley thicket to lush afro-montane forest. Within each vegetation type special circumstances such as aspect, slope, soil type, wetlands, stream banks, cliffs, ravines and gorges give rise to an infinite variety of micro-climates and habitats to which particular species are adapted.
Species of all the major plant families are well represented. The East Cape is particularly rich in Amaryllids, being the headquarters of the Cyrtanthus and Nerine genera. While some spectacular displays of Dierama and Watsonia are to be seen in summer, some extremely rare and beautiful endemics are hidden in specialised forest and mountain micro-habitats. The search for these
specialities represents a fascinating challenge for the intrepid lover of our
A passion for wild flowers
An early interest in wild flowers engendered by my grandmother and a career which took me to many outlying farms, enabled me to develop not only a
passionate interest, but also a broad knowledge of the indigenous flora of the region. The information gained over a lifetime of exploration has resulted in a considerable widening of the knowledge of the flora of the Eastern Cape, the extension of the known ranges of some species and even the discovery of hitherto undescribed species.
For instance as early as 1975 the true habitat of Nerine filamentosa was
established (McMaster, 1976). The type locality in the original description (Barker, 1935) was obscure and it is now clear that this very distinct nerine has a very limited distribution in the Cathcart district. Similarly the secrets of the elusive giant poker, Kniphofia bruceae, were unravelled (McMaster, 1999) and this extremely rare species is now in cultivation. In the winter of 1996 on a hike through very isolated hills above the Kei River valley in the Stutterheim district, a large and vigorous population of the cycad Encephalartos caffer a surprising find - considerably extending the range of the species (McMaster, 1996). Fortunately the isolation and inaccessibility of this population renders it relatively safe from poaching. What is even more remarkable about this
habitat is that it is one on the very rare places, if not the only one, where three cycad species occur together - E. caffer, E. princeps and E. frederici-guilielmi. In 2000 during the course of a survey after a devastating fire in the Amatola Mountains, we turned up a number of specimens of Gladiolus
pubigerus, a species not recorded in the Eastern Cape since it was first
discovered in "Kaffraria" by Thomas Cooper in 1860 (Goldblatt and Manning, 1998). During the same survey we also came across a small apparently
undescribed Watsonia that requires further investigation.
The thrill of discovering a new species is certainly a reward for years of effort. We believe that we have two new species of Cyrtanthus in the pipeline and certainly one new Hesperantha is currently being described by Peter Goldblatt in his current revision of the genus. The process of getting a new species
acknowledged and ultimately described is formidable. After the initial
collection, pressing and despatch of the specimen to the specialist botanist
involved, there is the follow up work of finding the fruit and ultimately the seed, the photographing of all stages and the search for further populations. The process is repeated if other populations are discovered. The fieldwork can take many days over a number of seasons and entails much travelling to
distant destinations and hiking over steep and rough terrain.
Threats to the survival of our flora
Alas, the future of the floral riches of the Eastern Cape is bleak. Many factors have led to the rapid degradation of the pristine eco-systems described by early travellers and botanist who visited this region a century and more ago. Commercial farming, overgrazing by cattle, sheep and goats, particularly on communal land, commercial forestation and the introduction and spread of alien vegetation have all contributed to a rapid decline. For example one
typical hardy perennial, Protea simplex, is still abundant in the State forest
reserves on Mt. Thomas and Mt Kubusie in the Stutterhein district, but has
entirely disappeared across the fence only a few metres away on private land. Under conditions of continuous grazing it is now totally extinct here. If such a persistent and hardy species can be destroyed, the chances of survival for less hardy and more palatable species are nil. Ground orchids are particularly
sensitive to habitat degradation and are a useful indicator of the health of the eco-system. The fact that they have virtually disappeared from most areas and are becoming increasingly rare even in "reserves", highlights the need for drastic conservation measures.
The ever increasing harvesting of wild medicinal bulbs by traditional healers and other plant gatherers has now become gross over-exploitation for
commercial purposes and is contributing to the rapid depletion of bulbous flora (Dold and Cocks, 2001). This is a further good reason to cultivate many of the species used in the herbal medicine trade.
However, small areas have remained protected. For instance, the road and railway verges throughout the province are areas where some species still
survive. Small areas of natural vegetation within fences erected around arable croplands still preserve certain species and limited areas inaccessible to both man and domestic animals do still exist, but even in these preserved areas, recent developments of a socio-political nature have led to dramatic declines in plant populations, and many rare species may become extinct. It is therefore important that the threatened species be identified, grown and multiplied in cultivation to preserve bio-diversity before they are lost forever. It is in this context that the role of the Nurseryman and Plant Propagator is vital.