Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

The Hesperantha species in the Stutterheim
and Cathcart districts of the Eastern Cape
by Cameron McMaster

My favourite occupation of all is exploring for wild flowers - roaming the veld and forests, eyes to the ground,  recording and photographing, checking
flowering times and distribution.  Most of my botanising has been done in my original home districts of Stutterheim and Cathcart in the Eastern Cape. 
I grew up on a farm in Cathcart and lived in Stutterheim for over 40 years.  My career as a sheep and wool officer in this area took me onto virtually every farm and afforded me the opportunity of exploring many out of the way places.

It is inevitable that one develops interests in particular species. Nerines have always been my favourites, but in latter years I really became interested in the Hesperantha and it became a quest to find new populations of familiar
species and constantly keep an eye open for unfamiliar ones. Let me share some of my experiences with Hesperantha. 

The most ubiquitous Hesperantha and possibly the most insignificant is
H. radiata. It is widespread, prefering damp spots, where it grows all over in full sun on both high mountain slopes and the rolling grasslands so typical of these two disticts. It flowers in spring from October to November and
sometimes later at high altitudes, Flowers open in late afternoon and are strongly scented.

I was surprised one early August to spot some low growing white blooms amongst rocks on a steep southern aspect slope on the farm Bushy Park in the Cathcart district. Nothing is supposed to flower at this time of the year in the Eastern Cape - the grassland is brown and frost bitten; it's the driest time of the year! It proved to be H. longituba, an outlying population of a winter
growing species common in the West Cape. This is one of the many examples of winter growing bulbs that retain their winter growth and early flowering
patterns in suitable habitats in the summer rainfall area. The aspect and rocky nature of the slope retained sufficient moisture over the dry season to sustain this population.

Another early flowering small white Hesperantha is H. candida which occurs sparsely on the high slopes of the Amatola mountains where it flowers in August and September long before the grass has turned green. 
Both H. longituba and H. candida have flowers which open in the afternoon and evening.

Apart from the insignificant H. radiata which is common in spring, one has to wait till January before the next pretty Hesperantha flowers - the dainty pink H huttonii. It is confined to  the Afro-montane forests where if flowers profusely in  semi shade along forest roads and streams. It makes spectacular displays of massed blooms. It is a very  tender little species which requires this specialised and protected habitat to survive - sheltered and shady damp spots in the forest.  I have observed a  rare  pure white form at one locality in the forest below Mt. Kubusie.

How exciting to discover large numbers of another pink Hesperantha in late January on a hot, dry rocky dolerite ridge on the farm Bombasi in the lower
lying thornveld, in complete contrast to the environment in which H. huttonii occurs. A special feature of this one was the dark brown anthers and pollen.  Unable to identify it, I sent pictures to Peter Goldblatt and later followed these up with pressed specimens. By fortuitous circumstance, Peter was at that time busy with the Hesperantha revision and he was able to confirm that it was a new species - just in time to include it in the revision.
He subsequently made a special trip to the Eastern Cape and I had the privilege of showing it to him flowering profusely in its natural habitat. He has named it H. stenosiphon - it having the longest tube of all the species in the genus. Other populations of this new species have been found at other
localities on the high ridges above the Kei River in the Eastern part of the Stutterheim district.

Upon returning to Bombazi to collect seed in late March we were excited to find another robust pink species with yellow anthers freshly flowering in the exact locality where H. stenosyphon had flowered earlier.  From pictures sent to Peter Goldblatt, he guessed it could be H.woodii, but this will have to be the subject of further investigation.   

Taking pride of place amongst the Hesperantha of the Eastern Cape is
undoubtedly H. coccinea - a brilliant scarlet form which occurs on the the banks of mountain streams in the Amatola mountains. It does not have true corms as most of the others do, but multiplies by means of rhizomes, often between rocks in streams with water flowing around the roots. It is very easy to grow in the garden under normal garden conditions, provided it is kept moist throughout the year. It flowers here in the Eastern Cape in March.

The last Hesperantha to flower in autumn is the robust pink H. pulchra. This is a high altitude species that  grows in full sun in open grassland on the high slopes of the Amatolas and surrounding hills. It is a highly visible tall species which easily competes with the thick grass sward in which it occurs. 

I am convinced that there more populations of Hesperantha and other
Hesperantha species to find in this rich and botanically exciting part of the Eastern Cape.

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