Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

The rediscovery of Nerine gibsonii -
a species threatened with extinction?
by Tony Dold1 & Cameron McMaster2

The genus Nerine is endemic to southern Africa and comprises about twenty-five species mainly concentrated in the summer rainfall areas, particularly in the Eastern Cape. Most species are gregarious in nature and grow in large colonies. Several species, notably N. sarniensis and N. bowdenii, have been horticultural favourites in Europe since the early seventeenth century, being the origin of several hundred cultivars. The Latin name Nerine is from the Greek, Nereis. In Greek mythology Nereus, son of the sea god Pontus and Gaea, Mother Earth, was called the old man of the sea. He was married to Doris, a daughter of the Titan Oceanus, by whom he had 50 beautiful
daughters, the nymphs of the sea, called the Nereids. The pronunciation
follows the classical Latin, ne-re้-ne. Many species have featured in Veld & Flora and Flowering Plants of Africa over the years and although there is a plethora of popular literature available it appears that the genus is
nevertheless in dire need of taxonomic revision.

Threatened species
Following the current World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Data categories, five species, viz. N. gibsonii, N. gracilis, N. huttoniae, N. marincowitzii and N. masoniorum, are listed as Vulnerable. Charles Craib recently highlighted the plight of N. gracilis in Gauteng and Mpumalanga (Veld & Flora 88,3), while Dee Snijman showed that N. marincowitzii is threatened in its limited range in the Western Cape (Flowering Plants of Africa 58) and Dold et al. discussed the conservation status of Eastern Cape endemics N. huttoniae (Veld & Flora 86,1) and N. masoniorum (Veld & Flora 86,4). Happily N. huttoniae has subsequently been found by the authors at two new localities near Cradock but a recent visit to N. masoniorum saw the entire population, as predicted in 2000, now completely built over with informal shacks. Nerine gibsonii was until very recently listed as Data Deficient, however Victor & Dold (2003) have now
reassessed the species and assigned a status of Vulnerable to the species.
A further four species, N. bowdenii, N. humilis, N. pancratioides and
N. pudica, are also Red Data species although they are assessed the status Lower Risk.

Gibson's Nerine
First collected in Cala by Alice Pegler in 1910, the species was only described in 1968 by Ken Douglas in honour of Lance "Gibby" Gibson, an attorney in Engcobo, who made the second collection in 1955, also near Cala. Douglas, a decorated Second World War veteran and teacher (later headmaster) at Kingswood college for 36 years, grew and studied Nerines for thirty years. Gordon McNeil, a well-known Cyrtanthus enthusiast and tropical fruit farmer from Tzaneen, made a third collection from Cala, from which the type specimen was prepared, in 1966. Cameron McMaster collected some plants around the early 1970's when he saw thousands of plants blanketing the roadside on the mountain pass between Stokwe's Basin and Cala.  He noted at the time that "flowers varied from white to purple with all shades of pink in between".  A collection he made in 1976 was lodged in the Bulb Collection at Kirstenbosh where it has survived and still flowers regularly (Graham Duncan, personal communication).

In March this year, more than 40 years later, we visited the remains of this population and were fortunate to see any plants at all. In the interim the
landscape has been completely transformed by years of intensive overgrazing and the perennial wetland that was once home to the impressive colony has become a vast "donga". Only two flowering plants (one pink and one white flower) and a handful of bulbs were found after a thorough search. More
recently, with the reconstruction of the road, the vlei has been partly removed for the building of a culvert under the new road and the remainder "filled in" for some obscure reason. This is despite the fact that "upgrading" (i.e. expansion beyond its existing size or volume) of any roads outside of Town Planning Areas is a "listed activity", (i.e. an activity which may have an substantial detrimental effect on the environment) and is thus subject to the EIA regulations contained in Sections 21, 22 and 26 of the
Environment Conservation Act, 1989 (Act No. 73 of 1989). Furthermore, In terms of Section 39 of the Minerals Act, No 50 of 1991, an environment
management plan may be required before a permit to open a borrow pit is
issued by the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME).

Clearly this once grand population is no longer viable. Bulbs falling from the collapsing walls of the donga were rescued by McMaster and taken into
cultivation at African Bulbs in Napier and at the Bulb Collection at Kirstenbosch in the care of Graham Duncan.  The illustration depicts one of many bulbs exposed by erosion and doomed to die. The remaining plants will not survive the recent bulldozing event and in this case it was most prudent to resort to ex situ conservation measures (for more information on ex situ conversation see Graham Duncan's article in Veld & Flora 88,4). A specimen (Dold 4636) is housed in the Schonland Herbarium (GRA) in Grahamstown for the record.

Douglas mentions only two localities in his description of N. gibsonii, Mntunthloni and Qumakala (=Nqumakala) mountains, both between Cala and Engcobo, and describes the habitat as rocky grassveld. Tony Norris, then chairman of the Nerine Society of the UK,  also saw the species in its mountain habitat near Cala in the early 1970's, describes the habitat as "wet bog with many bulbs, actually in and under water in acid black fibrous soil that dries out completely in winter".  Since both Norris and McMaster were originally directed to the site by Ken Douglas, Norris' locality is in all likelihood the same as that of our population. His description tallies exactly with what we found.  Chris Edwards and Dave Fenwick assure us that Norris' collection and its progeny are still in cultivation in the United Kingdom. An authenticated photograph of his N. gibsonii collection on Dave's website ( matches our material perfectly. McNeil's type specimen label states that it was collected on the mountain overlooking Cala near the Radio Tower. In total then, there are six herbarium specimens (collected in natural habitat) but only four (now three) known localities.

Norris' N. appendiculata group comprises only four species that combine the diagnostic characters of pubescence and stamenal appendages; these are
N. appendiculata, N. brachystemon, N. masonorum and N. gibsonii. There is no doubt that N. gibsonii is most closely related to N. appendiculata although Douglas' description of the species shows that there is a certain amount of convergence of several characters. Perhaps the most obvious distinction
between the two species is the stamenal appendage. In N. appendiculata they are fitted with two, three or four linear teeth up to 10 mm long whereas the basal appendage of N. gibsonii is smaller, with only one (occasionally two) small protuberances about 2 mm long. Interestingly, an archived letter from Mrs Amelia Mauve (nee Obermeyer), at PRE, to Mike Wells, at GRA, suggests that the "new" species was likely to be a "mutant" of N. appendiculata. Mrs Mauve nevertheless supported Douglas by drawing up a list of diagnostic
characters for him to work from.

What of the future?
Although "our" population is sadly no longer extant we believe that there are most likely several other viable populations that are hopefully less accessible to domestic stock and unrestrained bulldozers. Generally the high mountains in the region such as Mntunthloni and Nqumakala are only accessed seasonally for grazing in the summer months and are for the most part fairly well
preserved. We would need to visit Cala in March for the next few years to
establish the true conservation status of the species but in the meantime seed from the rescued plants, when it can be reaped next year, will be
distributed to Kirstenbosch and Kew. Ideally a reserve is needed in the
Cala - Engcobo region, the nearest being the privately owned Black Eagle
Nature Reserve at Sterkstroom some 80km to the west

1   Selmar Schonland Herbarium, P.O. Box 101, Rhodes University,
Grahamstown, 6140;

2   African Bulbs, P.O. Box 26, Napier, 7270;

The differences between Nerine gibsonii and Nerine appendiculata

Nerine gibsonii
Peduncle: Up to 32 cm
Pedicels: 1-3 cm
Flowers: 4-9
Description: Glittering white suffused pale pink at apices, with darker stripe. McMaster notes that flowers vary from white to purple with "all shades of pink in between".
Tepals: 2.5 to 3.5 X 6 to 7 mm broad(although Douglas says only 5mm wide)

Stamen appendages: Small white appendages about 2 mm long attached to each side of the widened base

Nerine appendiculata
Peduncle: Up to 80 cm
Pedicels: 3.5-5 cm
Flowers: 10-20
Description: Pale to deep rose with mid vein darkened
Tepals: 2.5 to 3 cm long X 2 to 5 mm broad
Stamen appendages: Appendages white, up to 10 mm long with 2 to 4 linear teeth.

Further reading

Douglas, K.H. 1968. A new species of Nerine from the Transkei.
Journal of South African Botany 34: 5-7.
Duncan, G. 2002. Grow Nerines - A guide to the species, cultivation and propagation of the genus Nerine, Nat. Bot. Inst., Kirstenbosch.
Norris, C. A. 1974. The genus Nerine:
Part 2.
The Nerine Society Bulletin 6: 7-31.
Saunders, R. 1997. Nerines in South Africa. Herbertia 52: 88-89, 186.

Victor, J.E. & Dold, A.P. 2003. Threatened Plants of the Albany Centre of
Floristic Endemism, South Africa.
South African Journal of Science 99, 437-446.