Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

Disa lugens

A lifetime spent exploring the veld - particularly throughout the Eastern Cape - has been rewarded with many exciting discoveries.  The first sighting of Disa lugens on 14 December 2001 was undoubtedly a highlight.

My first introduction to this enigmatic orchid was an article in Landbou Weekblad of 10 December 1982 written by an acquaintance, Jasper Schellingerhout.  Jasper was at that time a reporter for LBWB in the Eastern Cape and I had a lot to do with him through my involvement in the Sheep and Wool Industry.  His article entitled "Swart veldorgidee op plaas ontdek" referred to the discovery of a small number of the dark maroon form of what was then known as Herschelia lugens var. nigrescens, near Oyster Bay in the Humansdorp district.  This form was so dark that it was referred to as the "Black Orchid" and the discovery was thought to be so significant and the species so rare that the actual site of the population and the name of the farm was not divulged in the article.  I saved the article for future reference and still have it as a bookmark in my copy of "Wild Orchids of Southern Africa" by Stewart, Linder, Schelpe and Hall (1982).  In this book Herschelia lugens is modestly described as "Locally frequent on coastal sandflats from the Cape Peninsula to Port Elizabeth and on drained mountainsides in macchia around Grahamstown."  No reference was made to the black variety at that stage.  Little did I know at the time that, with the discovery of further populations of the nominate race, Disa lugens var. lugens, I was destined to extend the known range of this wonderful orchid.

The genus Herschelia was later included in Disa and Herschelia lugens reverted to the original name given to it by Harry Bolus in 1884 - Disa lugens.   The name lugens is derived from the Latin word lugeo = to mourn, presumably
referring to the dull colouration of certain forms of this species.  In the more recent publication "Orchids of Southern Africa" by Linder and Kursweil (1999) two varieties are recognized.  Disa lugens var. lugens is described as being
local in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape from Cape Town to Grahamstown on coastal sandflats and mountain slopes in fynbos, with the note that it has become rare and possibly endangered due to the destruction of coastal
vegetation.  This variety varies in colour from greyish hues through shades of green to pink and is sometimes referred to as the "Green Bearded Orchid". 
In all localities where it has been found it is apparently very rare and plants are sometimes confined to tussocks of Restionaceae where they receive
protection.  Disa lugens var. nigrescens is the dark form from Humansdorp
referred to above, known as the "Black Orchid".  Linder and Kurzweil (1999) have suggested that it should possibly be elevated to full species status.

I first came across the species in December 2001 when my wife, Rhoda and I spent some time at Glen Craig Guest Farm on the Bosberg above Somerset East.  Glen Craig belongs to Philip Erasmus, a prominent Dohne Merino Breeder, with whom I have been associated for a long time.  Regular visits to his farm and hikes across the veld revealed some really special endemics that occur there - principally Haemanthus carneus, Dierama grandiflorum and Kniphofia acraea.  So important did I regard these populations of rare species that Philip agreed to preserve a portion of the farm Waainek where they occur, as a wild flower reserve.  This reserve, situated at an altitude of 1350m on the grassy slopes above the Glen Avon valley in the Bosberg, includes both
Montane Grassland and Afro-montane Forest and contains a wealth of wild flowers in both biomes.  It is known as the "Waainek Wild Flower Reserve"

On 14 December Rhoda and I were on our way to observe the small population of another endemic, the beautiful Hairbell, Dierama grandiflorum (see Veld and Flora, March 2007), which occurs on grassy slopes a short distance west of the reserve.   Words cannot describe the sensation when eyes light upon a flower like this Disa with its inflorescens of large green flowers with spectacular beards hanging from each - gently waving in the breeze on
40-50cm high stems.  This was a very different habitat and far from all the previously known haunts of this orchid, putting an entirely new perspective on its distribution.  I have likened the thrill that is experienced when coming across a rarity like this to the adrenalin rush a golfer must feel when he hits a hole-in-one! The orchids were randomly dotted in the thick grass sward. 
The grass had been cropped quite short and the orchid spikes were easily
visible here and there.  It was on this day that we also saw flowers of Dierama grandiflorum for the first time and we had a busy time photographing both species and collecting some Disa flowers to press for the record.

Regrettably both the Disa and the Hairbell occur outside the borders of the
reserve in a paddock that is grazed regularly by sheep and cattle.  Since they have persisted here for more than the century that the farm has consistently been grazed, it is possible that the populations can be sustained under this
regime.  However my feeling is that there are too few individual plants to
provide sufficient seed to maintain viable populations, and an additional threat is the ravages of porcupines that regard the bulbs of both species as a
delicacy.  This would not be a problem if there was healthy regeneration, but the numbers of young plants and seedlings are insufficient to counteract this threat.  The reserve needs to be extended to include these two species so that more effective management can be applied.  Winter grazing when most plants are dormant, and regular burning at intervals of two to three years would be ideal to sustain and increase numbers of all the wild flowers that occur in this grassland, and this is the management that Philip attempts to apply.

Two years later on 7 December 2003 my brother, Nigel and I went on an excursion up the Elandsberg near Hogsback in the Cathcart district. To get to the base of the mountain we had to pass through the Klipplaat River on the farm Woodhouselea. On a gentle southern slope descending to the river we were amazed to find another population of Disa lugens. This was nearly 200km
further east from the Bosberg population but the habitat was fairly similar - montane grassland with a fairly high summer rainfall and severe frosts and sometimes snow in winter.  We visited this population again on 26 December 2006 and found literally many hundreds of plants growing over an area of 15 to 20 hectares.  These Disas flower at a time when the veld grasses, primarily Themeda triandra, are in flower and with inflorescences the same height as the grasses and of similar colour, they are well camouflaged.  The flowers vary from greyish green to light pink with the former colour predominating.  The beards are particularly pronounced.  The flowering time commences in early December and extends into early January.   Other geophytes observed at this locality included Moraea elliotti, Moraea  brevistyla, Tritonia  lineata, Gladiolus longicollis and Gladiolus wilsonii.

The farm Woodhouselea where Disa lugens occurs in the Cathcart district
belongs to Neil and Robyn Conroy who are very much aware of the importance of this population on their land.  They are sheep and cattle graziers and keen followers of the Alan Savoury philosophy of holistic rangeland management.  This management regime employs short periods of very intensive high stocking rates when the herbage is closely cropped with large mobs moving rapidly through a large number of paddocks.  Short grazing periods are followed by long rests during which there is opportunity for regeneration of the plants, also seeding and the establishment of new plants.  It appears that this is a highly sustainable system of veld utilization which has also favoured the wild flowers and orchids and has resulted in the preservation of the bio-diversity of the area.   

While Disa lugens may be a rare and threatened species in the western part of its extensive range, the healthy populations in the montane grassland of the Eastern Cape appear to be viable and secure under the present management regimes.

Note
Anyone wishing to visit the Waainek Wild Flower Reserve should contact Philip Erasmus (Tel. 042 2433561 or 083 2742870) for permission.  Overnight accommodation is available in a large rambling farmhouse at Glen Craig.  This is self-catering accommodation and visitors can go on a number of marked
hiking trials encompassing various facets of Montane Grassland and Valley Thicket. 

Bed and Breakfast accommodation is available just below the mountain at the historic farm Glen Avon, owned by Bill and Alison Brown (Tel: 042 2433628 or 082 5983379). For those who wish to visit the Elandsberg population contact Neil Evens and Robyn Conroy (Lowestoffe Country Lodge, Tel. 045 843 1716,
Website: www.lowestoffecountrylodge.co.za) where good trout angling is also available.

You can view these plants in their wild habitats