Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

In search of Wild Nerines - April 2010

On Christmas day 2009 I received a charming email from a passionate plants man in Japan, Naoki Yokoyama. He wrote:

"I'm nurseryman in Tokyo, I grow Nerine, Hellebores and Cyclamen  etc.
Now a days, I'm very interested in Amaryllidaceae  especially Nerine, Brunsvigia, Haemanthus, Boophone. Well, I love all plants anyway.
About your wild tour, very fascinating! I dream of going to see Nerine in the wild because I'm growing (them)."

I replied explaining that a visit to the East Cape at that time would be most rewarding from a Nerine point of view and that only two species would possibly be flowering in Western Cape.  On 6 January he replied stating that he and four friends had booked their flights and that I should set up a tour to view Nerines in the Western Cape from 28 March to 4 April - a challenge for me as very little would be flowering then and I was not even sure that the Nerines would have started to flower. Would I be able to justify the effort and expense they had put into their trip in the short time available? 

I was at the airport to meet them on 28 March and we set off to embark on our adventure. Naoki's friends were all young and enthusiastic plants men, including nurserymen, plant breeders,  landscapers and garden centre operators. They were rather taken aback to discover that I was a rather elderly "grandpa", as they put it, but later were impressed that I could easily lead them up rugged mountain tracks to remote out of the way places.  On the first evening in Cape Town we had an educational session when I explained the workings of the Cape Floral Region, its climate, geology and vegetation types, an essential background for first time visitors.  Despite language constraints, Naoki proved to be an adept translator and from the start we established a great relationship. Although the youngest in the group, Naoki proved himself to be an experienced plant breeder and nurseryman with a wide knowledge of South African Amaryllidaceae. He certainly was a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm.

The first excursion the next day was up Lion's Head where I knew there was a population of  Nerine sarniensis on the rock ledges on the steep western slopes.  We found the dry bulbs wedged into rock crevasses, but alas, none were in flower.  This did not portend well for the rest of the trip - would I find any wild Nerines in flower at this early date?   Despite no flowers they were amazed to see the harsh habitat in which one of our most spectacular Nerines occurs - a reward in itself. 

We made up for this initial disappointment with a visit to Graham Duncan who kindly took us on a tour of his Nerine collection at Kirstenbosch, a privilege that few visitors have the opportunity to experience.  Establishing contact with Graham, viewing the large collection of Nerines and other Amaryllids , some of which were in flower, and discussing cultural practices was a one of the highlights of their visit. 

The rest of the week was spent on my home turf around Napier where I was more familiar with the terrain and the flora. I explained that at this time of the year, at the end of a hot dry summer, no spectacular displays of wild flowers would be seen.  However the first excursion was up the Akkedisberg with Erica expert, Thys De Villiers, giving our tourists a fine introduction to the Ericas, Proteas and the fascinating Fynbos of the Cape mountains.  Highlight of this excursion was finding the rare Disa ferruginea in flower high up  on the cool mountain slopes, a species that even Thys had not come across before. 

That same afternoon we hit pay dirt when we visited Skurwekop, a rocky outcrop near Napier and found Nerine humilis starting to flower. This habitat comprises the critically endangered Rens Silcrete Renosterveld. The nerine bulbs are crowded in shallow soil on rock platforms, exposed to the elements.  This population has very light pink flowers with a dark pink throat and long broad leaves which appear well after flowering after winter rains have set in. Our group was delighted to find a number in flower and a great many in bud.  A bonus was the large number of Haemanthus coccineus in full flower amongst the Nerines. 

The next day we set out for Cape Infanta to look for Brunsvigias, our first stop being the farm Ziekenhuisrivier where a few dainty pink Brunsvigia striata were still in flower and many hundreds of Crossyne guttata were in seed.  This is also a locality for a large population the winter form of Boophone disticha, which are severely threatened by alien vegetation. We  were disappointed to find that very few had flowered but the attractive deeply undulate leaves were sufficient reward for our group; their first experience of this fascinating and well known amaryllid. At Cape Infanta we found a field with hundreds of large, deep red Brunsvigia orientalis in full flower which proved to be the highlight of the day.

From Cape Infanta we doubled back to the Potberg to look for the rare and spectacular Gladiolus stephaniae and Cyrtanthus carneus which occur in Potberg Sandstone Fynbos on the southern slopes of the mountain.  We found the gladiolus in large numbers and the Cyrtanthus in seed but a happy surprise was the discovery of another large population of Nerine humilis under the cliffs half way up the mountain, this time growing in semi-shade in damp acid soil.   The flowers in this population were a rich dark pink with narrow leaves appearing at flowering.  We found a single pure white plant.  The stark contrast to the harsh habitat in which the population at Napier occurs,  illustrates how well this variable species is adapted to a wide range of habitats. 

On the next day we headed west toward Villiersdorp where I hoped we find the ultimate prize, Nerine sarniensis, in flower. Our first stop was near where the Hawston View road joins the Bot River/Vyeboom road, where I had previously seen a population of these Nerines on a steep shale bank. What a relief when on our arrival at the site. I spied some tell-tale scarlet dots on the steep cliff face and I was assured of delivering on my promise to find this prize.  But the terrain was hazardously steep and had to be approached from a round-about scramble up the gentler slopes to the side of the cliff.  My agile young clients were up to it and finally all got pictures of some perfect blooms. This was a rather strange habitat for N. sarniensis, being Western Rens Shale Renosterveld with its fertile clay soils.

From there we proceeded north up the R43 to the top of the Floorshoogte Pass where I knew of another population in some steep, rugged rocky outcrops.  This  was Overberg Sandstone Vegetation with its poor acid soils - a completely different habitat to the population we had just observed.  Sure enough there were a number of magnificent fresh blooms emerging from the dry bulbs, but as yet no sign of leaves developing. These bulbs were lodged in cracks in the sandstone where they were safe from predators and fire, illustrating again how versatile and adaptive Nerines can be in their choice of habitat.

An unexpected spinoff from this trip was a strong population of the rare hysteranthous Gladiolus subcaeruleus in full flower on a recently burned clay bank above the road.  This seldom seen species is listed as NT (Near Threatened) in the new Red List and I was able to make a report to CREW in this regard. Later in the afternoon we were able to observe a second late-summer flowering hysteranthous Gladiolus in full bloom on the Napier commonage, G. brevifolius. 

An excursion to Agulhas and the southern-most tip of Africa where hundreds of magnificent Haemanthus coccineus in flower were to be observed above the shoreline, completed our brief exploration of the Overberg. On the trip back to the airport to catch their return flight to Tokyo, we stopped at Hermanus to view Gladiolus carmineus that was in flower on the sea cliffs and the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, where we did a final short hike in this beautiful place, experiencing more of the floral wealth of the fynbos, in particular some lovely Tritoniopsis in flower. I was sad to part company with these great plantsmen, with whom I had established an affectionate rapport. They were more than pleased with the outcome of their short sojourn in our region and have indicated their resolve to come again to see more Nerines in the South Africa.

Images from the Tour

Naoki (right) and his friends worshipping Brunsvigia orientalis at Cape Infanta

Naoki discovers Nerine sarniensis bulbs on Lion's Head

Naoki sees Nerine humilis for the first time near Napier

The Japanese Nerine group finally find their prize in flower - Nerine sarniensis

Cameron McMaster and Naoki Yokoyama on their quest for Nerines

Nerine sarniensis in shale-based clay soil near Bot River

Nerine humilis from the Potberg

Other Bulb Images

Disa ferruginea     Gladiolus brevifolius     Gladiolus carmineus

Gladiolus stephaniae     Gladiolus subcaeruleus     Haemanthus coccineus

Tritoniopsis lata

Naoki Yokoyama's website

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