1998, Louise Allen, Fifth International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress, Kirstenbosch,South Africa

Flowers, flowers and even more flowers

By Louise Allen

In September 1998 I visited South Africa where I attended the Fifth International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress at Kirstenbosch. Prior to the Congress, I took part in a pre-congress tour along the West Coast heading up to Namaqualand.

En route we stopped at many different places including Waylands Farm, where bright blue Heliophila africana was sprinkled throughout with what appeared to be a thick mat of yellow Ursinia anthemodies. Growing in between these plants were botanical treats such as Wurmbea marginata, Wachendorfia brachyandra and species after species of Geissorhiza, the bright blue and vivid red flowers known locally as red wine cups. A 30 minute stop soon turned into two hours and this became typical of the whole visit as there was almost always much more to see than we had time for.

The Quaggaskop Succulent Reserve was our first taste of the desert. The reserve was actually a quartz desert, littered with thousands and thousands of Lithops sp., Conophytum sp. and Oophytum sp. So many so that one had no choice but to walk on them. I vowed and declared that I would rush back to Oxford and insist that our Succulent House be transformed into a sea of living stones! It is this level of inspiration that can never be achieved by merely visiting other gardens.

As we left the coach the first thing that struck me was how bright everything looked and how few woody species were visible. I should correct this statement by saying that there were no woody species present. Yet this didn’t matter because, as we started to get our “eye in”, we realised just how much was growing in this patch of desert. It was almost as though the more we looked the more we saw. The ability of these plants to survive in such a hostile environment is admirable.

Namaqualand is well known for its spring-time display of annual flowers. But from the word go we were warned that the winter rains had not materialised and the display of flowers was not to be. But everything is relative and if you have never seen Namaqualand before, anything would be good. And it was. Shortly after lunch on our day in Namaqualand we drove into the mountains near Kamieskroon. As we approached the area that we were about to explore we could see a thick band of what looked like orange paint. At this point we began to walk and walk and walk and walk. After 30 minutes we reached a thick band of Arctotis venusta, Arctotis hirsuta, Othonna petiolaris and Ursinia calendiflora. Breathtaking!

That day was incredible. Plants that I had never before experienced outside a botanic garden came to life, including Aloe dichotoma. I felt as if I had always known this plant but to me it was a small succulent that grows in a glasshouse. In South Africa they grow half way up a mountain (mountaineering skills required) and they are huge (well, taller than I am). Our final ecstasy that day was the discovery of a new plant.With 34 botanists it was inevitable that a new discovery was going to be made and it was on this very special day that it happened. One of our group discovered a colony of Eucomis sp. — the first time Eucomis had been discovered in Namaqualand — our pre-congress trip would go down in history.

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