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Saturday, February 11, 2017

12/6: Cyads at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Yesterday, since we had spent almost the entire day visiting sights in Cape Town, we decided to switch things up today by visiting two sites outside of the city. We headed first to the Kirstenbosch National Garden, located just eight miles from the city center, and the largest of a countrywide network of ten botanical gardens. Covering over 1,500 acres and with over 7,000 plant species, including many rare and endangered species, it was the perfect place to visit on a sunny day.
When Henry Pearson was the Professor of Botany at the South African College from 1903-1916, he saw the beauty, interest and value of the native flora of South Africa and the lack of work being done on it. He launched a project to create the National Garden of South Africa. While looking for an appropriate site, a young gardener and botanist, Neville Pillans, suggested he consider a neglected farm called Kirstenbosch. When Pearson reached this spot, he exclaimed "This is the place!" The natural beauty of Kirstenbosch was aided by good soil, a constant water supply and diverse habitats and it was owned by the government. Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden came into being on July 1st, 1913. 
Nelson Mandela planted a Pepper-bark tree, a famous medicinal tree in South Africa, on his visit to Kirstenbosch on August 21st, 1966. "Just as the tree has brought healing to the people of South Africa, Mandela brought healing to South Africa." He told the staff on his visit that "I am happiest when I am in the wild because I can listen ... as the poet says "In the still air music lied unheard, in the rough mountains, beauty's height unseen.' And I am very thankful that you have done me the honour of being associated with this remarkable place."
This prized yellow streilitiza was named in honor of President Mandela. It took Garden staff nearly 20 years of selecting and cross-pollinating to develop the unusual yellow color of the normally orange species.
We had come early to the Garden to join a walking tour; our volunteer guide, Cheryl, explained that she was not a botanist or a horticulturalist but would do her best to answer any questions during the tour - we certainly couldn't have asked for anything more than that! Our first stop was the Botanical Society Conservatory which displayed southern African plants that couldn't be grown outside in the Garden. The Conservatory was set out geographically so that each of the country's regions was represented.
Cheryl explained that the Western Cape - the province where Cape Town is located - is the only province in South Africa to receive any winter rainfall and it also receives the most rainfall throughout the year.
She pointed out the bacon tree, which elephants like to eat, regenerates. 

The center of the Conservatory was dominated  by a large baobab tree, also known as the Upside Down Tree! The baobab tree, the largest succulent in the world, is easy to recognize by its enormous swollen trunk and strange shape. It is hardly surprising that there are many stories and legends about it. In African folklore, the baobab is widely known as the tree that God planted upside down. According to the San (Bushmen), the Great Spirit gave each animal a tree. The hyena received the last tree, a baobab, and was so upset that he planted it upside down. Throughout Africa, the baobab is valued as a source of food, drink and material. Living baobab trees often have hollow trunks which are widely used for storing water. Hollowed-out trees have even served as stables, pubs, store rooms and as a bus shelter for 30 to 40 people! Baobabs can grow up to 500 feet high.

An epic journey for the baobab: On June 26th, 1996, an 80 ton crane was used to lift the baobab tree onto a truck from its location at the De Beers' Venetia Diamond Mine in Messina, just south of Zimbabwe. Two days and over 1,200 miles later, the baobab arrived at Kirstenbosch. About 20 men tugged and pushed the 7 ton tree along special railroad tracks into the greenhouse!
Cheryl talked about the Welwitschias, cone-bearing plants that are only found in the Namib Desert, a coastal desert in southern Africa. To accommodate their highly specialized growth requirements, special well-drained, mineral-rich desert sand was brought in and heating cables were installed. 
Cheryl told the group that carbon dating indicated that most Welwitschias live to 500-600 years but some wild specimens are estimated to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old!
This interesting plant was normally green but had adapted to white to conserve water inside its leaves. Cheryl added it was a natural source of cortisone.
This strange looking plant was called elephant foot's.
This tiny one was a stone plant.
The Garden's setting against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain was magnificent. Cheryl stated this was known as Teddy Bear Hill - what a cute name! 
As we walked through the vast garden, Cheryl pointed out a number of plants of interest. She indicated that the Cranes Flowers had to be hand-pollinated so wire mesh was used to protect the seeds from squirrels and mice.

The Agapanthus plants, Cheryl said, were also available in white but I loved the lavender shade.
The fig in the forest fighter fig tree is actually inverted as it is in the flower, according to Cheryl. A female wasp burrows into the fig, lays its eggs and then dies. 
The following two photos are of an acacia tree. I remember seeing several acacia trees for the first time near a tomb while we were in Egypt much earlier on this trip. Cheryl stated that giraffes can only eat a few of its leaves at a time before having to move upwind because the acacia trees are able to send messages downwind to neighboring acacia trees to produce tannin indicating giraffes were nearby.
Because the tree was one hundred years old, it was known as one of Kirstenbosch's century trees.
Cheryl cautioned us to be careful as this wild almond tree had cyanide in its seeds. They had to be soaked first before being ground to produce a coffee, she said. I'm not a coffee drinker at all so hadn't heard of almond-flavored coffee before.
Cheryl commented there are more than 450 different species of trees in the Arboretum section of the Garden. She added that bird life is normally abundant in the beautiful forest setting but we didn't hear or observe any.
We walked next to one of the newest attractions at Kirstenbosch, the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway. It was built in 2013-14 to celebrate the centenary of Kirstenbosch in 2013, and opened to the public on May 17th, 2014. The Walkway is a curved steel and timber bridge that winds and dips its way through and over the trees of the Arboretum. "Inspired by a snake skeleton, and informally called 'The Boomslang' (meaning tree snake), it is a low-maintenance, low-impact sculptural raised walkway. The Walkway takes the visitor from the forest floor into and through the trees and bursts out above the canopy, giving spectacular panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains."
The structure was prefabricated in 20 foot lengths that were hoisted by a crane and bolted together on site. This caused minimal disruption to the trees during assembly and reduced construction time in the Garden. By carefully hoisting the prefabricated steel beams over the canopy, the builders were able to give people an amazing new way to appreciate the forest while causing minimal disturbance to the natural environment.
The crescent-shaped walkway was 425 feet long, narrow and slender, with a few wider view-point areas as it gently snaked its way through the canopy. It took advantage of the sloping ground and only touched the forest floor in two places while raising visitors to about 40 feet above ground. 
It had several observation points so we could enjoy the surrounding view, but it also descended among the tree canopy in a few places so we were able to appreciate the foliage as well.
It was fascinating the walkway moved slightly as we walked over it. Even though the curved steel bridge was designed to flex and move back and forth, it didn't affect its stability or its capacity to support loads far heavier than a dense crowd of people on the walkway at the same time - phew!!
Cheryl laughingly explained that when locals were asked the name of this tree, easily visible from only the Canopy Walk, they said itwas called the Kahya. That meant "I don't know!"
From the height of the walkway, we could witness the South African forest in all its glory. Sometimes, visitors must bring umbrellas to walk through the clouds and fog engulfing the lofty canopy.

All too soon, the walkway came to an end - what a shame as seeing the trees from so high a vantage point was a real treat.
I am sure kids visiting the Garden must love their huge and very realistic-looking dinosaur sculptures.
This Wood's Cycad or wild banana tree was no named, Cheryl said, because it had leaves like a regular banana tree even though it wasn't related to our bananas. It was the Garden's only caged tree and was part of the largest cycad collections in the world. 

Only one clump of Wood's Cyad has ever been found. Named for John Medley Wood, this clump of four trunks was discovered on the fringes of a forest in KwaZuku-Natal in eastern South Africa in 1895. In a 1907 expedition, Wood collected two of the larger trunks, both of which are still alive and well, growing in the Durban Botanic Gardens.

In 1907, Wood's deputy, James Wylie, noted that the largest of the four wild trunks was badly mutilated. Five years later, when there was only one ten-foot tall trunk left in the wild, it was sent to the Government Botanist in Pretoria. It is thought that that trunk died in 1964.
Despite numerous expeditions, no other Wood's Cyad specimens have been found. The cyad probably died out in nature because the bark was too heavily harvested for medicinal use. If Wood and Wylie had not collected and cultivated specimens of this cyad, it would be extinct.

The tree above, a sucker from one of the plants in Durban, has been at Kirstenbosch since 1916. It was caged to protect it from cyad thieves. In 1980, its basal suckers were hacked off and stolen. As a result, all the Kirstenbosch cyads are protected by motion sensors, micro-dots and micro-chips! Who ever knew cyads were so valuable?

Although extinct in the wild, Wood's Cyad survive cultivation. It's one of the most sought after cyads in the world and well represented in botanical gardens all over the world. However, all of them come from basal suckers from the original plants discovered by John Medley. Therefore all of them are male and all have the same genetic makeup. Since this cyad tree was the only remaining species in the world, there was not too much chance of his reproducing even though attempts have been made to reproduce it genetically. Cheryl joked he was a lonely chap!

She showed us this lovely wild gardenia tree next. Its fruit is hard as a rock and eaten by elands and elephants who pass it through as is!

As it was so hot, Cheryl directed us next to the shaded Colonel Bird's Bath. In 1811, a few years after the British took control at the Cape, the southern half of Kirstenbosch was bought by Colonel Christopher Bird who was then deputy Colonial Secretary. He built his bird-shaped pool to collect the spring water and let it stand and clarify before being piped to the house. 

The bath is also known as 'Lady Anne Barnard's Bath' but that legend isn't true. Lady Anne was the wife of the Colonial Secretary and lived at the Cape from 1797 until 1802. She couldn't have bathed in this bath because it was built only after she left the Cape.

As we were there on Tuesday, it meant that it was Pensioners' Day or free day at the Garden, Cheryl said. There was plenty of lawn space to relax with a picnic. 
It was sad to see all the people enjoying the Garden in this area were black and yet in another spot, a two minute walk away, only whites were congregating.

After spotting some more stunning white aganthus flowers, Cheryl said the tour was over and we thanked her for taking the time to show us some of her favorite spots at Kirstenbosch.
Steven went back to the car to pick up our kindles and the portable cooler we had bought just before entering Kruger National Park. Wow - does that seem like a million years ago now!
It was nothing short of perfection munching our sandwiches and snacks while relaxing in a shady spot in the Sculpture Garden and having this spectacular view in front of us. For a while, it was our own Eden. Looking at this photo, I feel transported to that place and time once again.
The Sculpture Garden comprised African stone sculptures in the Shona tradition. I had never heard that word before so looked it up. I learned that African stone sculpture from Zimbabwe is often called Shona sculpture because it was named after the largest tribe engaged in sculpting. 
I have often used the term World Heritage Site when describing in this blog places we've visited all over the world. In case you, too, weren't sure what the term meant, they are "places considered to be of outstanding natural or cultural significance to humanity." Of South Africa's six sites, we visited only one other this trip, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned.

In order to be considered for listing as a natural World Heritage Site, areas must be an outstanding example of exceptional beauty; contain the most important habitats; represent major stages of the earth's history or contain significant ongoing ecological problems; and the future integrity of the area must be guaranteed. 

Zimbabwe, derived from the Shona word 'dzimbadzamabwe' or ‘house of stone,' is the only country on the African continent that has large deposits of stone suitable for sculpting.

This piece by Amos Supini was titled 'Young Girl' and was sculpted from springstone. The sculptor wrote that "Aware that she is coming into womanhood soon, this young girl modestly pats her skirts down to prevent the summer wind from lifting them."
Norbert Shamyarira sculpted, again out of soapstone, this work he called 'Bringing Condolences.' He explained that the piece meant "The loss of your child brings much sadness."

The trails and open spaces at Kirstenbosch were breathtaking - what a great way to escape the rush of city life for the inhabitants of Cape Town.
This cartoon cutely explained that there were no garbage cans in Kirstenbosch because they attract scavengers like rats. No trash cans meant that the Garden was cleaner, healthier and safer for the wildlife and for people. Visitors were advised to take trash with them when they left and dispose of it responsibly. 
Not surprisingly, there was a large display about the Cape Floral Kingdom, also called the Cape Floristic Region. As I wrote in previous posts, it is the smallest of all the floral kingdoms and is the only one to fall completely inside the borders of a single country. Though it occupies about 90,000 square kilometers, only about 0.34% of the surface area of earth, it contains nearly 9,000 species of flowering plants, about 3% of Earth's species. 
The Cape Floristic Region has 94 species per 1,000 square kms, compared to 14 species for Australia, 12 species for California and only 8 species for the rest of South Africa.

Fynbos is the vegetation found growing naturally on the mountains and coastal plains of the southwestern tip of South Africa. The name comes from the Dutch words 'fijn' and 'bosch' meaning 'fine bush,' referring to the small leaves and flowers of many of the species. Fynbos makes up 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom. 
Fynbos is so special because it is amazingly diverse and, even though it occupies a relatively tiny area of land, there are over 7,000 species that occur in 41,000 square kms and 80% of them occur nowhere else on Earth. The Cape Peninsula alone has 2,600 species - that's more than the total number of species in the British Isles - and crammed into an area smaller than London!

We wandered around the Fragrance Garden next. I had never seen a Bird-of-Paradise flower other than in a florist's shop before. Is it stunning or what?

Steven and I have been fortunate seeing some stunning botanical gardens around the world the last few years and we will continue searching out more gardens on future journeys. The world-famous Kirstenbosch Garden, though, surely ranks as one of the very best, not just for its spectacular mountain backdrop, but because thousand of its plants grow only there and nowhere else in the world. Finally it was time to say goodbye as the beach beckoned us one last time on on our last full day in Cape Town.

Posted on February 11th, 2017 from Littleton, Colorado.

1 comment:

  1. One of the best- wow! Look at how lush it was!! I'm ready to see New York like that this spring.


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