A Trip to the Makgeng Region
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Makgeng is a small community not far from Polokwane. It is also close to 'Zion City Moria', where millions of a local Christian group congregate every Easter. The region we were targeting, was a hilly part close to a local indigenous nursery. Lots of Mountain Aloes, Aloe marlothii, grow there, showing a spectacle right now in mid-Winter when they're flowering. Officially, the outing was an 'Aloe ramble', to admire the tall, flowering aloes and also to see what other plants and wildlife we could spot. The mountain aloes are especially important, since right now they're the main source of food for many bird and insect species. The tubular, orange flowers produce copious nectar, and are not very deep, meaning that even birds not specialized for drinking nectar can get some. Species that make use of the aloes in the wintertime include bulbuls, woodpeckers, orioles and weavers. Indeed they can even at this time create identification problems for novice birdwatchers – who might be quite stumped at the new orange-tinted plumage some of these will now be sporting on their heads and faces, courtesy of the aloe nectar and pollen!
I was interested to see what other plants grow there, and there was another keen plant watcher with us, Wiam Haddad. I learnt much from him, and I hope he learned a bit from me also! Wiam was much encouraged with how pristine the habitat was, especially high up in the hills. At the lower levels, unfortunately, there was disturbance – people were even chopping down the tall aloes! Luckily there are many left, but still. These giant succulent plants are a treasure of the Limpopo Province, lending a unique air to the habitats in which they grow, and we've already lost a few colonies of huge and centuries-old plants. They're protected by law, but this doesn't always mean much.
Another concern of mine on the outing, was whether the people running the nursery were removing wild plants to sell them. I didn't see any evidence of that. There are still lots of lovely plants sought-after by gardeners on the hill; the populations appeared very healthy.
It was just a day outing; most folks didn't want to go all the way up the hill, the hike being a bit exhausting. Wiam and I climbed all the way, though, after saying goodbye to the others. We were rewarded with an excellent view of the Wolkberg mountains a few kilometres away, and also by some amazing plants growing mainly along the crest of the hill.
There was much too much to report in detail here, so just a few notes. We didn't see wild mammals, or reptiles, but we saw a few bird species, including woodpeckers and white-necked ravens. Insects were in evidence, including some grasshopper nymphs hopping about in large numbers, making a rustling sound audible from some distance. The vegetation was mixed woodland, fairly open and dry, with a good growth of grass. In spite of it being mid-winter, there was still green grass and lots of fresh green leaves on the trees and shrubs. Some species had dropped their leaves already, while others were in their autumn colours. There were many species of succulents, growing everywhere from open grassy patches to shady spots underneath the trees to the shallow soil and cracks between and around the rocky outcroppings. The mountain aloes included a few individuals standing close to 20'/6m tall.
So here are a few photos of the most noteworthy plants we found.
It wasn't only the tall mountain aloes that were there, and flowering. There were also these smaller species. This is an Aloe greatheadii, one of the commonest of the smaller, spotted aloes of our region. These were lovely, bearing lots of orange-pink flowers.
Another aloe was Aloe aculeata, bearing tall, sparsely-branched spikes of yellow to orange flowers. This species, with its spiky, in-curved leaves, used to be portrayed on the five-cent coins of South African currency. They're quite widespread in northern South Africa, in grassy and rocky habitats.
On the crest of the hill we found these tiny plants, Avonia rhodesica, in cracks amidst the rocks. Avonia includes the smallest South African succulents; these were barely 1 cm/0.4" tall! What you see here are the stems which are clad in tiny, white, scale-like, succulent leaves. Avonia is locally very rare and under some pressure: it is reportedly a psychedelic which is much used wherever it occurs. The fact that there were many of them on the hill shows how pristine the region is!
Crassula swaziensis, however, is a common species, but nevertheless charming. It is a succulent with round leaves with a rough surface texture. It grows in cracks or in shallow soil, making small colonies. The leaves turn an attractive red if the plants are stressed by drought. These were flowering! The flowers are tiny and white, carried on pretty pink stalks.
Kalanchoe paniculata0 is related to the Crassula, and also gets lovely red leaves in the dry winter, as you can see here. It is a much larger plant, though … the rosette you see here is about 8"/20 cm in diameter. In spring and summer, this one develops an inflorescence that can stand more than a yard/metre tall, bearing tubular, yellow flowers. These, too, are used by nectar-drinking birds and insects.
Euphorbia schinzii is not much of a looker but I like them all the same. It is a small, spiny succulent – the Euphorbias of South Africa are to some extent the ecological equivalents of the cacti of the Americas. These ones were abundant in this region – the most I've ever seen in one place. The stems form small, spreading, flat 'cushions'. Here you can see one. The stems are densely crowded and short, on average 5-10 cm/2"-4", but longer in moist, shady spots. When dry, the stems get yellow, red and purple tints. When they flower, the plants can be quite attractive, the small, yellow flowers (actually cyathia, an inflorescence of highly simplified individual flowers) covering the plants.
But here you have a most impressive Euphorbia – a Cushion Euphorbia, Euphorbia pulvinata. Again there were several on the hill, forming these big mounds of very densely crowded stems or 'heads'. This one, in my estimation, has more than a thousand heads! These were also bearing some leaves – unusually for Euphorbias where the leaves either are turned to spines, or fall off quickly. You can also see a nice purple tint towards the back of the mound. The cushion Euphorbia grows in somewhat cooler, moister situations than most other Euphorbias; I was happy to find them here, this being the second locality in the region where I've seen them.
For me, the plant-highlight of this trip was this species – Khadia media! It is a vygie or mesemb – a group of small, succulent plants that is amazingly diverse and species-rich in South Africa. Most mesembs, however, occur in the three Cape Provinces, regions that are either quite dry, or that have winter rainfall, with long, hot and dry summers. The vast majority of the mesembs thrive in such climes. Here in far-northern South Africa, only a few mesembs occur – and this is one of them! Indeed, the entire genus, Khadia, is restricted to northern South Africa: Gauteng, Northwest Province, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The only record of Khadia outside of these is from far-northern Kwazulu-Natal, almost on the border with Mpumalanga.
Khadia has, at present, six known species, each confined to a specific region. Khadia acutipetala is the best-known species, occurring in densely-populated Gauteng. The other species grow to the North and East: Khadia alticola, K. borealis, K. beswickii, K. carolinensis, and K. media. The latter, the one we found, was only discovered and scientifically named in the late nineteen-nineties! And it is not rare at all – the crest of the hill where we found these, had hundreds of them, all flowering! For now it's only known from around here. This gives you an idea how easily species can escape detection, and how many new species might still be out there, simply because no botanists have yet managed to enter and explore the place where they grow. The plants are quite small, rarely exceeding 4"/10 cm in width. The leaves are succulent, and the clumps are anchored by thick roots in the shallow soil amidst the rock outcrops. The flowers are about 1"/2.5 cm in diameter, and white, sometimes with delicate pink tints.
The well-known Khadia acutipetala is used to give beer an extra 'kick': the sap from the roots is added during the process of brewing. Indeed the word 'khadi' denotes plants used for beer brewing, such as the Khadi root (Raphionacme sp.) which is not at all closely related. I don't know if these Khadia media's can also be used in this way.
Note this interesting photo: a Khadia media, which (perhaps) increases the potency of alcoholic drinks, alongside some Avonia's, which are reportedly used as hallucinogenics! A wild party growing in a small rock crack. I'm not going to tell people where exactly to find these!
Lastly, some trees. Cussonia natalensis is the Rock Cabbage Tree, which is abundant on hills like these. It has handsome star-shaped leaves which as you see here, varied from fresh and green to beautifully autumn yellow. This tree has a stout trunk and succulent roots, which people sometimes use as an emergency source of water. With its unusual shape and handsome leaves, this species would be a great choice for a park or large garden. A few are planted in Polokwane.
That's it! Again we saw many plants more than I could document here, but this should give you a small sense of these hot, rather dry, rocky hill region and the amazing diversity of plants it hosts.