Colours of Wildlife Special: Winter Gardening in Polokwane

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Winter Gardening in Polokwane

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!"

In this special, I bring you a few of the plants that bring me joy in wintertime over here in northern South Africa. In my hometown of Polokwane, the climate is very mild, both in summer and in winter. We get only one or two days of frost on average in the winter … and indeed, in my own garden frost is virtually non-existent. So many species can keep growing throughout the year. However, the winter is quite different from the summer in being very dry. Rains stop around April or May, and only resume again in October or November. There might be a few brief and light showers over this long dry season, but there might just as well be no rain at all. So winter is not so much cold, as dry. Oh, we do get a bit of cold – when a winter night goes down below five degrees Celsius, it is quite nippy – but the days are sunny and warm even in the fiercest of mid-winter.

In the natural veld around Polokwane, the winter is marked by a dreary look. Grass is dry, trees stand bare, and there's a thin coat of dust on everything. Still, there are many trees and shrubs still retaining some or lots of green leaves, and there are still plants flowering. My own garden is predominantly filled with wild plants, the same species as to be found out in the veld, and adapted to this kind of climate. So here I show you what can be found flowering in wintertime in South Africa. These species naturally occur all over my country, but for convenience I have them all together in my garden!

First, let's look at some aloes. These succulent plants form rosettes of thick, fleshy and often thorny leaves, sometimes with short to long stems, sometimes stemless. Many species flower in winter, their inflorescences crowded with tubular flowers dripping with nectar. They indeed are a major food source for birds over these barren winter months. Not only specialized nectar-feeders like sunbirds and white-eyes make use of them, but many other species too, like weavers, bulbuls, orioles and woodpeckers.

Aloe spicata is a favourite species of mine. It makes a long, tall inflorescence, which initially, before the flowers open, looks like a scaly snake! Then when the flowers start to open, it looks like a brushy cat's tail. These short, open flowers give very easy access to nectar for many birds. The plant itself grows to 2-3 m tall, having a short stem that often branches into two, three or more leafy rosettes. Aloe spicata grows in hilly regions close to where I live, the wild plants turning bright pinkish-red in winter!

Aloe spicata scalyAloe spicata brushAloe spicata tallAloe chabaudii
Aloe spicata scalyAloe spicata brushAloe spicata tallAloe chabaudii

A quite different-looking aloe is Aloe chabaudii. This one is low, having no visible stem, but there are stems at or just below ground level that give rise to new rosettes, in this way forming small clumps of densely-packed heads. The leaves are grayish. The inflorescences are many-branched, bearing delicate, long-tubed, pink-red flowers. This species grow somewhat to the north of Polokwane in hot, low, bushy country.

The next species, Aloe globuligemma, looks almost exactly like Aloe chabaudii when not flowering. It also grows in the same kinds of hot, dry, low-lying country. But when flowering, it is completely different! The flowerheads stick out sideways, and bear these club-like flowers with inflated tips.

Aloe globuligemmaAloe globuligemma flowers
Aloe globuligemmaAloe globuligemma flowers

Aloe vanbalenii grows in northern Kwazulu-Natal, making large rosettes spreading at ground-level like the previous two, but yellowish to brownish or reddish-tinted green, with backward-curved leaves. The flowers are yellowish, not very conspicuous or spectacular, but charming.

Now for some other kinds of plants! Crassula swaziensis is a small succulent that, in nature, grows in shallow pockets of soil on or at the edges of rock sheets on hills or mountainsides. Because of its size, its flowers feed insects rather than birds. I've never been successful in getting them to flower, until this year! These plants are growing in an old, decaying ice-cream tub – which somehow at this stage is holding just the right amount of soil and water, with this result! The flowers are very delicate, white born on reddish stalks. The leafy rosettes also show red tints over the winter, all in all giving an exquisite mini-display. I'm going to try these in shallow clay trays like those used for bonsais – if I can find any suitable ones for not too much money!

Aloe vanbaleniCrassula swaziensisGlottiphylumHuernia barbata
Aloe vanbaleniCrassula swaziensisGlottiphylumHuernia barbata

Glottiphyllum or Tongue-leaved Mesembs naturally grow in hot, dry, thicket country in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. These shiny, succulent leaves do indeed look somewhat like drooping tongues! They're actually not typical leaves, but enlarged bracts growing on perpetually-developing flower stalks. So the plants consist basically of these flower stalks rambling over the ground, dividing and producing these tongue-like leaves/bracts at the tips. And the flowers are there much of the time. They're quite large for the size of the plant itself, mine reaching close to 10 cm/4" in diameter; they're yellow and with myriads of fine petals! Unfortunately, the plants are highly sought-after by mousebirds – they eat them in their entirety. They've completely denuded a large bed of these mesembs I had outside; the only surviving ones are those I'm growing in more protected spots – or actually, spots where the local feral cats can hide and ambush the mousebirds! Well, the kittehs have to live, too …

Now for something completely different! Carrion flowers are exploiters rather than providers among the plants. Their flowers are not conventionally beautiful, (though many people and I do find them so), but strange and unusual, often mimicking dead animals. They also give off a stench of rotting meat, although this is barely noticeable in the small ones like you see here. This species is Huernia barbata and grows naturally in the vast semi-desert Karoo country in the southern interior of South Africa. The plant itself consists of succulent stems that look very spiky, but the spines are soft. They make small clumps, usually in the shelter of thorny bushes or of rocks. The smelly flowers attract flies as pollinators. They are deceived in thinking they've landed on a carcass of a small animal; they probe around and often lay their eggs on the flower surface. Each flower guides the probing fly towards its centre, where the packets of pollen are carried. The fly's proboscis will snag one of these and pull it out; when the fly finally flies, it carries the pollen packet to another flower, where the fly again is guided to the flower's centre, but this time a special ridge there snags the pollen packet and removes it from the fly's proboscis – only for a new pollen packet of that flower to be picked up and again carried to another flower still! After being deposited, a pollen tube grows out of the pollen packet and penetrates the flower's ovary to fertilize it. The eggs the flies lay on the carrion flowers often hatch, and you can actually see the tiny maggots squirming around if you catch the flower at the right time after pollination. But the fly larvae find no food, and die.

Still something different. You may not realize, but figs are not actually real fruits – a fig is actually a complex inflorescence (technically called a synconium) which bears lots of tiny flowers on its inside! Access to them comes through a small opening at the fig's tip. The flowers are parasitized by tiny wasps; the opening is so small that these mini-insects need to squeeze themselves through, typically losing their wings and often some of their legs, too. But inside is the bonanza! The flowers come in different kinds; two kinds of female, and male. The female flowers are ones either intended for making seeds, or ones deliberately (if one can use such a term) for the sake of the wasps! The female wasp first visits the proper flowers. She pollinates them deliberately with pollen she's gathered from another fig (and you'll soon hear how that happens). This now allows those fig flowers to develop normally until they've formed seeds. But the female wasp next turns to the other flowers, which have short styles and an open canal through which the wasp can poke her ovipositor. In those special flowers she lays her eggs; it's as if these flowers are indeed a gift or reward the figs provide for the wasps for pollinating them! The female wasp then dies, still inside the fig.

The wasp-containing flowers now develop into gall-like growths, the 'flesh' of which feeds the wasp larvae that hatch and grow inside them, while the pollinated flowers grow into tiny fruits containing the seeds (which are later distributed by birds or bats that eat the figs). But before this happens, the wasp larvae complete their growth cycle and metamorphose into adult wasps. The first to emerge from the flowers are the males, which are strong but rudimentary, lacking eyes, wings and most of their legs. They then open the pupae in which the females are; with that done, they turn to the inside wall of the fig (now a ripe 'fruit') and chew a hole in it. Then they, too, die like their mother did after laying the eggs. But the female wasps, upon being released, immediately turn to the male flowers inside the fig – now mature – and gather pollen from them. Then they exit the fig through the hole made by the male wasps and fly off to the nearest new figs they can find, into which they then squeeze themselves to repeat the whole cycle.

Now you know how figs work! This species you see here is the Broom Cluster Fig, Ficus sur, which is widespread in the moister parts of South Africa. It grows into a huge tree sometimes more than 30 m/100' tall, and with a comparable spread. Its figs are among the largest of the local species, comparable with the size of commercial figs. They're edible but supposedly not very tasty. I haven't tried any yet; the figs found on the trees are usually eaten by birds or fruit bats as soon as they are ripe, or they're infested by ants (which also relish the sweet flesh). So these trees are great for attracting wildlife to the garden. But it must be a big garden because these trees get huge, and also like most wild figs, they have powerful roots that can break walls, the foundations of houses, and other such structures.

Broom cluster figKalanchoe sexangularisTetradenia ripariaImpala lilies
Broom cluster figKalanchoe sexangularisTetradenia ripariaImpala lilies

Now back to something more typical. Kalanchoe sexangularis is a robust and powerfully growing succulent that occurs in northern South Africa, usually on rocky hills. In my garden it actually grows like rampant weeds and I have to cut them back each year rather than having to water, feed or otherwise encourage them! The leaves turn handsome red in winter, contrasting with these masses of greenish-yellow flowers. These are visited by butterflies and other nectar-drinking insects.

Tetradenia riparia or Ginger Bush is a giant member of the mint/sage family (the Lamiaceae). It is the only local species growing to tree proportions, achieving a height of 4-5m/13-17" under good conditions. It grows along rivers and on rocky hills in northern South Africa. The large, soft leaves are wonderfully aromatic, and in wintertime, when the rest of the plant is standing bare, these masses of flowers appear! Male and female flowers are carried on separate plants, this eliminating the possibility of self-fertilisation and maximising the chance of gene exchange. These flowers are tiny and thus food for insects rather than birds. A large clump of these, all flowering at once, gives a lovely display.

Impala lily with crest

Another star performer in the winter is the Impala Lily, Adenium multiflorum. Also a species from the hot, low-lying country in northern South Africa, it develops an especially thick and succulent stem. Wild plants can grow centuries old with trunks over a metre/yard in diameter. Mine are about a dozen years old and have a long way to go still! But the flowers they bear in wintertime are glorious. Red, pink and white, with crinkly petals, they're pollinated by insects. This winter I found an aberrant flower – one with extra petals, a rampant kind of growth called a crest.

Strelizia reginae

Last but not least, one of South Africa's most worthily-famous species, the Crane (or Bird-of-Paradise) Flower! This is actually Strelitzia reginae, one of five species in the genus, all of them confined to Southern Africa. In the wild, that is … today, keen gardeners have carried them all over the world. But they're ours originally! This species naturally grows in thicket country in the Eastern Cape. The clumps are quite drought-tolerant; despite being rugged, they produce fine, big, luxurious-looking leaves. And then these flowers! What you actually see here is an inflorescence, with a single highly modified bract called a spathe, from which several blue and orange flowers emerge in sequence. In the photo, you can see two flowers that have already emerged; more will come out from the spathe after these. Birds that land on the blue, pointy bit of the flower, will force open a slit along the top, in which the pollen is carried. They'll get a bit of pollen smeared over their bellies, which they'll hopefully carry to other flowers, pollinating them. I've only seen sunbirds on these, the intricate flowers making access to nectar difficult for unspecialized bird species.

There you have it! All of these plant species have been lustily flowering over the wintertime here in my garden, providing critter-food, colour and interest. Next year I'll show and tell you even more!

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