The Modjadji Cycad Forest, Part II
Continued from Part I.
The cycad forest is actually not composed solely of cycads. It is a natural thing, and the cycads grow along with a great many other species of tree, shrub, herb and climber. It is also not really a true closed-canopy forest, but a more open woodland. Only in a few places does the canopy close overhead, and it's interesting to see that small cycads grow very well in the mild to dense shade. We weren't meticulous about counting plants, and yet my friend Cecelia had logged over sixty species in her notebook by the end of the day. We agreed among each other that this would be a wonderful place to bring novice tree enthusiasts to quickly and easily show them and teach them to identify a variety of tree species.
So here are some noteworthy other species we found along with the cycads. We encountered two charming orchid species. The large one with the long stems is Ansellia africana. This is a huge epiphyte, the stems often reaching 1.5 m. It usually grows in forks in large trees, often quite close to the ground as here. The flowers are yellow, and frequently bearing darker spots, for which it's named the Leopard Orchid. The smaller orchid is a Polystachya transvaalensis, a new species for me. This one was growing in colonies just below the leafy crowns of the cycads, along with ferns and clumps of moss. Not every cycad had them, but some sustained substantial colonies. Sadly, this being winter, the orchids weren't flowering. I do hope to be able to go again in December, which should be a good time for finding flowers.
Healing Leaf Berries
Small Orchid Colony
Another interesting species in the forest was what we call the Bushman's Tea, Catha edulis. Elsewhere this plant, and particularly its edible leaves, is called Khat. This is used as a stimulant especially in Arabian countries. Our local trees are not as potent as some from East Africa. The Ethiopian Airline owes its existence to the species; harvested in Africa, the leaves are flown over to Arabia and sold. It's still a strong market. Here in South Africa, the species is a slender tree reaching 30m/100' in height.
Many species of climber scramble over the cycads and other trees. The one with the many whitish, downy flowers is called a Traveller's Joy, Clematis brachiata. Lending some colour was the one we call a Redwing, Pterolobium stellatum, for its lovely reddish seed pods. They're shaped like little propellers and when they drop they twirl and 'fly' a distance from the mother plants.
Another new one for me was the tree-like shrub Solanum giganteum, or Healing-Leaf Tree. This relative of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, grows to 5 m/17' and has large, soft leaves borne on thorny twigs. The leaves are used traditionally as a healing dressing for wounds and ulcers. The sap is used for making an ointment, and the fruits are used to treat throat ulcers. The bright red berries you see here are pretty in themselves; unlike many wild species of the family, they're not toxic, and can be eaten or used to curdle milk. I'm going to try to grow some; it's quite an attractive plant, and likely fast-growing.
Lastly we have here a wonderful tree, the Stem-Fruit, Englerophytum magalismontanum. Not at all rare, it is usually shrubby but in the cycad forest we found some that were substantial trees. This species has some of the tastiest fruits of any local South African plant. But the trees themselves are quite picturesque. Here you see, against the blue sky, some of the leaves. They're stiff and leathery, glossy dark-green above, and covered in dense rusty hairs beneath.
The forest and environs were also a wonderful habitat for animal life. We encountered a few different bird species, most only heard, but we were awed by the sight of a crowned eagle flying and calling high above our heads. Monkeys patrolled the cycads up at the picnic site, and many species of butterfly fluttered by, even though it's now officially winter. Here's a little critter we spotted and who didn't seem to mind us – a little grasshopper. Very well camouflaged, but Cecelia spotted and photographed it, and I picked it up and let it perch on my hand so she could get a clear shot of it.
As a last word I want to say that photos don't do this forest justice. I'd seen photos of it and of the cycads but it's an entirely different experience to be there amidst them. Only this way can you really get an impression of how many there are and of their primeval strangeness and of the entire atmosphere of mystique of this sacred place. If you're ever touring South Africa, please consider making this one of your prime destinations. The roads leading to it are a bit rough, so if possible get someone with a 4-wheel-drive to take you there. The forest itself is easily experienced and explored by way of the walking trails going through it.