Category Archives: Wildflowers

Flowers, Fire and Drought, an African Summer Season

The Christmas season is one where the dogs and I relish the break and spend more time on the mountain.  There are fewer flowers as the fynbos battens down the hatches for the onset of summer, but there is always something.  After a dry winter and as the season gets ever drier, regular friends fail to appear.  I caught a flash of red on the drive as we drove out the other day and smiled to myself thinking “great, the Tritoniopsis triticea is in flower, we’ll catch lots of them on the mountain on our next run.”  Not one so far, not even one.  Perhaps they will appear later in the month but already I know they won’t be as profuse as usual.  We did come across the charming Micranthus alopecuroides, the “comb flower”.  It’s easy to miss because it’s quite tiny, and quite rare too, but we often find a few at the bottom of the drive around Christmas time.

Meanwhile our crops are winning the battle – the buchu is hardy and drought resistant and the olives are better this year than they have been for the last couple, largely, we suspect, because we had less wind during the crucial spring flowering season.

Talking of wind, a friend came to stay the other night and woke up expecting to see devastation from the storm she’d heard howling around the house during the night and surprised that everything about the place was dry.  No, we explained, laughing, that was a normal night wind in summer, not even a big one.

El Nino is the culprit of course and these cyclical droughts are normal.  It’s our first since being on the farm though and it’s quite chilling to see how the stream, which we believe to be permanent, has slowed to a trickle and our raging waterfall is a pathetic drizzle.  The dams below us empty at a worrying rate and the farms in this valley will be glad when the harvest is in.  Peter is reassuring and reminds me that “this is Africa.”  He has lived through long multi-year droughts in the low veld.  We must all hope for a wet winter this year, but before we can even begin we must get through the summer.  Fires is our big fear – there was a huge one far from us on the other side of the Franschhoek pass on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day to the non-Irish) and the clouds of smoke covered the entire peninsula, flooding with colour at sunset.

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The odd thing for me, being European, is that the holiday season here falls over Christmas, at the very beginning of summer.  So when the holidays are over, the heat really starts and it’s back to work.  I love the heat and find that I can cope with being active at under 35 degrees.  Between 35 and 40 I prefer not to be too energetic.  Over 40 I am frankly uncomfortable.  Yesterday it was 42 degrees all afternoon and I succumbed entirely, lying on a sofa at the back of the house, the cooler side, reading a novel and dozing away the afternoon. I ran in the early morning, enjoying the forest next to us, which is due to be taken down in the next couple of years, we will miss the shady paths…

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I have neglected this year to take up the challenge of the yellow daisies  They are the hardest to identify and I have been lazy.  Here goes….

To start with the prickly bush thistle, which we first saw out running in July, Cullumia setosa.

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Next comes the distinctive Cape Weed, Arctotheca calendula which also flowers from July to November and we see it all the time, all over the farm.

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Another one flowering  everywhere from the beginning of spring to early summer is Euryops abrotanifolius, common but quite charming.

Next is the Heterolepis alien, the rock daisy with it’s distinctive sparsely toothed grey leaves.  If these are all looking the same you can understand why the identification is a challenge.

 

There are two more that I have not identified and I will ask the ispot group to help me with them and report back.

The Day After the Hottest Day

Yesterday, March 2nd 2015, was the hottest day in Cape Town for 100 years.  Fires raged on the Cape Penninsula and we could do nothing but think of our poor friends all over the Cape evacuating their homes, of the animals that had to be evacuated and of the wildlife on the mountains that must be suffering terribly.  In many areas all that is left is a bare lunar landscape.  This blog is dedicated to all our friends who have been battling the fires for the last three days.

All the more terrifying because we live on a mountain that is overdue a big fire, and beside a huge pine forest.  As we worried about our friends yesterday a small fire broke out on our mountain, but was quickly contained by our local fire services.

The strange weather has contributed; on Sunday this wild windy sunset light the sky, and was followed by unbelievable howling winds that stripped the young olives off our trees.  The wind howled all day on Monday and then dropped in the evening, to be followed yesterday by a day of searing heat all over the province.  We quite often get temperatures of over 40 degrees down in the valley, but almost never here on the mountain.  It was 42 all over the Cape yesterday, even here on the farm at 5 pm as we wound down from a long hot day.

As quickly as the heat appeared it was gone.  This morning was remarkably cool and I went for a long run with the dogs.  The sky was cloudy and drops of rain spat from the sky. This weather is most bizzare.  There are not many flowers on the mountain, but some signs of life to come all the same.  A pink tipped Protea Repens and a Pelargonium that can flower all the year round but still amazing that this plant should choose this hottest driest month to show it’s enchanting face.

Pelargonium myrrhifolium var myrrhifolium

Pelargonium myrrhifolium var myrrhifolium

The air was still and cool but the remains of the great heat still came as a powerful beat from the earth; there is no proper rain in the forecast and we can only pray that the Gods are kind to us and that fire does not come to claim us this year.

Writer’s block

For several weeks now I’ve been wondering why I haven’t written a blog.  After all I’ve been running on the mountain, in fact my fitness is pretty good. The dogs and I have had several splendid morning and evening runs.  The weather is fabulous for us – this has been the coolest summer we’ve spent on the farm and dogs and humans have relished it.  We love the sun, but extremes, often as high as 40 degrees, can be harsh.  I did go to Europe for work a couple of weeks ago – to a freezing cold and rather depressing Paris, a city I dearly love but which was in mourning not only for Charlie Hebdo but for the loss of freedom that accompanies terrorism.  The weather was as bleak as the mood although a cancelled meeting meant some rewarding shopping and one or two excellent dinners helped cheer me up.

So why no blog?  The question resolved itself yesterday when I was running on the top road.  At this time of year the flowers die back – the middle of summer here is like the winter elsewhere, with little new growth.  The point of this blog is to share the amazing beauty and variety of flowers that grow here on the farm.  And the flowers hide from the heat and the harsh sunlight.

Then yesterday I saw a splendid flash of pink at my feet.  An Erica had burst into flower.  Of course there are 660 fynbos subspecies of Erica, so they are not always easy to identify, and lots of them have pretty pink bells like this one.  Given the season and the dark pink flowers this could be Erica pulchella.  Tiny and absolutely lovely.

The other flower that is in full bloom is this yellow pea called Aspalathus divaricata Subs divaricata (Franschhoek form).  A long name to describe a pretty rambling Cape Gorse that flowers in the driest period of the year.

Although there are few flowers, there is plenty of life stirring and getting going.  The Leucadendron salignum which lights up the mountain on dark winter days with it’s lime green colour is putting out new reddish pink growth at the moment.  And the Protea repens, the most common Protea on the farm, are covered in sticky buds, just about to flower – indeed the very first flowers have just emerged.  Could it be a sign of early rains to come?  They always flower before the first rains.  We had a cloudy morning the other day – it’s rare and pleasant at this time of year, and the new growth coloured the mountain.

Then there are the shining grasses.  As we drive down the road in the evening the light floods the new vines planted just below our neighbours house and the grasses literally dazzle the eye in pink and white.  I sent this photo to our neighbour and she commented that “they shouldn’t be there” so I daresay that next year the grass will be cleared and this extraordinary display of light will disapear.  For the next few months these shining grasses line the roads and catch the light in a display of pink and white luminosity;  I absolutely love them.

Other excitement included the dogs putting up a tiny duiker who shot up the mountain and then ducked behind a buchu plant.  The girls were giving chase and didn’t even glance at its hiding place and I pretended to see nothing and continued up the mountain.  Not long afterwards the girls were still gamboling in the lands and a glossy chestnut coloured rhebok jumped out in front of us.  Seamus was just ahead of me, but supervising the girls and although she was only a couple of feet from him, she looked at us in astonishment and leapt for cover so quickly that he didn’t even see her.  Or pretended not to.  So much for being a sighthound.

Maebh on the hunt

Maebh on the hunt

The sunsets are often incredible.  On that cloudy day the dying rays caught the cloud above the dam and turned it perfectly pink, which was then reflected in the water, a perfect end to another wonderful day at home in Africa.

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Christmas, a wedding, and a little contemplation

Christmas and a house full of family and friends.  Running on the mountain continues with a bride (Peter’s son gets married on 8 Jan and they are staying with us) who is keen to keep her figure elegant through the Christmas indulgence so the running is serious and the opportunities to stop and take pictures infrequent at best.  We’ve been running through the pine forest that adjoins the farm; in the warm summer weather the stately silence of the trees and the dappled cool of the forest is a welcome break from the heat and the wind.  Because the dogs get protective I tend not to run in the forest except on Sunday mornings and at Christmas when the foresters take a break.

We did a farm run for a change this morning and saw this Tritoniopsis burchellii; the guests were good enough to wait while I snapped it.  I’ve been waiting for it to flower – I first saw it last year about this time.  They are an incredible shade of scarlet that seems almost surreal on this photo.

Tritoniopsis burchellii

Tritoniopsis burchellii

The Salvia africana is also in full bloom on the mountain – it flowers beautifully all year round and I can never resist taking a shot of it when the light is good.

After I posted the Gladiolus liliaceus before Christmas quite a few more came out above the waterfall and we went back up to take some photos of better flowers.  Peter came with me once again, the dogs followed.  We spent a happy half an hour finding the best flowers.  I took a shot of the same flower in the morning to show how remarkably they open up in the evening light.  The dogs of course take great delight in watching our antics.

Seamus and Maebh watching Peter as he inspects the fynbos flowers

Seamus and Maebh watching Peter as he inspects the fynbos flowers

It’s a funny time of year this.  We love it, there are great friends who come to stay and family as well.  The house is full of noise and this year, Peter’s first grandchild.  There is a tinge of sadness as well.  Most of the precious people I’ve lost have gone between the middle of December and the end of January.  It’s a well known phenomenon that people pass away at Christmas, for many reasons and all of them different.  So in the celebration and coming together there is also sadness, regret and reflective moments.  Loss.  These days are busy and full of treats and fun.  As we run on the mountain with the dogs bounding after Ola who bounces along ahead like the resident klipspringers, tiny antelopes with spongy feet that allow them to spring across the rocks, I follow and in the beauty of these mountains I think of those who have departed, and quietly remember them.  Not always sadly; there is pleasure in the memories, they are gone but they were wonderful and we were lucky to have known them.

Windy Mountain

Spring is turning into summer on the mountain and the wind is howling at night and most of the day.  There is an afternoon lull but already, at 7 o’clock in the evening, I can hear it picking up outside the office and later it will whip around the house and rattle the roof.

I spent the weekend in George, along the famous Garden Route at a Horse Trials, the Western Province Championships.  We had fun, didn’t win any big prizes, but spent the weekend with our friends and got to gallop fast over solid fences which is the most fun you can have on a horse.

On Friday morning I went for a run in the suburbs of George and enjoyed sightings of fynbos flowers that have adapted to the urban environment.  Here on the farm I know only of one place where the Gladiolus maculatus blooms and that’s in July.  Looking at the book I see they are winter flowering but I saw them, or something very similar, in a spot of suburban wasteland as I ran past.  Perhaps I should have taken a closer look.

When I don’t take them running often enough the dogs get bored and take themselves off for their own runs.  Sometimes they are gone for hours and we get increasingly worried about them until they come home, panting and joyful, terribly pleased with themselves and usually soaking wet as they’ve stopped for a cooldown in the dam on the way back to the house.  Several dogs have disappeared on the mountain that we know of and we worry and worry when they are gone, we go looking for them and calling them for hours and never see a sign.  Last time I checked there was no tracker available that would work here in South Africa but recently I heard of one, so I searched again and found it in Germany.  It arrived today and has now been attached to Maebh.  She and Jemima Chew often go for a quick hunt in the evening, and sometimes Maebh and Seamus go off together, but for some reason, never the three together.  If Maebh has a tracker, we’ll know where to find them.

I know better than to think I will get any photos in this wild wind, but I’ll see what’s there and where to go when the wind drops.  They say in Cape Town that if you don’t like the weather today, don’t worry because it will be different tomorrow and the change in weather is heralded by the wind dropping to that incredible stillness on the mountain that I’ve so often written about.  When that happens we will pick a moment of good light to catch the latest spring flowers. In the meantime there is much to catch up on.  Last year I failed to name this blue flower so I posted it on ispot.  The experts suggest it might be Aspalathus cephalotes subspecies obscuriflora.

Another pretty thing I couldn’t identify is this white “flower” which is tiny and turns out to be the seedhead of Ursinia anthemoides which I photographed in August but hadn’t posted, much more interesting to post the two together now.

I love these fluffy heads that must be Stilbe, I think vestita.

The other fluffy flowers that I photographed some time ago and never posted are the wild buchu plants that grow on the farm.  Our crop is buchu, Agathomsa crenulata and hybrids thereof, and Agathomsa betulina.  These are used medicinally and in the food flavouring and perfume industries because of the powerful essential oils that have an intense note of blackcurrant.  I occassionally post photos of the buchu we farm which is indigenous to the area.  This is a genuinely wild buchu, probably either Agathomsa imbricata or capensis.

As I was running down one of the roads I noticed that it was bordered by shrubs of Salvia africana all in flower and would make a wonderful photo.  Being in a hurry I put it off only to find when I returned that a spring wind had blown the flowers to shreds.  They are tough and they flower all year but the best display is in a wet spring.  They are stalwart friends on the mountain with an exceptional colour and fortunately enough remained for me to capture some of the flowers.

Summer is Helichrysum season and it begins with this Helichrysum patulum.  We have several subspecies of this wonderful and resilient plant on the farm and they deserve a page of their own.

Helichrysum patulum

Helichrysum patulum

Along the drive the Crassula fascicularis has come into flower.

Crassula fascicularis

Crassula fascicularis

Finally, one of my top favourite flowers has emerged, the lovely spikes of Aristea capitata, unmistakable and one of the first flowers I identified when we bought the farm and I started running here.  These are prolific in damp areas and I hope they will be spectacular this year after the wet winter.  We’ll have more photos of them over the next month.

Bulbs and a Couple of Peas and an Irish Wolfhound or two

What a busy week it has been. I must apologise to friends who prefer the chatty blog to the technical botanical blog.  At this time of year there is so much to share, so we have a botanical phase for now and more chat will inevitatably follow.

Although I have been wanting to post a collection of flowering bulbs for some time there was a small problem with identifying one or two.  The best way to get help is to post on ispot, where the South African flora and fauna geeks all post their sighting and help one another out with identification.  Sure enough, within a couple of days I’ve had some help and can now happily identify a paricularly pretty apricot flower as yet another Moraea, this time miniata.

The other one is our most common gladiolus, which the experts identify as the famous and common Painted Lady, Gladiolus carneus, known as the White Afrikaner.  This must be right yet it is also frustrating as the books insist on the red splash on the lower petals while mine splash yellow.  Everything else fits though and they are just coming into flower now so I’ll be on a determined hunt for red splashes and I’m sure over the next few weeks I’ll post a few more photos of this really stunning Gladiolus.

Running last week was great from a running point of view as the weather was dry and windy and I have learned that taking pictures of flowers is best left for days with little or no wind.  The dogs loved the faster pace and once again we had a photogenic moment when Seamus and Maebh stopped at Fox Pan for a drink as we ran up the dry side of our farm.

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There is such an abundance of flowers this year and every step of the run means another group or another flower.  There are shrubs I haven’t stopped to photograph because I think, they’ll still be there in a couple of weeks.  Flowering bulbs are different, they have a short life and you only get a few days to capture them.  I know I don’t see them all, for example last year I completely missed this dramatic Moraea bellendenii and this lovely Aristea spiralis which both flower at the same time, when I was away.

Other bulbs that flower at this time of year include Geissorhiza aspera, which opens when the sun shines and covers the lands in blue stars.  And yet another Aristea, the pretty Aristea africana, which is often used in gardens.   The pink Wurmbea punctata is much less common and easy to miss, it’s snuggled up to several shrubs along a busy road and there are very few of them.  The Baeometra uniflora which is not very prettily known as the Beetle Lily, it is choosy about where it lives and grows prolifically in one specific spot.

There are a couple more I don’t have names for, I’ll see if the geeks can help.  This first one is tiny – the flowers are less than half the size of the nail on my little finger.  I really should be able to name the second one, but there are quite a few flowers that look like this, so I’m not sure.  And the third one is the most exquisite little thing – also tiny.

Finally, two distinctive peas.  One is simply known as the Blue Pea, Psoralea aphylla, found in marshy places and along streams, which is exactly where we saw it. image The other is prolific at the moment along the top road and very distinctive; I’m pretty sure it is Lotononis of which there are 40 odd fynbos varieties and only two are covered in my book.  It isn’t either of those but the tri-foliate leaves and solitary flowers on slender stems are a bit of a giveaway.

All about Ericas

An interesting question came from a follower of this blog:  where does the inspiration come from?  How do I sit down and write 500 – 100 words every week or so?  I’ve never thought about it – the inspiration comes from the run, the beauty of the place, sometimes, wild, sometimes spiritual, always theatrical.  Every time it’s the same story, I took my dogs, we went for a run on our farm, we saw flowers.  Like Heraclites’s river it’s always the same and always different and there is another tale to tell.  I do my best thinking on the run.  I don’t listen to music and my mind is free to wander and ponder.  Mostly I think about work or about what I’m going to put in the blog.  The thought about Heraclites and his river, fished out from the bubbling spring of knowledge that was my first philosophy lecture at Trinity, came to mind on a run.  By the time I actually sit down and write, the words are clamouring to be put on the page and it’s only a matter of deciding how to present it.  The titles are another matter – I read somewhere that titles matter a lot when you blog, so I have to consider my theme and find an elegant arrangement of words that will capture the reader’s interest and make them want to read further.

At this time of year the sheer volume of flowers on the mountain is overwhelming.  We went for a run on Saturday evening; the air was calm and still and the run was about 60% photos and 40% run.  Luckily by Sunday morning a wind had picked up and I’ve learned there’s no point in trying to photograph flowers when their long stems are being blown by the wind; much better for my fitness!  I took just one photo, of Seamus  loving the feeling of the wind in his coat.

Seamus enjoying the wind as he trots up the mountain with Paarl visible in the valley below

Seamus lets the wind stream through his coat with Paarl visible in the valley below

Last year some readers complained that bacame a bit obssessive about the flowers and they missed the bit of chat that goes with the blog.  So this year I shall do some frequent posts and place the flowers in groups, starting with the Ericas.  I’ve mentioned before that one of the interesting things about the Cape Floral Kingdom is that it is the most diverse in the world, accounting for the hundred of species growing on our small farm.  And Ericas are the most diverse of all, with around 860 subspecies and 660 of those are fynbos.  So it’s not a surprise that they are not always easy to identify. I’ve included here some Erica’s that we haven’t posted yet – there are many many more in flower and I will try and add an Erica page when I have time to do some cataloguing.

One particular favourite grows at the top of the waterfall, on the other side of the stream.  If you look closely you can just see it at the top of the fall.  In reality it’s a vibrant splash of pink.  It’s quite far from the road; I risked a soaking and my still recovering ankle to bring you these photos of the perfectly named Erica multumbellifera in full bloom.

Erica abietina comes in many colours: yellow, orange, red or magenta.  Those on our farm are all this fabulous scarlet, quite often hard to photograph because the shiny flowers reflect the light intensely.

Erica Abietina

Erica Abietina

Another charming pink Erica has emerged higher up at the very top of the farm where the damp and little used road encourages lots of fynbos growth.  This one has little pinky-white bells.  There are lots of subspecies with little pink bells which makes them hard to identify – even in the book the descriptions are almost exactly the same.  The flowers are almost too tiny to be seen with the naked eye, the iphone camera does a great job of enlarging them.

Even smaller is this white-flowering rambling Erica.  Seamus helpfully stood beside the plant so that you can get an idea of just how very tiny the flowers are.  Then I used the iphone camera with a microlens to get a decent image of the flowers which are very white with little teeth on the edges.  When this shrub finds a place it likes it spreads and spreads and swarthes of land are covered in it in sections.

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