The mixed bushveld of the Steelpoort river valley presents some of the more astonishing plant diversity displays South Africa has to offer. It is not called the Sekhukhuneland Centre of Plant Endemism for nothing! Imagine being allowed here to explore some of the bush on foot, where tourism has hardly reached and agriculture has been carried out in a notably mild manner. Imagine further that you are allowed to take home (legally, as part of an official Government authorized programme!), the special plants of your choice from the wealth of interesting indigenous species that grow here, to plant in your own garden. You may hardly know where to start!
And this is exactly the privilege that Operation Wildflower members have been enjoying since commencing their official plant collection visits to the De Hoop Dam area on 29 November 2008. It all began with a decision of the National Government to build a huge dam in the Steelpoort River, as part of the country’s long term water provision strategy. The terrain behind the huge dam wall, which is currently under construction, will be under water within a few years and the vegetation in the dam basin will then, unfortunately, be no more. Part of the strategy of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry for dealing with this, has been an agreement with Operation Wildflower for removing indigenous plants from the designated area before the inundation. A process for orderly removal and minimizing negative effects was agreed to for Operation Wildflower members to follow. You can inspect our objectives and modus operandi regarding procedural commitments elsewhere on this website.
Operation Wildflower members have been conducting such indigenous plant collections for nearly fifty years at many sites in South Africa, where plants had to make way for development. And our active members have interesting gardens to show for it. Unfortunately factors such as fuel costs, old age among the stalwarts and slow uptake of gardening (especially indigenous gardening) among the previously disadvantaged citizens, have limited the growth of this very rewarding hobby. But new members are joining all the time and quickly overcome the challenges involved in searching the bush and effective transplantation of lesser known plant species. Many are soon hooked and thoroughly enjoy the exercise with their families.
We all know that indigenous vegetation is being reduced inexorably by development. And this cannot stop while uncontrolled human population growth continues. A totally new mindset is required for nature to become safe from destruction and people are today not nearly ready to make such decisions. Operation Wildflower members sometimes remove plants from areas that they would rather see turned into botanical gardens for enjoyment by all into perpetuity from which no plant removal can occur! But such decisions are rightly made beyond our level, balancing many factors in the interests of people as well as nature. Conservation is not really foremost in people’s minds as far as deciding the direction of these policies. Ideally there will come a time when population numbers should stabilize to save the earth and no more plant collections from the wild will be allowed, because the remaining natural areas will be sacrosanct by unwavering agreement. Associations like Operation Wildflower will then only propagate plants from seeds and cuttings for exchange among members to plant in their gardens. But as long as the bulldozers keep pushing into new ground, we’ll keep looking for the opportunities to do the last minute rescuing!
Every De Hoop Dam visit is restricted to a specific part of the targeted area, to increase the effectiveness of systematic removal of valued plants. Participants not only sign a code of conduct for committing to the rules for an orderly process, but are guided at all times by the attending Trustees to adhere to requirements set in terms of conservation considerations. Local help for doing some of the digging has been obtained at De Hoop via an agreed procedure against payment.
So, what has been collected to date? Members of Operation Wildflower in good standing have to date conducted eight plant rescue trips to the designated area and 8740 indigenous plants have been transplanted in their private gardens. About 134 member visits have thus taken place on these eight occasions. It is estimated that over 250 tonnes of plant material have been removed from the De Hoop area.
And the plant species taken? The aloes dominate! So many Operation Wildflower members are aloe aficionados! More than two thirds of all the collected plants are aloes, even though only six aloe species have so far been found in the area. These are: Aloe globuligemma (3579 plants or 40% of all plants collected to date!), Aloe castanea (1256 plants or more than 14% of all plants collected), Aloe burgersfortensis (942 plants), Aloe cryptopoda (175 plants), Aloe minima (4 plants) and Aloe marlothii (3 plants). Our records also show that 27 aloe hybrids have been found and removed by the members. Hybrids may yet provide surprises to their new owners when flowering!
The domination by a few species is a function of both availability and people’s preferences. The favourite globuligemmas will probably remain popular as more members start participating, although some stalwarts may get their fill of the same species as their gardens fill up. The globuligemma, castanea and burgersfortensis aloes are still available in their thousands in the target area. And Aloe marlothii is more prevalent on some farms to be accessed later, as the collections move higher up the valley.
Notice the relative rarity of the lesser known Aloe minima that is small and easily missed in spite of careful searching. Operation Wildflower collections resemble treasure hunts with unexpected rewards for the patient member! Most people who keep looking around diligently and walk a little further, will be rewarded by encountering something exciting.
As for rare plants, the non-aloe species that have been collected thus far show both the ‘needle in the haystack’ phenomenon and the patterns of individual members’ collection preferences. Plant preferences may be partly a function of knowledge, as some experts tend to spot the way-out rarities, easily not noticed or valued by the untrained eye. Some members will again deliberately walk past the species that they have tried to transplant too many times in the past without success. There are also specialists looking for orchids, bulbs or other exclusive groupings. And some people have special garden niches or features in mind. One can also just imagine the crowdedness of some indigenous gardens as you see members return year after year to collect more plants. Or their success rate may be very low!
Of the 71 plant species collected so far at De Hoop, 33 species yielded less than ten plants each, whilst in five cases only one specimen of a particular species was recorded. Notable among these less common species (locally), were: Asparagus intricatus, Bonatea antennifera, Ceropegia ampliata, Ceropegia stapeliiformis, Commelina modesta, Euphorbia limpopoensis, Kleinia longiflora, Momordica foetida, Rhoicissus sekhukhuniensis, Stylochiton natalense and Talinum arnotii. There are, however, also perennial favourites that get taken again and again, like Eulophia leachii, Eulophia petersii, Euphorbia schinzii, Gerbera jamesonii, Ipomoea magnusiana, the Kalanchoes, the Ledebourias, the Plectranthuses, Kleinia stapeliiformis, Pterodiscus ngamicus, Scadoxus multiflorus, Stapelia gettliffei and the Zantedeschias. Crinum macowanii and some of the Albucas have made some elderly members act years younger than the age they displayed just day before their visits, handling picks and shovels with exemplary gusto!
There were on most occasions some plants that defied identification, at least partly. The knowledge of members present on the day sometimes only reached the genus, but not the specific level. Such plants included members of the Drimiopsis, Lycium and Senecio genera, whilst some plants were only recorded as bulbs, orchids, ferns, shrubs or herbs. This may mean even more diversity encountered than noted, once these surprise packet plants flower in their new garden homes, bringing pleasure to their adopted caretakers (or parents, owners?).
Some knowledgeable members are also willing teachers, always ready to help the network botanize. They are popular with the novices for solving numerous identification riddles and spreading plant knowledge still a little further; a truly worthwhile pastime! Being an active member of Operation Wildflower is an extraordinary experience with rewards of seeing, doing and learning memorable things! Many of them are botanical, but not all. Try it!