The secret life of plants



The secret life of plants
The greatest wildflower show on Earth brings tens of thousands of visitors to Namaqualand and the West Coast each spring to witness the sexiest part of the plants’ lifecycle. If you keep your eyes open, it’s also a chance to discover the secret life of plants. Story and pictures by Marion Whitehead

We were standing on a koppie on a glorious spring morning, dwarfed by large proteas on one side and trying not to tread on tiny little shaving brush succulents in a rock pool at our feet, when Chris du Plessis popped his biggest joke of the morning’s flower tour at Elandsberg Eco Farm outside Clanwilliam. “Plants are more intelligent than people,” he said, quite deadpan. “If you don’t believe me, wait until you hear a politician speak.”

We laughed heartily because we knew he spoke the truth. He’d already let us in on a few plant secrets, such as how the bearded proteas rotate their leaves during the course of a hot day to present the narrowest surface to the blazing West Coast sun and minimise loss of water through transpiration.

And we’d seen evidence of human foolishness just a couple of days previously in the flower fields of Namaqualand: addled tourists cavorting and rolling among the blossoms like giant pollinators, only to get up once their selfies were taken and leave behind flattened, bruised petals.

In a stark, arid valley between Okiep and Concordia, the daisies had turned the veld into a brilliant orange carpet in their bid to attract pollinators and laid on a feast of pollen for bees, beetles and anything with a suitable proboscis. It was pretty obvious the tourists’ assorted parts didn’t qualify – and which species was the more intelligent. We’d laughed it off at the time, thinking how silly humans can get when faced with the exhilarating sight of so many flowers in their reproductive prime.

But now here was Chris holding out a white rain daisy (Dimorphotheca pluvialis) and presenting us with another truth: “This is not a white flower.” We laughed again. Strictly speaking, he was right of course. The white “petals” are really ray-florets and protect the real flowers which are tiny. “Insects can’t see white. The real flowers are here in the purple centre; the yellow is the pollen.”

Chris isn’t a botanist, but his wife Annette calls him a passionist when it comes to plants. A tour with him was a real eye opener into the secret life of plants. A short ride up a koppie on his ancient safari vehicle with stops to walk in the veld presented a whole new world. Plants have intricate survival strategies to maximise energy inputs and plan their outputs very carefully.

“Plants don’t waste energy,” he explained. “At night this daisy closes up to protect it’s pollen and opens again only when it’s warm and pollinators are active.” To be sure the flower warms up nicely, the back of the ray-florets are not white (which would reflect heat away), but a pale yellow flecked with pink.

Neither does the daisy put all its eggs in one basket, so to speak. It makes two different sets of seeds: the first type germinates opportunistically after the first rain, and the second type later, after the ground is wetter. So flower tourists in the know are grateful for the occasional rainy day on their travels as it keeps the next wave of blossoms on the roll.

We also discovered that some clever plants manufacture their own sunblock. It’s the red stuff around the edge of leaves and some new leaves are entirely red. “This protects them against the ultraviolet rays of the sun; also, insects don’t eat them either,” said Chris comparing a new waboom protea leaf with a waxy old one.
And those colourful protea “flowers” that they go into rhapsodies about at the Chelsea flower show are really perches for sugarbird pollinators. The bright bracts protect the inner, small flowers where tiny mites hang out, a bit like in a bus stop, waiting for a bird to poke its beak in so that they can hitch a ride to the next flower and meet more girl and boy mites. A good reason not to try sticking your nose into a protea to see if it has a scent!

Next we met a plant with a cooling system like an old Volksie engine. Muralitia heisteria or voeltjiekanniesitnie has stiff leaves that taper to a spiny point. This not only protects it against being grazed, but is an air-cooling system that helps it disperse heat on hot summer days.

The lilac flowers of the tortoise berry (Nylandtia spinosa) were out early, a prelude to its red berries. “But it’s difficult for birds to get to the berries because of the plant’s pointy tips. Any vibration causes the ripe seeds to drop to the ground where tortoises can eat them. The seeds will only germinate once they’ve been through a tortoise’s digestive system,” revealed Chris.

Buchu had its own reasons for playing it bloomin’ cool. “Like the rest of the citrus family, it has tiny glands in its leaves so it can secrete a cloud of vapour on a hot day to deter insects,” explained Chris. “But it flowers in the cool season so it doesn’t deter pollinators.”

And if you thought all pollen was the same when it comes to reproduction, think again: each grain carries its own ID in a set of hooks or keys, so there’s no cross-pollination between different species. Some plants like restios rely on wind to carry pollen from male to female, but most flowers are out there punting for pollinators to do the job.

In case the goggas are not as bright as the plants, some resort to putting up very clear signage. Chris had us peering into the pale blue flowers of the agtdaegeneesbos (Lobostemon fruticosus) to look for landing strips: two dark lines pointing unmistakeably to the spot where the insect would brush against the stamens and pick up a load of pollen to carry to the next bloom. It was all so carefully planned we were gobsmacked.

Spending a couple of hours with Chris at Elandsberg Eco Farm learning about plant survival strategies opened our eyes and made us appreciate the floral wonders as we travelled. To get the most out of our spring flower spotting trip, we’d started in early August at Springbok and Okiep in the north, where the weather was already warm enough to bring out the blossoms after good winter rains, and moved south with the season as petal power came alive.

We based ourselves next door to the Namaqua National Park at the little Kamieskroon Hotel where it was easy to pick the brains of other guests for the best sightings and get advice from genial host Helmut Kohrs, on whose recommendation we drove some pretty back routes. These gave a better idea of the 3 500 plants that bloom in Namaqualand in spring – the daisy-clad valleys are just a tiny proportion, but get all the attention. Afterwards we wondered if this was a diversionary tactic by the plant intelligentsia to ensure the survival of the more delicate blooms?

Around Vanrhynsdorp, we found the rains had made the inhospitable Knersvlakte spill its secrets like an excited kid in a candy store: what look like stones the rest of the year were popping out brilliant blooms. At Knersvlakte Spens, their ‘pantry’ was full of fascinating stone flowers or bababoutjies and owner Buys Wiese explained how they conserve their energy through the long dry summer so that they can thrive in the brief wet spell.

On the coast at Velddrif, a place more famous for its birdlife, we were surprised to find the former rubbish tip at the town’s northern entrance transformed into bright carpets of white and gold daisies – a great example of successful rehabilitation, harnessing the power of plants.

But we’d got ahead of the season and when we reached the West Coast National Park, only a few adventurous blooms such as lachenalias and opportunistic rain daisies were peeping their petals out to test the temperature and the best was yet to come. One needs more than a week to uncover the secret lives of plants…


Article first appeared in Country Life.

Hebron Highway Hospitality, Piekenierskloof Pass 022 921 2595 | 082 903 4463 |
Knersvlakte Spens near Vanrhynsdorp 082 829 8669 | 076 391 4700
Garies Toeristestal 027 652 1220 | 072 178 7390
Kliphuis Kombuis, Kamieskroon 027 672 1098 | 084 601 0485

Kamieskroon Hotel offers the warm hospitality of a simple country inn and serves good table d’hote. 027 672 1614 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |
Elandsberg Eco Farm near Clanwilliam has two apartments with kitchenettes in a glorious indigenous garden. 027 482 2022 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |
Duinepos in the West Coast National Park is a collection of chalets geared for families and groups. 022 707 9900, 083 704 7067 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |

Flower-spotting tips
Follow the season: depending on the winter rains, flowers bloom from early August in the Springbok area and the trend spreads south to Nieuwoudtville, Clanwilliam and Darling as the weather warms up throughout September.

Snooze ‘n cruise: there’s no need to get up early as the carpets of daisies open for business only when the temperature reaches around 17 deg C mid morning.

Turn your back on the sun: drive or walk with the sun behind you, so the flowers face you.

Be open minded: the dazzling carpets of daisies are not the only show in the platteland in spring – bulbs and hundreds of other flowers are also at their titillating best and many of them open even on dull days, so don’t pack up when clouds cover the sun.

Pick people's brains: stay at places where you can find out about the current flower hotspots from your hosts and fellow guests.

Stop for koffie en koek: it's a matter of road safety on these long stretches of road and farm stalls serve great food and are good sources of current flower info.

Check flower show dates: they take place when blooms in that area are expected to be at their best.
Clanwilliam 27 Aug- 5 Sept
Hopefield 27 - 30 Aug
Darling 18-20 September
Bredasdorp 27-30 August
Hermanus 24-27 September
West Coast Tourism publishes a flower report during the season. 022 433 8505 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |