From The Archives – Trip to the Ruwenzoris

By Rod Saunders

The belief that the source of the Nile lay amongst snow clad mountains on the equator  goes back 2500 years. In the 5th century BC Aescylus wrote of “Egypt nourished by melting snow” Aristotle too, wrote of “mountains of silver lying to the south west of the Nile”. “Not so”, said Herodotus “it is too hot for snow to exist at those latitudes”.  This attitude existed right until the mid 19th century when the first sighting of Mt Kenya  and Kilimanjaro by Europeans, confirmed the existence of snow capped peaks on the equator.

During the 2nd century AD Ptolemy produced a remarkable map in which he depicted the Nile flowing from 2 lakes which were fed by a range of mountains extending in an east west direction. He named them “Lunae Montes” – the mountains of the moon.

The head waters of the Nile remained elusive to Europeans until 1888 when two members of HM Stanley’s expedition were camped somewhere west of Lake Albert and caught sight of a range of snow capped mountains to the south east.  When Stanley saw the mountains, he gave them the name Ruwenzori, which means “Mountain of Snow”.

The Ruwenzoris are Africa’s greatest and highest range of mountains extending along the west border of Uganda for about 120km.  They are complex in their layout and 6 of the massifs have glacial ice caps.  The highest peak is Mt Stanley with the twin peaks of Alexandra and Margherita.

Sometime in the second half of 2005 we had dinner with Peter Linder during one of his visits to South Africa from Zurich University in which he mentioned almost casually that he was visiting the Ruwenzoris with one of his PhD students on a field trip and if anyone was interested, he would like the company.  We confirmed that he was serious and promptly booked tickets to Entebbe.  Early January 2006 saw us picking up a car in Kampala and negotiating the city traffic (chaotic), looking for roads, unnamed, and addresses unnumbered!  By a miracle Rachel guided us to the hotel, and we met up with our companions, Peter and his student Berit.  The following day we drove to Kasese at the foot of the Ruwenzoris, found an hotel, and prepared our food and fuel for 9 days, and somewhat incongruously in the stifling heat, crampons, ice axes, ropes, cold weather and snow gear!  The next morning after a short drive to the Ruwenzori Mountain Services (RMS) headquarters at Ibanda, we finally arrived at the foot of the mountains. Our lives were taken charge of for the next 9 days – we were allotted 3 guides and 15 porters, and 2 hours later we set off.  The first part of the journey took us along the river, through rural Uganda, past gardens of bananas, coffee, taro, and occasionally vanilla.  After about an hour, we entered the National Park with long grass and thickets of pink flowered Acanthus pubescens reaching well over our heads.  Erythrina abyssinica in full bloom provided splashes of colour and were being visited by numerous sunbirds.  As we got closer to the mountains, the vegetation changed to equatorial rain forest, great buttressed trees reaching up 30 to 40 meters in height.  The ground storey of vegetation was a combination of Impatiens runsorrensis, Begonia meyeri-johannis, 2 species of Piper – P capense and P guineense, and various stinging nettles.  Where a gap in the trees afforded a view over the forest, large trees of Symphonia globulifera were blooming with masses of red flowers.  One of the more dominant trees familiar to us was Polyscias fulva, with its distinctive bicoloured foliage.  Somewhere we had to gain 1200m to attain the first hut at Nyabitaba.  The path meandered along the contour for a while,a nd then reached a ridge where a serious ascent followed, unrelenting and steep.  Subtly at first, the tropical forest changed, and at the end of the ascent we found ourselves in afromontane forest with many familiar species that we were able to identify.  Ilex mitis, Olea capensis, Podocarpus latifolius, Faurea saligna, Prunus africana, Cussonia arborea and Maytenus acuminata.  A highlight of the day was seeing our first Scadoxus cyrtanthiflorus, not in flower, but never the less, unmistakable and exciting to see.  My accompanying guide was somewhat scornful of my excitement, and said “tomorrow you will see many, and in flower!”

At the head of the ridge we reached the hut beautifully situated in the forest – a most welcome sight. Nearby was a water pipe bringing water from the lake above, under which we were able to squat and douse ourselves with ice cold water. After the hot ascent, most welcome.  Nearby we noticed a number of shrubs which we later identified later as Pentas zanzibarica var intermedia, covered in white and pinkish flowers.

The next day commenced with a steep half hour drop down to the confluence of the Mbuku and Bjuku Rivers which we crossed by means of a well constructed suspension bridge.  Here we saw our first giant Lobelias – plants of L giberroa surrounded the bridge in large numbers, some in flower, some in bud and some in seed.

I found the lack of seasonality a bit disconcerting – one nearly always found a population of plants flowering, seeding or sending up new growth, all at the same time.

From the bridge the path set off determinedly, to gain 1000 meters before reaching our next destination at the John Matte hut situated at some 3500 meters.  We continued through the montane forest, and now we began to see huge swathes of Scadoxus cyrtanthiflorus under the trees, some going dormant and shedding their old leaves, many flowering and some in green seed.  The plants grow in much the same way as Clivia caulescens and sometimes have stems up to 1m long.  After some hours walking up we noticed a gradual change and the forest was giving way to bamboo Sinainaria alpina.  Any opening in the bamboo was covered in a showy bramble Rubus steudneri.  I made the mistake of picking some berries, and my guide muttered darkly that is was now going to rain which it promptly did!  It carried on raining or snowing or hailing for much of the time that we were on the circuit – not unusual I am told even if it is supposed to be the “dry” season!  Another exciting plant we saw in this region was Arisaema milbraedii, the “Snake’s head lily”, a striking aroid some 0.5m in height.  A short slog up a muddy slope brought us into the open and a view of the John Matte hut where we spent the night.

Rachel & Sam examining a Lobelia

We particularly looked forward to the next day’s walking as it would take us into the afro-alpine zone with its bizarre flora.  On setting off we left the Ericas behind they became smaller and were only on the warmer ridges.  Gradually the valley floor became covered with Helichrysum stuhlmanii bushes where it was better drained, and Alchemilla and moss where it was flatter and more water logged.  After an hour or two’s walking gradually uphill, we came over a low neck and there before us in the long flat valley were these outrageous plants – Lobelias with rosettes two men could barely encompass with their arms and flower spikes reaching 4 meters into the sky, Dendrosenecios over 8m tall and looking like trees that children draw.  The valley floor, however, was boggy,  and our route went through the middle of it – wet muddy and cold feet were the order for the next 6 days.  Over the next 3 to 4 hours walking, the vegetation became denser, the Dendrosenecios bigger and more closely packed, and evermore Lobelias sometimes growing on the valley floor in their thousands.  The plants matched their surroundings – the vertical walls of the valleys reaching loftily into the clouds.  After a short climb we reached Lake Bujuku, which we were told is surrounded by snow capped peaks, but because of the cloud cover we were denied a view of the summits.  Huge screes met the waters edge on the far shore and everywhere, large Dendrosenecios.  We horrified our guides by saying that we wanted to swim in the Lake, but we couldn’t reach the water because of knee deep mud.  From the Lake it was only a short walk to the Bujuku Hut, situated at 4000m.  All of us were looking for a bit of extra air, and a quick walk up the slope to fetch water left us breathless, hands on knees, and gasping.  We settled down outside the hut with a cup of tea and contemplated our surroundings. As so often happens, shortly before sunset, the clouds cleared and we were treated to a view of the surrounding peaks – behind us Mount Speke, to the right Mount Stanley and ahead of us, Mount Baker, all of them snow clad and capped with glaciers.

The next day we spent botanising around the hut and up Stuhlmann’s Pass.  The ficklenss of the weather was impressed upon us. While we were having tea in a rock shelter over the top of Stuhlmann’s pass, it started to rain.  Within minutes it turned to dry hard frozen sleet, and then it started to snow, and did so for most of the day until the vegetation and all of the slopes had a substantial layer of snow.

Olav Hedberg, a plant physiologist knowledgeable on afro alpine plants, wrote that the Ruwenzori is a region where it is summer every day and winter every night, and snow may fall on any of 365 days of the year.

After our day at Bujuku we made ready to walk to Elena Hut which is at the foot of the glacier coming off Mt Stanley, and situated at 4430m in a zone where vascular plants do not grow and only mosses and lichens occur.  Each step of the trail gained us altitude and more and more breath taking views of surrounding peaks and valleys.  At the top of the pass to the hut we came upon an area littered with large boulders and almost entirely covered in lichen and moss, with only a few Dendrosenecios managing to survive.  On ascending further, these too disappeared and we came to steep glacier polished rocks, slippery with ice and snow.  Proceeding cautiously and very slowly, we reached the hut, perched on slabs of black rock with the glacier looming over it.

Having come so far, Peter, Berit and I were keen to climb Marghuerita, the highest peak in the Ruwenzoris, while Rachel elected to proceed slowly down to Kitandara Hut.  We were up at 5.30am the next day for an early start and after an enjoyable but icy trip, we returned to the hut at 2 in the afternoon, exhausted.  After sustenance and lots of strong coffee, we felt strong enough to tackle the descent to Kitandara Hut.  We retraced our steps over the treacherous rocks and reached the top of the Scott Elliot – back into the land of vegetation.  The descent into the Kitandara Valley was dramatic.  Below us the twin lakes beckoned enticingly and every step the vegetation became thicker and more interesting.  On our left the sheer walls of Mt Baker rose vertically 1000m from the valley floor.  Our guides cautioned us to speak quietly for fear of falling rocks. The number of rocks and impact craters on the valley floor were testimony to the danger.

As we descended further we saw plants of the unusual and striking Hypericum bequaertii, a Ruwenzori endemic. The trees were flowering prolifically and were covered in 3cm red bell flowers which hang like inverted tulips.  On reaching the first Lake we stripped off our clothes and took a hasty dip in the lake.  The water was ice cold and we didn’t linger, but felt refreshed afterwards.  The hut itself was beautifully situated overlooking the second lake and surrounded by Dendrosenecios and Hypericum bequaertii.  We made an early start the next morning to enable us to get over the Freshfield Pass at 4282m and make our way down to the next hut, the Guy Yeoman hut, at 3261m.  We paused at the top of the pass to get our breath, make tea and admire the view, and then began the slippery muddy descent to the valley floor, and out of the afro-alpine zone back into the Erica forest.  The forest was like something out of Lord of the Rings, with huge distorted Erica trees 20 to 30m tall.  The trees were draped with Old Man’s Beard (Usnia), sometimes hanging down for over a meter.  The forest floor was covered in moss and where there were openings along the river and too wet for Ericas, giant Lobelias grew in their thousands.  At this stage the sun obligingly appeared and it made the final stages of the walk to the Hut an other worldly experience.

We arrived at the hut muddy and filthy, and all made for the river to wash before the temperature dropped and before the ritual evening sundowner!

The next morning it was pouring with rain, and our guides, normally laid back, were now pressing us to pack and hurry, for the rivers were rising and we had 3 major river crossings to make.  We managed the journey down to our last hut relatively unscathed.  Rachel fell into the river but was grabbed by her attentive guide. Peter had a bad slip on some vertical rocks and was also grabbed by an attentive guide. An unfortunate porter got washed off his feet – he was rescued, but alas lost one wellington boot and the pack that he was carrying.  We arrived at Nyabitaba Hut late in the afternoon, wet, muddy and bedraggled, but thankful that we were all safe.  We made good use of the water pipe again, this time not to wash off sweat, but to try to get rid of some of the persistent mud all down our legs and on our boots.

The short descent the next day took us out of the mountains and back to the RMS offices at the base.  The previous 9 days seemed dream like and we all agreed that it was one the best walks that we had ever done.




From The Archives – Elsie Esterhuizen by Rod Saunders

By Rod Saunders

Elsie Esterhuysen was born Observatory Cape Town on 11th April 1912.  Her father was Johannes Petrus Leroux Esterhuysen and he was Afrikaans speaking. Her mother was Florence Ethel Larken and she was English speaking.

Elsie, as far as is known, never spoke Afrikaans. English was her language despite the Afrikaans name.  Her father studied law at Stellenbosch and worked at the Master’s office at the Supreme Court in Cape Town. He was transferred to Windhoek, but her mother didn’t like the climate and he retired early.

Elsie attended Wynberg Girl’s high school in Cape Town, and after matriculating, she proceeded to UCT where she graduated with an MA degree in Botany in 1933.  The subject of her thesis was “The Anatomy of Myrothamnus flabellifolius”. It was obvious that anatomy held little attraction for her, and that field work was her abiding interest.  She had a brief period of employment as a clerk in the Education Dept.  Then she was awarded the Solly scholarship at Kirstenbosch in 1935.  There she made a detailed study of the fynbos regeneration after the felling of a 50 year old Pinus pinaster plantation.

In this same year, Elsie joined the Mt Club of SA (MCSA) and she remained a member until her death in 2006.  This membership was vital to her collecting activities.

Elsie had long wanted to be part of Dr Pole-Evans survey group in the Dept of Agriculture but was turned down merely because she was a woman.  It was felt that women were not strong enough to undertake the strenuous field work.  One of her classmates at UCT, John Ackocks, was accepted and went on to produce the famous Veld Types of South Africa.

In 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, Elsie accepted a position with Maria Wellamn, the Director of the McGregor Museum, in Kimberley.  At this time, she was undertaking a survey of the flora of Griqualand West.  After 2 years in Kimberley, Elsie returned to Cape Town in 1938 and joined the Bolus Herbarium, under Dr Louisa Bolus.  Her former Professors, Prof Robert Adamson and Prof Harold Compton (Harold Compton was a member of the MCSA since 1919) knew of her passion for mountains and suggested that she explore and document the high altitude flora of the Cape Mountains as Herbarium records were sparse or lacking.  Thus began her life work for the next 60 years during which time she made over 37 000 herbarium collections, the bulk of them collected from over 1000m in altitude.

The Mountain Club of South Africa connection.

During her stay in Kimberley, Maria Wellamn encouraged Elsie to get her driver’s license so that she could collect further afield.  All went well until one day, Elsie stalled the car on a railway crossing. She never drove again and preferred a bicycle as a means of transport.  The MCSA provided the means for Elsie to visit the mountains.

Seeing that Elsie did not drive and was beholden to others for motorized transport, the MCSA members weekly meets provided a means for Elsie to reach the highest peaks in the Western Cape.  She regularly attended July Camps in the Drakensberg and collected extensively there.  Many plants described by Hilliard and Burtt, experts on the Drakensberg flora, bear her collecting details.



Galpin 15 000
Compton 35 000 (8 000 in Swaziland)
Acocks 28 000
Drege 9 500
Ted Oliver 10 500 mainly Ericas
Mogg 40 000 throughout southern Africa
Elsie Esterhuysen 37 000


Elsie did not collect plants randomly. She would do extensive research on a family of plants, see where the gaps were and then collect extensively within that family. Some noteworthy examples were Rutaceae, Restios and Grasses, Ericaceae.  Her collecting activities were vital to the whole herbarium – she laid the grounds for Ted Oliver to do his work on Ericas and for Peter Linder for his work on restios and grasses.

From the Archives – Pollination, Collection of Bulb seed.

By Rod and Rachel Saunders

The life of South African bulbs and corms is finite, so it is important to hand pollinate this season’s flowers to obtain seed for re-sowing the following season.  This is particularly important for species of Sparaxis and Gladiolus which are quite capable of flowering themselves to death.  After one has pollinated the flowers and the seeds have set and ripened, the next step is to harvest the seeds and store it until the correct season for sowing.

In Iridaceae, most seeds take about 6 weeks to ripen, with some exceptions eg Watsonias which take longer and some Moraea species which are ripe in 4 weeks.  Ornithogalum, Albuca and Bulbinella seed is ripe about a month after flowering.  As the capsules ripen they will change colour slightly, take on a shrivelled appearance and splits will appear in the capsules at the tips.  At this stage the capsules may be harvested.  Under certain conditions green spikes may be harvested and ripened in a jar of water to which a pinch or two of sugar has been added.  As it is difficult to estimate the degree of ripeness of the seeds, I do not recommend this method unless one is desperate!  If the seed is well formed in the capsules and the endosperm is solid and no longer milky then it is reasonably successful.  Having said this, some seeds such as those of Lachenalias, with L. rubida a good example, have a long after-ripening period.  The flowering stem dies off soon after seed set, and the whole spike separates from the bulb.  In cases such as this, the spike with the green capsules can be collected, placed in a paper bag and left in a cool place to ripen.

Seed is very nutritious and is host to a number of parasites.  It is therefore very important to treat the seed with an insecticide immediately it has been harvested.  I always use Karbadust – it is freely available from nurseries and is relatively non-toxic to warm blooded animals.  Do not use any product containing Gamma BHC as this will inhibit seed germination.  The seed should be placed in a paper bag, Karbadust added, and the bag should be well shaken to ensure good coverage of the seeds.  On sowing the seeds, the excess dust can be sieved off.

Seed longevity varies from genus to genus, and it can be increased by storing the seeds at 4°C.  If stored at room temperature, most Irid seeds will germinate well for up to 2 years, for Gladioli and some Moraeas, it is less.  As a rule, their viability is short.  I have sown some 10 year old Dierama seed and obtained germination, but this is an exception.  Agapanthus seeds are notoriously short-lived (about 3 to 6 months) and should be stored in a refrigerator.  A cool dry place should be used for seed storage, away from light – better still, if you have the space, use a fridge.

In closing I have to stress how important hand pollination and seed collection is if you want to maintain the integrity of your bulb collection.

From The Archives – Seed Collecting in Africa

By Rod and Rachel Saunders

“What a wonderful job and what a wonderful life” is the reaction of most people when we tell them what we do.  And yes, sometimes it is, but, like all jobs, sometimes it isn’t!  Our job takes us all over Southern Africa from the southern most tip near Cape Town, to the north of Zambia, about 4 000km away; from the Atlantic Ocean in the west of Namibia to the Indian Ocean in the east.  We see deserts, grasslands and lush forests; rain, snow and boiling heat; mountains and rolling plains.  We also see environmental destruction on a massive scale, varying from pine and eucalyptus plantations to urban sprawl, golf estates, mining operations and agriculture such as wheatlands and vineyards.

To put it in a nutshell, what our job involves is travelling through the country collecting seeds from as many species as possible on the way.  We travel in a 4 wheel drive pick-up Landcruiser, and we walk as much as we can.  We have a small fridge in our car to keep the beers cold, and at night we sleep in a roof-top tent which keeps us away from the dust and dirt and animals on the ground.  We collect seeds in friend’s gardens, on road verges, on farms and in forests, on the sea-shore and high in the mountains.  And obviously, during our travels, we have many experiences, some wonderful, and some not so wonderful!

Firstly, the weather.  Living in a tent, walking in the mountains and collecting seeds, we are 100% exposed to whatever weather conditions the gods throw at us.  We have had several not to be recommended experiences in the mountains while walking, most of them involving rain and snow.  Once in the Drakensberg we spent the night in a cave high in the mountains close to the Lesotho border.  In the morning we set off in beautiful clear weather, sun shining warmly down and a gentle breeze.  As we walked into Lesotho over the collapsed border fence, for some reason I tied a small piece of plastic to the fence above the cave.  We walked all morning collecting seeds and had lunch near a clear and lovely stream.  Early in the afternoon we noticed some small clouds, which rapidly grew into bigger clouds and half an hour later we were enveloped in thick mist.  By then we had walked several kilometers, and we suddenly realized that we had to find one small cave in a large white landscape!  We kept our heads, turned in the direction that we thought we should be going and tried to walk in as straight a line as possible towards the escarpment. After 45 minutes or so, we hit the border fence, so our straight line was pretty good!  Keeping the fence on our left, we walked up hills and down valleys until we finally saw our little piece of plastic, waving in the breeze! With great relief we climbed over the fence, found the cave and had a hot cup of tea!  The next morning we woke up to thick snow on all the surrounding high peaks – a beautiful sight.

On another occasion we were walking in the Chimanimani Mountains in eastern Zimbabwe in winter, the dry season.  During the night, to our surprise, we heard the sound of rain on our tent.  By morning, our tent was floating and our flat plain had turned into a shallow lake!  We packed up in the rain and decided to head for our car which was parked at the base of the mountain, a day’s walk away.  We were unfortunately on the wrong side of a major river which drains the mountains, and we soon found that we couldn’t cross the river which was now in flood.  Our only option was to stay on our side of the river and to walk to a large and comfortable cave that we knew of 2 or 3 hours away.  So off we went, but our memories of the route were not too accurate and we had forgotten that we had to cross 3 side rivers, which of course were also in flood!  With our packs on our heads and clutching onto half submerged trees, we managed to get across them and by lunch time we reached the cave.  By then our clothes were soaked but our warm sleeping bags were dry, so we had lunch huddled in our bags at the back of the cave, watching the rain pouring down.  Later in the afternoon the rain stopped and a rather watery sun emerged from the clouds.  “By morning the river should be down and we will be able to cross easily” said Rod, so we spent the afternoon collecting wet seed into paper bags.  However, as the sun set, the clouds rolled back in and as we ate our rather meager supper, down poured the rain again!  By morning we felt desperate – our food was running out, the rain was still bucketing down, and a brief excursion to our little nearby stream showed us a raging torrent!  Clearly the main river would still be uncrossable.  Finally by lunch time the rain stopped and in the late afternoon we decided to pack up and walk as far as we could on our side of the river, and then try to cross.  So off we went.  Shortly before darkness fell we found a spot where the river narrowed with a large rock on our side.  Rod threw his rucksack across the river and then leapt after it, thankfully getting across.  After throwing my pack towards Rod, I jumped and was hauled across by my ski pole walking stick, landing with one foot in the river.  I burst into tears with relief, and after sorting ourselves out, we walked until we found a level spot where we put up the tent and ate our last slice of bread for dinner!

Normally however, we curse the heat far more than the cold and rain, and we more often collapse exhausted and hot into cold mountain pools to seek relief.  Often while driving through the Karoo or Namaqualand, we look for farm dams or reservoirs, and leap in, sometimes clothes and all to cool off.

Obviously the weather also has a huge effect on the seeds that we are collecting.  If it has been too dry, we frequently find no seed at all – the flowers simply fade away, setting no seed.  If it is too cold and wet, the same may occur as most pollinators need temperatures of at least 16 C to fly.  Cold weather also affects the time seeds take to ripen – most Irid seeds normally ripen in 6 weeks, but cold weather can retard this to as long as 8 weeks.  Similarly hot dry weather can shorten ripening to 5 or even 4 weeks.  This results in our most frequent lament “green or gone!”.  Particularly annoying when one has traveled 1000km to collect some special seed, to find one missed it by a week!  If we find slightly green seed, it can often be ripened in jars of water which are precariously arranged in the back of our vehicle, but there is nothing one can do about “gone” seed.

Secondly, the actual process of seed collecting can also be “hazardous”.  Like the day we were collecting seed of Rhus pendulina, a large tree frequently used as a street tree in low rainfall towns.  We collected the seed into an upturned umbrella which is efficient and very quick, and transferred it into a paper bag.  We then went into the local shop to buy some lunch, and drove on our way.  About 10km further on, Rod suddenly shrieked “There’s something in my beard. STOP!!”  I hurriedly stopped, peered into his beard, and burst out laughing – it was a baby chameleon!  It had obviously fallen out of the tree into his beard while we were collecting the Rhus seeds.  We wondered how many people in the shop had noticed, but its camouflage was perfect!

Another amusing encounter with chameleons was on a cold winter’s day in Johannesburg.  We were collecting Combretum seeds – these seeds hang in clusters and are easy to collect in great handfuls.  As I grabbed a bundle of seeds, I felt a cold and almost clammy thing in my hand, and dropped it with a scream.  We dug around in the seeds to see what it was and found a tiny chameleon in hibernation in the middle of the seed cluster!  Rod make some remark about feeble hysterical women, but a minute or two later he also let out a scream – he had found one too!

Another day was potentially more disastrous.  Rod went wandering off while I packed up the lunch, and suddenly he came running back, waving his arms and shouting “Get into the car” – so I did!  He opened the door and leapt in, together with a large number of bees, buzzing angrily around his head.  He had unfortunately chosen to have a pee on top of a bee nest, in the ground under some grass!  They had taken exception to this, and had come out fighting!  African bees have a well deserved reputation for being fierce, and fierce they were.  Rod drove off rapidly and opened all the windows trying to shoo the bees out. He got stung about 10 times, but I am allergic to bee stings, so my efforts at bee removal were frantic!  We stopped a short distance down the road to clear the car of the last stragglers and I realized that I had a bee under my shirt.  Without thinking I desperately tore my shirt off, to the amazement of all the motorists on the busy highway, but I didn’t get stung!

Travelling as we do in some very out-of-the-way places, we often encounter wild life of varying sorts.  One day in Namibia we were lucky to see a herd of gemsbok, 2 jackals and a pair of honey badgers early one morning in the middle of the Namib Desert.  In the Drakensberg we were woken up one night by noises around our tent, and we realized that something was eating our ripening seeds propped up in their jars of water.  We leapt up shouting and whatever it was ran off.  We went back to sleep muttering about “damn donkeys, the scourge of Africa”.  Next morning we peered out of the tent to find a herd of Eland, looking longingly at our Agapanthus and Galtonia  seed spikes which were now safely out of reach.  Not donkeys at all!

And of course we quite often see snakes – sometimes pythons or mambas that reach right across the road, but more often fat lazy puff adders, very poisonous snakes which often bite when walked on.  They love the warmth of the road, and because most people run over them deliberately if they see them, we always stop to move them from danger.  We carry a long handled pole pruner with us, and it is very useful for prodding snakes out of the road!

Probably our funniest encounter with wild life was the day we met an ostrich!  We were walking in a nature reserve in Swaziland and suddenly noticed that we were being followed by an ostrich.  It was right behind us, and each time we stopped to look at a plant, it stopped too, and scratched around in the soil, looking for insects to eat.  We walked about 6 or 7 km, with our ostrich accompanying us all the way.  We came round a corner and almost fell over a litter of warthog babies which seemed to have lost their mum.  They ran towards us, squealing madly, and we nearly had a fit – warthog mothers are extremely fierce and charge without hesitating, and we didn’t really want to meet mum!  We turned round and fled, and our ostrich fled with us – she obviously didn’t want to meet mum either!  All 3 of us walked back to the camp site for supper – a barbecue for us and bread for the ostrich!

We do quite often have problems with donkeys, cattle and sheep, particularly with bulb seeds.  Normally each year we try to visit an area in flower, and then we go back 5 to 7 weeks later for seed.  And frequently during our absence, the farmer puts his stock into the field, and that’s the end of our seeds.  Particularly Gladiolus spikes and almost always, it is a rare Gladiolus that grows a long way from home!

Another strange problem we have had was with mice.  Quite a few of the seeds that we collect are expelled from their seed capsules by an explosive or extrusion mechanism.  Explosive capsules include the Rutaceae such as Agathosmas and Coleonemas, and those that are pushed out or simply fall out include Proteaceae such as Paranomus and Serruria, and Irids such as Nivenias.  The simplest method of collecting these seeds is to either envelop the entire plant in a net made of net-curtain material, or to cover the flower head with a stocking tied around the base.  One hot summer’s day we spent a couple of  hours at a population of Serruria tying stockings onto old flower heads with string.  About a month later we returned to the site to see if the seeds had been released yet, and found that they had.  So we began removing the stockings, untying them carefully over a paper bag to catch any seeds that fell out. As Rod clutched a stocking prior to untying the string, it wriggled!  He jumped backwards in fright and then burst out laughing as a mouse peered out of a hole, whiskers bristling!  Protea seeds are oily and very nutritious, and a population of lucky mice had discovered our bags full of seeds.  Needless to say, we got no Serruria seeds that year!

However, despite all the hazards and trials and tribulations, we do have some good days too.  Those early spring days in the Cape mountains when the weather is warm but not too hot, the ground is wet from the previous day’s rain and the flowers are magnificent.  Or summer days in the rolling foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in undisturbed high altitude grasslands.  This is the habitat for sheets of Kniphofias, hundreds of species of ground orchids, Agapanthus and Eucomis in the gullies and Lammergeier eagles soaring above.  Or if seed collecting becomes too much on wet rainy days or on hot summer days, we can always go wine tasting at one of the    wineries in the SW Cape, or head for the beach!  Then we agree with all those people who think we have a wonderful life!

Having collected all our seeds  in various parts of South Africa, the cleaning and processing has to begin.  In fact, it begins even before we get home.

The first processing begins the same evening as the collection was made.  All the seed packets are fully labelled – a date of collection, a name of some sort (often a tentative guess!), and locality details.  Sometimes there may also be a reference to a digital photograph number on the packet, or when we really couldn’t identify the species, a reference to a herbarium sheet that we made of the plant.  In the car we carry as many books as we can – usually 8 or 10 selected according to our itinerary and the time of year.  In July (mid-winter) we collect mainly tree seeds in the summer rainfall areas of the country, and there are virtually no bulbous plants in flower, so we will take tree and shrub books and no bulb books.  In August and September we need books on Namaqualand annuals, bulbs, Ericas, shrubs and trees, and more.  The books most frequently used are those with good keys and preferably illustrations of some sort such as Field Guides and specialised books on genera such as Gladiolus, Ixia, Kniphofia etc.  However we also often use books such as “Cape Plants” by Peter Goldblatt and John Manning which is simply a list of all the species in the Cape Floral Kingdom, with basic keys and basic descriptions.  Whichever books we have with us, we can be sure that there is at least one that would have been more useful which is sitting on the shelf at home!

On our travels we carry a set of laboratory sieves in one of the crates in the car, and if the seed is dry, we sieve it to get rid of unwanted bulk, and also to get rid of some of the insects which are lurking in the seed capsules.  Kniphofias and Aloes are particularly bad in this respect – they are obviously very nutritious and the shape of the seed capsules is just right for insects of all sorts to hide in.  The seeds are then dusted with a relatively mild insecticide to prevent further insect damage.

Tree seed poses particular problems of bulk as it often has pods or other bulky capsules which need to be crushed or split to release the seeds.  Sometimes all that is required to open a pod, especially Bauhinias, is warm air circulating around them.  We place the un-open pods in sacks on the roof of the car and leave them there for a day or two as we travel. As the pods split they often go off with a bang like a pistol shot which is sometimes loud enough to wake us at night!  Others, such as Acacia pods, can be split by hand, and this is done on the journey by whoever is not driving.  However, some Acacia pods are indehiscent and the seed is only released when the pod is eaten by game or livestock.  The pods have a sweetish smell and are normally brittle and hard, and they are eagerly sought out by game.  To reduce the bulk of these, we place the pods in sacks and jump up and down on them, thereby crushing the capsules and releasing the seed.  The resulting debris is sieved and the seeds retained.  In this way, 30 – 40kg of raw material is reduced to a few hundred grams of clean seed.

Fleshy seed is usually cleaned the same day if water is available. If not, then it is packed into a leak proof container on the roof of the car where it cannot contaminate other dry seed.  We carry a bucket and a large basin with us, so that seeds can be cleaned in rivers when available, or under taps in camp sites.

On the whole, bulbous plant seed is fairly simple – it is not normally too bulky, so requires a minimal amount of pre-cleaning. It is simply labelled and treated with insecticide, and put away.

And where does all this seed fit?  When we pack our car, most things are packed into stackable plastic crates – food, rucksacks, boots, books etc. There are also many empty crates, both on the roof of the car and in the back.  The seeds in their brown paper packets, are sealed with sticky tape, and are packed into these crates. The crates have holes in the sides and bottoms, so they allow good air circulation.  This is important as there is almost always residual moisture in the seeds, and we certainly don’t want to arrive home with moist and mouldy seeds.

On arriving home, the seed is unpacked and systematically sorted.  First to be cleaned is recalcitrant and perishable seed, so this is all packed into 1 crate.  Next in line is all the fleshy seed which must be cleaned before it ferments and gets too disagreeable!  Then the seeds with the most insect pests – Irids and other bulbous plant seeds, Aloes, Acacias and other legumes.  The harder more “insect resistant” seeds are left until the end, as are the succulents such as mesems, and the host of unidentified nightmares!

The term “recalcitrant” is used to describe a type of seed that does not conform to normality.  These seeds have no dormancy mechanism and regardless of conditions, they will germinate immediately on being separated from the parent plant.  Most of the South African amaryllids (except Cyrtanthus) fall into this category (including Nerines, Brunsvigias, Crinums etc).  If we don’t have a customer for these seeds immediately, we store them at 4°C to slow their germination, often in damp vermiculite to prevent them from drying out.  If we are on a long trip, we usually send these seeds home by post and they are cleaned by our staff at work.

Fleshy seeds are steeped in water overnight, and the flesh is then pulverized so that it floats away with the water while the heavier seeds sink to the bottom of the bucket.  Often several changes of water are required before the flesh is finally removed.  Some seeds such as those of Sclerocarya birrea (marula, a large tree with edible fruit) have flesh which adheres firmly to the seed and it cannot be removed easily.  Either these seeds are left in a plastic bag in the sun for several days until the flesh begins to ferment and soften, or they are cleaned in a cement mixer.  Several kilograms of seed are placed in the cement mixer together with a quantity of stone chips, and this is rotated for several hours until all the flesh has been ground off. The seed is then washed and dried.

Legume seed is usually easy to clean, but because it is so palatable to insects, it needs to be processed quickly before it is all eaten.  For the same reason, bulbous plant seeds also need to be processed quickly.  These all follow the same routine – dry the capsules well, break them up and sieve out the seed.  All the small bits and pieces which go through the sieve with the seeds are winnowed off by blowing. Rod, who cleans most of the seed, wanders round the garden while doing this, resulting in all sorts of strange plants coming up in odd spots!  Although the seeds are heavier than the chaff, invariably some seeds blow off with the rubbish.  Gladiolus seeds differ a bit in that they are firmly attached to the capsules.  They are cleaned by drying them thoroughly so that the capsules open fully and expose the seeds, and then shaking the capsules in a bucket to release the seeds.

The cleaned seeds are usually put into new paper bags or packets, labelled carefully, treated with an insecticide if necessary, and are then fumigated with Phostoxin for 5 days to kill any insects that hatch after cleaning and any larvae still lurking amongst the seeds.

After 5 days, the seeds are moved to our seed room and are catalogued, all collecting information is recorded, and they are put away.  The seed room itself is regularly fumigated with a pyrethroid to deal with any insects that have come in from outside.  In the past we have had some really spectacular outbreaks of seed parasites, invariably in the bulb and Aloe seeds.  It is a seed merchant’s worst nightmare finding the seed room full of moths and beetles, and knowing that they have hatched somewhere amongst all the seed packets, or opening a packet of precious seed that took hours to collect, and finding that the seeds are full of holes!

If a plant has not been identified in the field, we will try to find a name at home where we have an extensive library and can key it out using one of the taxonomic monographs.  If we still can’t get a name, we will take it up to the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch and enlist the aid of a friendly botanist.  We are surprised how often we come up with a plant that is undescribed – sometimes it has been collected previously but still has no name, and sometimes it has never been collected before.  So far the list includes an Ixia, a Romulea, 2 Babianas and a Hesperantha that had not been seen for over 100 years. Often these discoveries occur because we are in the right place at the right time, and the right time is often an unusual time of year when botanists are not often in the field.  The Romulea was discovered because we could not tell the difference between 2 yellow flowered species growing side by side.  The only way we could distinguish between them was by the corm shape, and on digging up a corm of the new species, we realised that we had never seen anything like it before. The new species was named Romulea discifera, for the strange corm.  “There is always something new out of Africa”!!

Do we ever make mistakes? No never!  Well, hardly ever!  Well, sometimes!  Mistakes can occur because of the lack of flowers when one collects the seeds, so we are not always one hundred percent sure that the species we saw in flower is the same as the one whose seed we are collecting.  Or if we are dealing with a large and complex genus, we sometimes simply make a mistake using the key.  But sometimes the mistakes come about due to bad labelling!  If Rod has been cleaning many Gladiolus species, and then changes to Romuleas, we will sometimes land up with strange species such as Gladiolus amoena, or Romulea dalenii – luckily these mistakes are usually picked up and rectified by the person putting the seed away, or Rachel when she enters the details on the computer.

And finally, how are all the species recorded?  All the species that we collect are entered onto a database (Microsoft Access), with the family, genus and species, a description of the plant, and whether it is a bulbous plant, a succulent or a tree.  If the seeds were purchased from someone, the price paid and the source is also included.  This database is linked to a collecting list which has details on where we collected each species.  In the past before we had a GPS, these collecting localities were quite complex – “15km past the T junction on the P1254 road between X and Y, under the tree on the left hand side”!  The use of a GPS has obviously revolutionized this, and our collecting details are now far more boring – a plain “GPS 125”!  We are also attempting to get a photograph of as many species as possible, and this is also entered onto the database.  Digital photography is wonderful, but it has created a huge amount of work – on returning home all the images are downloaded, and then the identifying and labelling begins.  We are all guilty of the same problem I am sure – because it is so cheap and simple to take multiple pictures of the same plant, we sometimes have 10 or 20 images of one species to sort through, and trying to decide which image is the best sometimes takes hours!  The pictures are linked to the database, so if we have a species in stock and it reflects on the website, then there is a picture of it.  As our catalogue often has 2000 species listed on it, we still have many photographs to take.


All in all, seed collecting is an extremely laborious task, but it affords us a good livelihood and a wonderful lifestyle.

From the Archives: Newsletter January 2016

January 2016

Dear Plant Lover

As usual, we will start our newsletter with a weather report!  At present, the entire Southern African sub-continent from Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique southwards, is in the grips of a most devastating drought accompanied by a heat wave.  All of this area, except for the SW Cape, is supposed to have summer rain and most areas have had no rain at all this summer. Zambia has no electricity as 90% of their power is hydro-electric and the Zambezi River is at the lowest level recorded. The Free State Province in SA has had not a drop of rain yet this summer and looks like the middle of winter with brown grass and dormant trees. The SW Cape receives winter rain, and our rainfall was about 1/3 of average in 2015. The last rain we had was in about October, and since then we have not had one drop. Most of the mountain streams are bone dry and we are experiencing day after day of sustained hot weather with temperatures in the upper thirties and low forties. On New Year’s day we were in the mountains at Bainskloof near Wellington and the temperature at 1pm was 46°C!

The weather office says this is the worst drought for over 20 years, and it is unusual in that it is covering the whole country, and is accompanied by very high temperatures. Apparently it is due to El Nino, and could extend into a 2nd year. Already we have a food crisis as there was a reduced wheat crop and the maize (corn) crop will be non-existent. Plus of course we have a water crisis as there is simply not enough stored water.

Our Gladiolus project mentioned in the last newsletter is continuing and we are now down to the last 7 species. We have spent the last two Christmases in the Drakensberg looking for Gladiolus – a very rare high altitude species only ever seen by a handful of people.  Christmas is normally a time when we stay at home as the roads and holiday resorts are full of holiday makers, enjoying the long summer holidays. We drove to the Drakensberg using all the back roads, many of them dirt, to try to avoid the main routes as South Africans are suicidal on the roads at this time of year.  We had booked a cave at 2200m where we intended spending 3 nights. The cave is about 10km from the car park, and of course, it is uphill all the way! Neither of us has carried a full rucksack for quite a few years as we normally go on long day walks carrying only protective clothing and lunch. By careful planning of both clothes and food, we kept our packs to a reasonable weight so the walk was pleasant, particularly as there were several large pools to swim in on the way. Once at the cave, we left our packs hidden, and walked to higher altitudes every day.

Needless to say, we did not find Gladiolus symonsii despite a systematic 3 day search for it in known and preferred habitats. However we did find 2 other Gladiolus species and many other plants in flower including Dierama dracomontana, Dianthus basuticus, several Glumicalyx species, Kniphofias, Agapanthus and Albucas. Due to the dry conditions in SA, the grass hadn’t grown as much as usual so the other flora benefited as there was no competition with grass. We had both forgotten how beautiful the ‘berg flora is and seeing the flowers with a backdrop of the majestic mountains cannot be described adequately.

One other Drakensberg endemic Gladiolus species that we still need to photograph is Gladious microcarpus which comes from the cliffs of the northern Drakensberg. We found a couple of plants in flower this December, but as fate would have it, a spell of cloudy misty overcast weather had moved in and it was so wet and damp that we could not photograph them! Several people had told us of large clumps of this species on the path up to Sentinel Peak. However in the winter of 2014 a devastating fire swept through the area (not a usual occurrence) and G. microcarpus has not been seen there since. We suspect that it is extremely fire sensitive and may now be extinct at this site.

Two other rare Gladiolus species that we photographed last year are Gladiolus antholyzoides and Gladiolus phoenix.  Gladiolus antholyzoides used to occur in large numbers around Sasolburg in the Free State south of Johannesburg, as well as around Pretoria. Due to urban encroachment and mining, most of its habitats are now gone, except for a few plants left in a wild area of a friend’s garden.  We have been communicating with him and he agreed to let us know when the plants were coming up to flower. Lo and behold, despite the drought, in November he phoned and told us to come quickly as several plants were about to flower. So we booked flights to Johannesburg for the following week, hired a car, drove to Sasolburg to photograph the Gladiolus, and flew back to Cape Town the same day. An expensive Gladiolus!!


Gladiolus phoenix is one of the species that we thought we would not find. It only flowers in the first year after fire, and it only occurs in the Bainskloof Mountains behind Wellington in the SW Cape. However, early in 2015 Bainskloof burned, so we vowed that from November onwards, we would do weekly searches of the area until we found it! We were so lucky – on our first search, there it was, right next to the road! What a gorgeous plant – a large tall branched inflorescence with masses of clear pink flowers all open at the same time. It is amazing that such a striking plant has only recently been described, and we assume that this is because of the position of the plant in relation to the road. The road is extremely narrow with a precipitous drop on one side, and most people would have their eyes glued to the road rather than looking for plants up the bank!

Sadly, Rachel’s mother died in April 2014 at the age of 96. Luckily for her, she was still at work one week, and died of heart failure the next week, so she was ill for only a couple of days. We still miss her and think of her often as she left many signs in our seed room and we come across her handwriting frequently! Ondine, Darkie and Cherrie still work every day and any of you who have phoned our office will probably have spoken to Ondine.

True to our promise, we have acquired another cat, a Somali who we named Abraham!  Perhaps we should have named him Ibrahim instead, taking his breed into consideration! He is a most affectionate cat and is spoiled rotten! Fortunately he seems to lack Nanuk’s wanderlust and spends most of his time in our garden (or so we hope!). Part of this newsletter was written with his help – he has jumped up onto the table and deposited himself onto the paper, knocked the pencil sharpener onto the floor, and is in the process of doing the same with the hand lens while dabbing at the pencil!

Since the last newsletter, some new books have been published and all of them are listed on our website.

  1. There is a new upgraded and enlarged version of the Namaqualand Wildflower Guide.
  2. Lapeirousias have not escaped the taxonomic whirlwind, and have been divided into 4 genera – read about it in “Systematics and Biology of Lapeirousia, Codonorhiza, Psilosiphon & Schizorhiza in southern Africa”.
  3. Jan Vloks admirable Field Guide “Plants of the Klein Karoo” has been re-printed and upgraded.
  4. Herbert Starcker, a superb photographer, has produced a photographic guide to all the South African orchids titled “Orchids of South Africa”.

We finally completed our house renovations which eventually included not only the kitchen and dining room, but also our bedroom, passage and book and wine room. We replaced all the floors in these rooms as well as other major and minor renovations, and the house looks beautiful. The next big job is to re-wire the house which still has some of the original wires from the 1930s! However, that job involves removing and replacing part of the roof, so will have to wait until we feel strong enough to tackle the disruption.


With best wishes

Rod and Rachel Saunders

From The Archives: Newsletter January 2014

Newsletter January 2014

Dear Customer

It has been 2 years since our last newsletter – we apologise for this, but we simply forgot to write one!

Fortunately since the last newsletter there has been an upturn in business and we have had 2 busy years. The local nursery industry is still pretty much in the doldrums, and much of our local business is from private individuals rather than from nurseries.

Our Gladiolus project is still on going, and we have now found and photographed 136 of the 169 species. Of course the last 33 species are all difficult to find – many are rare and are only known from 1 or perhaps 2 localities.  A week ago we mounted an expedition to the high Cederberg mountains to find the little known Gladiolus delpierrei.  There was a single collection made about 20 years ago, and to the best of our knowledge, it has not been collected or seen since then.  The conservation officer in the Cederberg was also keen to find this plant, and he had visited the area on 3 previous occasions, but had not found it.  Armed with a photograph of the site and some detailed instructions on the locality of the plant, we set off using a little used and very rough 4 wheel drive track for about half the distance, to save time and gain altitude.  At the end of the road we set off along a path and after about 2 to 3 hours of walking, reached the neck just below the summit where the plant was last seen.  We all spread out and began to search the slope meter by meter. After about 20 minutes of searching, there was a wild yell from someone, and there it was!  What a beautiful little gem it is – a soft yellow colour with the most beautiful red streaks inside the throat.  Eventually we found about 30 plants in flower and we spent almost 2 hours photographing them from every angle. The mountain was covered in mist so the light changed as the mist came and went, and we landed up with some lovely pictures in soft light.  What an adrenaline rush – we were all delighted to find it.

In March we are traveling northwards to look for 6 lesser known species from the summer rainfall area, mainly from around Pietersburg.  Finding these species is quite a hit and miss operation as one can never be certain when the plants will be flowering. There are so many variables including the amount of rain, how early or late did the rain start, how long is it since the last fire, etc etc, so when we arrive at a a site and find plants in flower, we feel a huge amount of satisfaction.  We are trying to get to the end of the 169 species by he beginning of next year, but whether we will achieve that or not we are not sure.

The weather in the Cape has been   and we had good winter rains. However we had a totally dry period of about 5 weeks in June and July, followed by heavy rain right up until November.  The early flowering bulbous plants did not like this, and most didn’t flower. However, the later flowering species responded by flowering well.  At present there has been severe flooding in the southern Cape and southern Karoo with many farms and roads washed away.  Climate change is no myth!

Sadly since our last newsletter, Denise, whom you may have had dealings with, has passed away after a battle with cancer.  Otherwise our staff situation is much the same as it was. Rachel’s mum, at 95, is still working for us every day. Ondine’s children are now teenagers, and we all know what that means!  Darkie now works from home at Stellenbosch, and we visit her once a week to collect sorted seeds from her, and take her bags of unsorted Protea seeds.

Recently a number of new botanical publications have made their appearance on our shelves.  Botanists have now taken a less blinkered view of the Cape flora and it now encompasses the entire winter rainfall region and not just the SW Cape.  The books entitled “Plants of the greater Cape floristic region” are in 2 volumes – one covering the “core Cape flora” and the 2nd volume covering  “The extra Cape Flora”.

The last year also saw the publication of Bill Liltvedt’s 2 volume book on the Cape orchids.  The books are magnificent and this was a monumental undertaking.

Other books recently published include

“The genus Lachenalia” by Graham Duncan,

“Field guide to South African ferns by

Wild Flowers of the Magaliesberg

South African flowering trees

Field Guide to the Central Highlands of Namibia

And a practical book on Protea cultivation called “ Protea Cultivation – from Concept to Carton” by

The past 18 months have seen our cat number reduced and we are now a one cat family! But hopefully this will not last long as later in the year we hope to acquire some new kittens.  Nanuk, our beautiful Somali, grew up to be a most gorgeous cat and endeared himself to all who knew him.  His one fault was his sense of adventure and he ranged far and wide in the neighbourhood.  All of us were devastated when he was hit and killed by  a train a couple of months ago.

Finally, our house is in turmoil at present.  We are replacing our floors in the kitchen and dining room (which are collapsing after almost 100 years of use!), and we are removing walls to make our kitchen and dining room open plan. All our books and furniture from those rooms are in other parts of the house, and we have relocated our kitchen to the garage!  We have an outdoor sink with hot water for washing dishes, a gas stove and microwave for cooking, our fridge is in our seedroom, and we eat outside in the garden.  It all works so well that we are wondering why we are re-doing the kitchen! But I am sure that after living  like this for 3 months, we will be more than ready to move back into the house.  And then we can find some new kittens!


Best wishes

Rod and Rachel Saunders

From the Archives: Newsletter January 2012

January 2012

Dear customer

Another year has flown past and for us this was a very quiet year.  At one stage we thought we would have to close down the business and retire as we had so few orders coming in.  Occasionally we would send ourselves an e mail or a fax to make sure that the fax machine and computer were still working!  In the last couple of months however there has been an upsurge in orders (long may it last!) and people seem to be taking an interest in their plants and gardens again.  I suppose there is a limit to the amount of economic doom and gloom one can handle before one looks around for something more pleasurable to occupy one’s mind.

In Cape Town and the southern Cape, our winter rains were lower than usual this year and we had a long period in mid-winter when no rain fell for about 6 weeks.  This had an enormous effect on our seed collecting as many of the bulbs went dormant prematurely and those that did flower aborted their seed production.  By contrast, the northern Cape and southern Namibia had very good rains – more about that later!

Recently Rachel gave a talk on “The genus Gladiolus” to a plant group in Nelspruit (in Mpumalanga), and later in the year she gave a similar talk at the Indigenous Bulb Society of SA’s symposium held in Worcester in September.  This has given us an interest in the genus and we are now determined to get pictures of as many of the Southern African species in habitat as possible.  In pursuit of this, we mounted a botanical trip through the Richtersveld to the Tirasberg in southern Namibia.  Another reason for the trip was to look for an unusual Lachenalia species that we last saw about 15 years ago – the last time that this area had good rain.  So we set off in mid-July for just over 2 weeks.  Our first stop on the way north was at the Heerenlogement near Clanwilliam to look for Gladiolus comptonii which occurs on the summit of that mountain.  To our great delight we found the Gladiolus in full flower.  It is always a surprise when one finds these rare plants, and it is even better when the plant is as beautiful as this Gladiolus with sprays of bright golden yellow flowers.  From Clanwilliam we then drove north to the Orange River between Alexander Bay and the Richtersveld.  One of the reasons for visiting this area was to look for another rare Gladiolus – G. deserticola, a delicate blue flowered species which grows on the southern (shady) slopes of the mountains bordering the Orange River.  Most of the mountains in this area run in a north south direction, so finding a south facing slope was the first problem.  The second problem was that the plant was only supposed to flower from August onwards, and it was now mid-July.  We left the car at the base of a likely looking south facing slope and commenced our ascent – a more unlikely looking spot for a Gladiolus we could not have imagined!  These are amongst the most arid mountains in South Africa and hardly a place to find a delicate Gladiolus!  After several hours spent traversing the slope, looking under boulders and shrubs and in gullies, we were ready to give up.  And then Rachel yelled – on a hunch she had looked at the base of a small cliff and there peeping out of a bush was one of the most delicate little Gladiolus flowers I have ever seen – we had found Gladiolus deserticola!  I think that we were both so satisfied by this stage that we could have gone home happily, but there was still more in store for us!  As mentioned above, the Northern Cape had exceptional winter rain and between Alexander Bay and the Richtersveld Park we saw beautiful massed displays of Lapeirousia barklyi, probably the most spectacular Lapeirousia there is with large bright pink flowers.  In between these we found Sarcocaulons of 4 species, Lachenalias, Cyanella ramosissima, Babianas and most unexpectedly, large populations of Hexacyrtis dickiana in bud and just coming into flower.  We spent a couple of days driving along the Orange River, and every time we stopped we found another 3 or 4 species in flower.

Finally we had to move on, and we crossed the Orange River into Namibia at the pont at Sendelingsdrift.  We drove north to Rosh Pinah, a mining town surrounded by high mountains.  It was obvious that this area had also had good rain and we saw the most spectacular flower displays that we have ever seen – bright pink mesembs, sheets of red Sarcocaulons, wide sweeps of yellow Gazania liechtensteinii, all flowering their hearts out.  We continued northwards and spent some time walking in the Tirasberg right on the edge of the Namib desert.  The mountains are rugged, very rough and dry, and yet because of the rain we found water running in some of the main valleys.  We also found our missing Lachenalia species in flower – identified as L. giessii on our return to Cape Town.  The views from the top of these mountains are spectacular looking over the red dunes of the Namib.  Finally we headed for home after a very successful trip to a normally very arid area.

In September we spent 2 weeks walking in France with Rachel’s sister and brother-in-law.  We had a wonderful time tasting wine, eating good food and walking through beautiful farmlands and forests.  One week was spent on the Normandy coast where we found the 2nd World War museums fascinating.

For Christmas we went to visit 3 plant friends in Nelspruit, near the Kruger National Park.  Nelspruit in December is normally blazing hot and humid, so we went expecting heat and perhaps rain.  We went on many field trips mainly looking for Gladiolus species in flower, and every day we had cool grey drizzly weather – what a pleasure!  We found some beautiful plants in flower, not only Gladioli and enjoyed our week away from home.  Since our return, Cape Town and the SW Cape have had a series of heat waves with Vanrhynsdorp measuring 50°C on several occasions!  The whole area has had some spectacular thunder storms – most unusual for the Cape in summer, and at present the Hex River Valley north of Worcester is flooded!  Nelspruit is also flooded, as is the Kruger National Park so the entire sub-continent is having rain.

Our staff situation remains much the same.  Darkie now works from home and each week we visit her in Stellenbosch on our way to Frontier Lab at Brackenfell.  Denise, Ondine and Rachel’s mum work every day, and Cherrie helps when we are rushed off our feet.  We have acquired 2 new cats, Taffy and Nanuk (we also still have our black Squatter!). We got them as kittens and have watched them grow over the last year.  They are now almost a year old, into everything and of course are far too adventurous for their own good – we both have a few more grey hairs as a result!

Due to the bad economic situation, we have decided for the first time since we began selling seeds, not to produce a printed catalogue this year.  We apologise for this, but last year the catalogue cost over R100 000 (USD12 500, 10 000 euros, £8000) to print and post, and we simply cannot justify it this year.  Please use our website to order – instructions attached!  Many of you order via e mail or the website already, and we now have facilities on our website for you to print your own catalogue if you would like to do so.  The website has the added advantage of always being up to date, and of having pictures of many of the plants we sell.  And another nice feature is that you can search for key words in the description field – for plants hardy to Zone 7, or for fragrant bulbous plants, or red flowers, or for seeds that you can sow in spring, or medicinal plants, etc.

We still sell botanical books, and we are still part owners of the tissue culture lab in Brackenfell, run by our partner Andy Hackland.  Due to problems with Telkom (our SA telephone provider) and stolen telephone cables, the lab no longer has telephone or fax via Telkom – please ask for details.

We wish you all a good 2012 and let us all hope for better economic times!

Best wishes

Rod & Rachel

From the Archives: Newsletter July 2011

January 2011

Dear Customer

All our newsletters start with the weather – most important for gardeners and plant enthusiasts.  The SW Cape had reasonable rain this winter, but despite that, our storage dams are not full and are hovering around 93%, lower than usual for this time of year.  The rains started in May with a big cold front & near torrential rains in the Cape.  This front moved north and east bringing rain to Namaqualand and the Garden Route, but it was almost the only one during the winter that did, resulting in extremely dry conditions everywhere north and east of Cape Town.  Cape Town received regular rain until July when it dried up completely.  The whole of July and August were dry with rain commencing again in September and continuing until a week or so ago, but really only in the immediate surroundings of Cape Town.  Many of the bulbous plants in the veld went dormant prematurely, and those that did manage to flower, did so reluctantly.

Earlier this year we revisited the Brandberg in Namibia.  In May last year everything was saturated with rain and the vegetation was tall and lush – this year it was fiercely dry and in many areas not a drop of rain had fallen all summer.  This meant no annuals, none of the fascinating Cucurbitaceae on the road verges, and virtually no grass.  What a contrast –  we wonder quite how the vegetation copes with these extremes.  Presumably seeds of annuals & grasses have long dormancy mechanisms to cope with these dry periods, but how do the many trees & shrubs with much higher water requirements survive?  After the Brandberg we drove north through Namibia to the Zambezi River valley, with the idea of visiting Zimbabwe again after an absence of many years.  On approaching the Zambezi River we noticed that large numbers of “tent towns” had sprung up.  At first we thought that perhaps they were housing refugees from Angola or Zimbabwe, but as we drove closer to the river we saw the reason.  The Zambezi had broken its banks due to phenomenal rains in the highlands of Angola and we couldn’t get within 20km of the normal river bed!  All the tents were housing Namibians who had been displaced from their villages on the river banks.  With the inundation of the lands along the river, the fish populations had risen dramatically, especially the tiny fish known as “kapenta”.  This fish, when dried, is an extremely important form of protein for man, birds and animals throughout central Africa.  The local inhabitants were out in force, scooping up thousands upon thousands of fishes, with some enterprising individuals using their mosquito nets to trawl with!  Once caught, the fish were laid out to dry along the road verges and we passed kilometre after kilometre of drying fishes.  Of course this bonanza also brought in millions of birds that covered the flood plain as far as the eye could see.  We sat for hours with binoculars, bird watching. The funniest sight we saw were gulls waddling along the road verge, so full of fish that they could barely take off!  The river was the highest that we have ever seen it – such flooding is episodic and many of the trees, particularly the Acacias, had died due to excessive water.  It will be interesting to return next year and see what the area looks like.  As a footnote we need to mention that nowhere was this flooding reported – not internationally or in South Africa, and for a small poor country like Namibia, it was a major disaster.  The Namibian authorities behaved admirably by erecting tents in neat rows on high ground for the thousands of displaced people.  They also supplied and serviced chemical toilets at regular intervals, and they provided clean drinking water in tanks.  We were impressed – Africa is not known for its efficiency!

From Namibia and the Caprivi Strip we passed through northern Botswana into Zimbabwe via Victoria Falls which we could see from many kilometres away with the spray plume rising hundreds of metres into the air.  Normally we are a bit blasé about visiting the Falls as we have seen them many times before, but this year we parted with some US dollars to visit them, as it is unusual to see the river so full.  Normally the main falls are broken into several cataracts, punctuated by islands on the rim of the falls, but this year the water fell as a complete unbroken wall over 2km wide – that is when we could actually see anything through all the spray and mist!  The Zambezi Valley below the falls is magical.  The road follows the river closely, on the cliffs high above the water, and we found some really magnificent places to camp with views over the valley.

From the Zambezi we headed southwards to the Matopos National Park, and then out through Botswana and back into South Africa.  The Matopos is an area with huge granite whalebacks and domes, and because the rainfall is marginally higher than the surrounding country, the tree flora is diverse and interesting.

From the far west of South Africa we then drove to the far east, to Nelspruit, where we met some botanical friends for a trip into Mozambique.  We entered Mozambique through the Kruger National Park on the day of the first Football World Cup match held in South Africa.  The excitement in South Africa was incredible, and even in the middle of the Kruger Park everyone was glued to their radios and communal TV sets!  We spent 4 days in Mozambique on the eastern boundary of the Park, botanising, photographing and identifying mainly trees and shrubs.  Our last night was spent on the banks of the Limpopo River (also very full) under a group of large Xanthocercis (nyala berry) trees.  Watching the sun go down over the river was magical with hundreds of birds making patterns in the sky and across the sun as they returned to roost in trees along the river.  It was particularly special for us as we had to be in Cape Town (about 2000km away) in 2 days time, and the next 2 days would be spent in the car, driving!  We left Mozambique next day hot and sweaty – the temperature was about 35°C at 10am, and we drove southwards steadily with few stops apart from changing drivers at regular intervals.  We had a very persistent head wind all the way, but had no idea what we were in for!  Finally at about 5pm we stopped to refuel in Naboomspruit, north of Pretoria, and reality hit us – the cold south wind was blowing at about 60km per hour, the temperature was about 5°C, and we were still in shorts, T shirts & sandals!  That night in our tent, the temperature dropped to -5°C!  All the way home, we never got warm again – winter had arrived.  The weather really makes planning field trips difficult, and we usually take clothing and bedding for all four seasons.

Our bulbs at Brackenfell are growing well in crates and we had some spectacular flowers this spring, which is lucky as we need the seed.  However, even this method of growing plants has its problems.  The first problem is that we have a small (wild) antelope which lives on the property and at night it wanders about looking for food. It decided that our bulbs were delicious, particularly the flowers and green seed capsules of all the rarest plants we grow!  There is also a porcupine which wanders through our boundary fence periodically, and it also found our bulbs and destroyed 3 or 4 crates of plants.  We have now had to erect a fence to keep everything out of the bulb growing area!  And as though that is not enough, when the bulbs had gone dormant and we stacked the crates for the summer, some mice found their way into the crates and demolished hundreds of corms!

Our cat population has declined drastically and at present we only have our black Squatter.  Unless a new stray finds us quickly, we will have to visit one of the animal welfare institutions and find some kittens.  Our staff situation remains the same, with all of us older and greyer.  We are lucky that Cherrie, who travels as much as she can, still works for us when we are busy.  Over Christmas Ondine is cooking for hundreds of international scouts in the Cederberg Mountains and Denise is off to Scotland to visit her son and family.  We will divide our time between home and Rachel’s mother (who is still working every day), and the mountains, and Darkie will be at home with her children and grandchildren.  Sadly Rachel’s father of 97 died this year after only retiring last year!  Obviously some longevity genes in this family.

We wish you all the best for 2011 and let us hope that the weather does not affect us all too badly.

Best wishes

Rod and Rachel Saunders

From the Archives: Newsletter January 2010

December 2010

Dear Sowers of seeds

As usual, we will start with the weather!  In the Western Cape we had a similar weather pattern this year to last year – good rains in the SW Cape, but the fronts not reaching north or inland or along the south Cape coast.  The area around Knysna and George is extremely dry and they are now enduring very strict water regulations.  Our rains ended as normal, late in September, and we had some fiercely hot weather in October, followed by an incredibly wet November.  In Kenilworth we received 220mm (almost 9 inches) of rain in 4 days, making it one of the wettest Novembers ever recorded.  It became very cold and we were all back to winter woolies and huddling round fires!  The Drakensberg Mountains and Lesotho had heavy falls of snow – not unheard of in November, but rather unusual.  Our bulbs, all still outside drying off, didn’t know what had hit them!

We went north to Namibia in May this year and the desert was looking really good, as it does after reasonable summer rain.  Just how good the rains were we didn’t realise until we arrived at the Brandberg Mountain, north of Windhoek.  We normally access the mountain by means of a dry valley on the west side, and as we drove in, we were surprised to see that the normally bare dry landscape was green and lush with plants a meter high!  On getting out of the car at our campsite, we noticed a noise – the normally dry river was flowing, and flowing strongly with beautiful crystal clear water.  There was no evidence of flood damage and it appeared that the Brandberg (incidentally, the highest peak in Namibia at about 2 500m) had not had the usual thunder storms which bring rain in summer, but had had days and weeks of soft gentle rain.  All the sponges on the mountain were full, and there were streams everywhere.  Although not prepared for it, we decided that this was the one year we had to go up the mountain onto the plateau on top where the rainfall is higher and the vegetation different to that on the slopes.  Normally the walk up is totally dry and the temperature is in the high 30°sC or low 40°sC.  This means that one carries an extremely heavy rucksack with food, sleeping bags and all one’s water requirements, sometimes for 3 or 4 days.  However, this time was rather a different scenario!  The temperature was as high as usual, but we followed the river up, and stopped so many times for swims in large pools, some with glorious waterfalls, that we only got about two thirds of the way up before camping on a sand bank next to an extremely beautiful pool – a campsite in paradise (except for a full moon which shone in our eyes all night)!  The next morning we reached the top, and spent the day botanising before washing under a waterfall and spending the night in a cave.  The third day we went down back to our car.  The ascent and descent of the mountain is quite dramatic – it is mainly by means of long granite slabs, often steeper than 45°, and sometimes hundreds of meters long.  Going up one merely gets out of breath, but coming down really hammers the nerves (some of those slopes were really steep!), the knees and the calf muscles, and we finally reached the car tired, elated and much fitter!  The next day we both had fairly stiff leg muscles, and by the 3rd day, we could hardly move our legs!

We decided not to squander our fitness by sitting around at home, and kept it up by going for long hard walks up Table Mountain and various other peaks around Cape Town.  In late August we flew to Switzerland and spent a week walking in the Alps with a botanist friend, a first for both of us.  We were lucky with the weather which was superb, as was the scenery and the alpine flowers, and we had a wonderful time walking with small day packs from Alpine hut to hut.  From there we went to the Four Oaks Trade Fair near Manchester, and then on to Prague (and the beautiful botanic garden), followed by the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia were we walked every day.  The walking was strenuous with superb scenery, forests which were just turning colour with autumn, and many lovely lakes.

On our return from Europe, we felt fit enough to tackle a walk that we thought we would never do again – the Hex River traverse.  This is probably the finest mountain traverse in South Africa, but is not for the faint hearted!  Route finding is complex with no paths, the days are dry and long, and there is no level walking at any time over the 4 day walk.  The first day is a steep up, the last is a steep down, and the 2 days in between involve crossing numerous peaks, traversing round mountains and finding small necks to cross from one ridge to the next.  We did the walk with Andy (our partner from Frontier Lab) and a friend of his – both of them in their 40s, 10 to 20 years younger than us.  However, luckily for us they were not very fit, and our fitness made up for our advanced ages so we all walked at the same pace!  We had a most enjoyable 4 days with superb weather – clear but cool with no wind.  Every day brought something different and as it was late spring, the flowers were superb.  Coming down a particularly steep and rocky slope, we found what we thought was an unusual species of Hesperantha with a showy bright pink flower and we could not recall ever seeing it before.  Although we had no plant press with us, we took a specimen, pressed it in our map, and on our return to Cape Town, gave it to John Manning at the Compton Herbarium. He took one look at it, proclaimed it an Ixia not a Hesperantha, and said it is a new species!  This is the second new Ixia species we have found on the same mountain in 12 months – one wonders what else lurks there!

Some of the burned areas close to Cape Town produced some marvelous floral displays from August onwards, and as we write this in November, they are still continuing.  Part of Table Mountain burned last summer, and there have been successive sheets of flowers – Gladioli, Ixias, Ornithogalums, Lachenalias, Hesperanthas and Geissorhizas, Moraeas and now thousands of Watsonia borbonnica and Micranthus species.  We have noticed that in the south of the country the best displays are often 4 to 6 weeks later than those further north.

Our staff compliment remains unchanged – everyone a year older, but still healthy and working hard.  Rachel’s mother, now 91 and still working every day, has just had a slight accident in her car which upset her as it is the first accident she has ever had in over 70 years of driving!

Two of our cats – Squatter and Tabby, have become the best of friends, and even our ginger thug Zingiber, has mellowed a little with age!

Best Wishes

Rod & Rachel

From the Archives: Newsletter January 2009

Newsletter January 2009

Dear Seed Sower,

We skipped the newsletter normally sent out in July (and the July catalogue!), and this one follows the January 2008 catalogue.  This last year was so busy that we felt our time was better spent seed collecting than producing a supplementary catalogue.

Last year most of the winter rainfall areas close to Cape Town received excellent rain, and therefore the floral displays in spring were good.  Any visitors who came to see flowers were not disappointed, with Cape Town and surrounds particularly attractive.    The floral display near Cape Town is usually a bit later than Namaqualand (often at its best in early October), and it is often overlooked by tourists who rush northwards to Namaqualand.  It is also more predictable than Namaqualand as weak cold fronts often bring rain to Cape Town, but nowhere else.  We find that the most beautiful displays are the ones that catch you unawares.  This last year we were travelling along a back road in the southern Cape near Laingsburg when we saw “vygies” (mesems) which boggled our minds!  From horizon to horizon, stretching to the distant mountains, was a sheet of purple so intense that it coloured the sky.  This area certainly had good rains!  The Ceres Karoo, an intensely arid area normally receiving less than 100mm of rain annually, also produced good displays of flowers – mostly orange Pentzia and yellow Gazanias, but what they lacked in variety, they made up in numbers.  The Little Karoo, not going to be outdone, produced some beautiful displays of Aloes, particularly Aloe striata.  In some cases the plants are growing so thickly that when they flower, the flower spikes form a sea of colour which fills the entire valley with a beautiful coral red.

After fairly good summer rains last December and January, we were expecting all the winter growing Amaryllids to flower well.  They did flower, but it wasn’t spectacular and a number of species did absolutely nothing.  We are still at a loss as to what makes these bulbs flower en masse.

In June, we decided to head north east, through South Africa to the lower Limpopo Valley in Mozambique.  Access to Mozambique is now much simpler than a few years ago – no Visas required for South African citizens, and there is a new border post in the far north of the Kruger National Park at Pafuri.  The vegetation was interesting and it was better wooded than on the South African side, but we were disappointed to find that there were large numbers of people & livestock living in the area. This is a so-called “Transfrontier Park” – it is supposed to be an extension of the Kruger Park into Mozambique, so we expected to see no people, no cattle, no goats but lots of wild animals, similar to the Kruger Park.  However, the lack of game turned out to be an advantage for us as we were able to collect a large bag of Adansonia digitata fruit, which is normally eagerly eaten by many animals, including elephants.  These Transfrontier Parks, of which there are several, were supposed to be huge expanses of land that allowed game to move in traditional migration routes, irrespective of political borders.  It is sad that this particular Park is not working in the way in which it was envisaged.

Before this trip to Mozambique, we flew to the UK where both of us had speaking engagements with the South African Bulb Group in Southampton.  After this we took the opportunity to have a walking holiday in Cornwall, with “Gardens of Cornwall” as its theme.  It is surprising how many South African plants are grown in that part of the world, and we wonder how many of them have survived in the last few weeks which have been bitterly cold in many parts of Europe and the USA.  We made our arrangements through a company called “Let’s go Walking” in the UK.  They took care of our luggage and accommodation, and all we had to do was set off on our walk in the mornings with only a day pack containing our lunch and rain gear.  It was a most pleasant way of seeing the country and we recommend it whole heartedly.  We believe it is called “Slack packing”!  We then spent 3 weeks in Turkey, doing much the same – walking from place to place with a day pack, with our luggage and accommodation organized for us by another excellent company, SNP.  We spent a week in Istanbul – a fascinating but hectic city, followed by 2 weeks in Cappadocia which has the most extraordinary and beautiful scenery.  We were a bit late for spring flowers, and we missed the displays of bulbs such as tulips, but we saw sheets of poppies, cornflowers and other annuals at higher elevations in better watered areas, plus various perennials such as Salvias in full flower.  We loved the food, the carpets and the architecture, and the walking was superb.

Two months before Christmas the economic downturn suddenly hit us, and our seed sales virtually dried up overnight.  Oddly enough, book sales increased to a record high which surprised us as books cost considerably more than seeds do!  At one stage we were checking the internet and the fax machine to see if they were still working!  Having said that, sales since Christmas have taken off and we are again rushing around madly.

Sadly, last year saw the death of our 2 old cats – they were both about 16 years old, so they had good long lives.  For a while we were down to 2 cats – Zingibar, a beautiful orange (stray) cat with an unpredictable nature, and Squatter, a black stray who moved in about a year ago.  In October a young wild tabby cat took up residence in the garden, and he has since moved in and become very affectionate.  We have decided that somewhere on our fence is a sign in cat language that says “All strays welcome here” and we are destined to become Saint Rachel and Saint Rod, the patron saint of stray cats!

Our staff situation remains the same as usual, with all of us still reasonably fit and healthy. Rachel’s mother turned 90 in December, and she still turns up to work at 8am each day!  Denise walked in Kyrgyzstan in July, and Ondine has just returned from climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  Darkie’s granddaughter is now at high school in Cape Town.

We trust that 2009 will see an upswing in world affairs and that all of you remain passionate about your plants and gardens.

With Best Wishes

(Patron Saint of Stray cat’s) Rod and Rachel