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Conservation - Qunu Connections

By Marianne de Jager

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it… Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill….

These are the opening sentences of Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, the Beloved Country

I love going there.

Qunu Falls Resort is set in this area, in the forests and overlooking the Umzimkulu Valley.

Seven days of being away from it all.

Seven days of reading, relaxing, enjoying nature and some sketching.

First some small, untidy trees with bright green leaves and curious woody fruit attracted my attention. I went to the office to ask for permission to pick a twig to sketch it. Not a problem, but Danie, the manager, didn’t know what the plant was.

He asked the maintenance man, Calvin, to go with me so that I could show him the trees I was interested in. Wild Gardenia was his opinion.

He and Danie got stuck in some gardening books in the lounge of the resort and showed me what the flowers looked like. Later Calvin came to my unit to help me cut open one of the fruits as I was curious what it looked like inside. Was it hard!

What I also found interesting was the fact that lichens and mosses grew on some of the older fruit. They must have been on those trees for a long time!

In front of my unit grew a huge cycad with ripe cones of which the red seeds spilled out and landed on the ground. I noticed some birds eating the red flesh surrounding the seeds.

By this time Danie and Calvin became interested in my sketching and questions about the indigenous plants at the resort. Why is this plant called “Broodboom” in Afrikaans? Is it edible?

Calvin got onto the internet, but found conflicting information. The gardening books listed the plant, but also, not much info.

Wifi was available at the office and I often sat on the bench on the veranda just outside the office to research cycads. I learned that the kernels of the seeds contain a neurotoxin that, when eaten by animals, can cause problems in humans when they eat meat from those animals. Even so, the stem pith was traditionally used as a source of starch. In times when food was scarce, the stems were buried to ferment, then dried and ground to produce meal for bread – hence the name Broodboom (bread tree).

I used the opportunity to sketch a bunch of growing bananas, the light through the red leaves covering each new hand of bananas was beautiful.

The tree was inside the resort, and the flowers were still attached to the young bananas, something I hadn’t seen before.

Usually bananas grow in plantations and one doesn’t want to trespass! Here I had the opportunity and spend a happy hour or two in the shade of a large banana tree, sketching.

Also, in the resort were a few plants I thought I recognised as Wild Ginger. On a walk, in the forest bordering the resort, I found lots of these plants with their spikes of yellow and red flowers. As a matter of fact, there were so many of them, they grew everywhere. They lined the footpaths through the forest (see photo).

I remembered years ago upon visiting the resort, the many indigenous flowers in the forest, including the tiny wild orchids Disperis fanninnia. Now, nothing!

Once more I approached Danie and together we poured over the gardening books in the lounge. Nothing! He smiled when he saw me on my mobile phone outside the office, searching on the internet for wild ginger. What I found was alarming.

Hedychium gardnerianum, also called Wild Ginger or Kahili Ginger, is originally from the Himalayas in Asia and was sought after as an exotic garden plant.It quickly spread. Here in South Africa, specifically in KwaZulu-Natal, it is listed as the no 1 unwanted plant in the area! No 6 is Lantana and Bugweed is only no 9!

The problem with Kahili Ginger is that the seeds are spread by birds, but the underground rhizomes spread more aggressively, forming mats of roots up to 1 metre thick, smothering any smaller and indigenous plants in the area. No wonder I hardly found any indigenous plants in the forest! Even more threatening is that the plant is poisonous to livestock and can even be fatal to animals. Getting rid of them is difficult as one has to dig them out, roots and all.

On the back of an A4 sheet with info about the resort, I made a quick sketch of Kahili Ginger for Danie with a summary of my findings plus some internet sites he could refer to for more information. I left this at the office and the next day he came to my unit to thank me for it. He was not aware of the danger these plants posed and, although lovely to look at, he said that he was planning to start eradicating them both inside and outside the resort. I really appreciated his time and dedication to his guests and to the resort.

To end on a positive note: under a camphor tree in the resort I found two tiny plants of Disperis fanniniae! My sketch doesn’t do justice to these delicate flowers. I pointed them out to Calvin, the head of maintenance, and he promised to protect them.

It was a lovely week and showed how nature journaling can have a positive spin-off for nature and people.

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