Talk Report – February 2018

Christmas in the Drakensberg
(and the hunt for Gladiolus symonsii)
By Rea Borcherds

Unsurprisingly, gladiolus, with its long, sharply pointed leaves, is named after the Latin word for a sword, hence its common name, ‘sword lily’.  This showy plant and popular cut flower is familiar to gardeners and florists world wide, but what may be less known is the fact that it is hybridized and cultivated from a rather insignificant native South African plant, Gladiolus daleni. 

This, and other interesting facts about gladioli, emerged from Rachel Saunders’ talk last Saturday. She kept the audience captivated with the help of husband Rod’s beautiful photographs, as we were taken on a scenically splendid botanical tour through conditions and habitats very different to our familiar fynbos, as she explained how and why the Saunders’ have spent the past four summers having their Christmas in the Drakensberg.

If it is your goal to find and photograph every one of the 165 varieties of gladiolus in South Africa and a mere half-dozen are still outstanding, then like Rod and Rachel, you will stop at nothing. You will scale mountains, brave thunderstorms and sudden mists, and plunge through water-filled bogs and hip-high grasses in pursuit of those last few species on your list.

The elusive gladioli they were pursuing flower in summer, and are only found at high altitudes and in summer rainfall areas.  The Drakensberg mountain range provide just these growing conditions, thus the Saunders combed the Berg, starting at Cobham in the South and proceeding further each year, eventually reaching as far as the Wolkberg in Limpopo.

Cobham was known to be a habitat for Gladiolus symonsii, and they had detailed descriptions about where it had been found, but their searching was fruitless and they eventually had to give up and move further on.  At Loteni they were luckier, and a ten-kilometer early morning hike, plus the help of a GPS, led them to find masses of beautiful white Gladiolus loteniensis, in an area that had recently been burnt.

On the plateaus they came across many beautiful stands of various flowers, such as moraeas, hesperanthus, felicias, dieramas, kniphofias.  White and pale pink gerberas covered huge areas,  and on the Mont au Sources they saw large numbers of brunsvigias and eucomis.

Near Golden Gate, they found another plant on their list, Gladiolus eliotii, and a side tour to Itala Game Reserve near Vryheid enabled them to find Gladiolus scabridus.  At Chrissiesmeer they found Gladiolus paludosus, (its name means ‘swamp’ in Latin). They also added oatesii, microcarpus, filiformis, and pretoriensis to their list of first-time finds.  In total they found 16 species of gladioli, and six of their seven target plants, but they were still no nearer finding Gladioulus symonsii.

Rachel makes light of the persistence and endurance required to scramble around at high altitudes, sometimes drenched and wading through swamps; often having to flee their tent during electric storms to take shelter in their vehicle for the night. Identifying plants in situ proved to be difficult, as plants don’t always look like their illustrations, and they may even have look-alikes to add to the confusion. Gladiolus parvulus for example, is a dead ringer for symonsii except for its hairy stem.

With each trip they armed themselves with more detailed expert information, including field guides and herbarium sheets as well as modern technology in the form of GPS positions. So it came about that three weeks ago, on their last stop at Cobham near the Sani Pass, and just as they were about to leave for home, they finally found G symonsii.

It is not yet the end of their quest, as one last gladiolus on their list remains outstanding  – G uitenhagensis, which is only found on a mountain near Uitenhage and flowers only after a fire. Once that is in the bag, we can look forward to the appearance of a new book on all the gladioli of South Africa, counting ourselves privileged to have heard the saga of how it came into being.