Walk Report – July 2018

– By Tim Attwell (19 May 2018) 

The aim of the exercise was to find less seen and seldom recognised members of the protea family close to home. Where better than Rod’s Trail? Maybe because it’s in Betty’s Bay’s back yard there is a tendency to overlook this extraordinary little trail through Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos on the slopes of Voorberg when looking for the rare and remarkable.

So it was that we set off from the Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens, up Kloof Road, behind the Disa Youth Camp and on to the mountainside. The objective was to find specimens of four Proteaceae that seldom if ever find their way into people’s gardens: Paranomus, Spatalla, Aulax (not the familiar Aulax umbellata, but the lesser known Aulax cancellata) and to see how the Serruria adscendens that grow in abundance on Rod’s Trail were doing.

On Rod’s Trail

Well, the proverbial needle in a haystack came to mind. Not that there was nothing else to see or talk about. Sometimes a particular plant that we tend to overlook on other occasions becomes the focus of attention; in this case the small tree Laurophyllus capensis or Iron Martin/Ystermartien. Once you start to recognise it, you see it everywhere on streamsides and wooded mountain slopes around Betty’s Bay – the westernmost extent of its natural range from Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. The female flowers (male and female are dioecuous, separate plants) are unlikely to make it into a bridal bouquet, being, according to Palgrave’s Trees of Southern Africa, ‘very dense, branched, woody persistent antler like structures formed from bracts, resembling a parasitized deformity’ (!). Not your average pretty flowers – feisty nonetheless, staying hard, stiff and resolute on the tree protecting their single seeded nutlets for years, until a fire sets them free. Just to underscore its rugged uniqueness, the genus Laurophyllus has only one species, this one, L. capensis.

Female flower of Laurophyllus capensis

‘Hey what’s this?’ came the call from one of the party while we were discussing Iron Martins. On the upper side of the trail stood a protea like plant, heavily in bud, with deeply divided leaves at its base and spatula like, more or less rhomboidally shaped leaves higher up – different leaf shapes on the same plant. Yup, unmistakeable, the grandly named, Near Threatened (SANBI Red List), Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus, King Gustave’s Sceptre, the specific name provided by Swedish botanist Anders Sparrman back in 1777 in honour of his newly crowned King Gustave III. We had found the first of our less seen and seldom recognised members of the Proteaceae family.

Paranomus sceptrum-gustavianus, King Gustave’s Sceptre

Encouraged, we didn’t take long to start noticing an abundance of Spatalla curvifolia. Funny how you can walk past this single stemmed shrublet with its needle like leaves and flowers in cream coloured racemes until you know what you are looking for. The SANBI Red List also has it as Near Threatened. Bingo! The second of our less seen and seldom recognised members of the Proteaceae family.

Spatalla curvifolia

Now we were on a roll. Where is Aulax cancellata? Being Kogelbergers ever on the lookout for alien invasives, spotting what for all the world looked like saplings of Pinus pinaster naturally drew our attention. Only they weren’t P. pinaster saplings. They were Aulax cancellata! The story goes that a party of Cape mountaineers recently encountered a colony of them and, mistaking them for P. pinaster saplings, dutifully cut them all down. Happily SANBI lists them as ‘Least concern’, so the species lives to fight another day. If you know what a pine sapling looks like, you’ll know what Aulax cancellata looks like too. In spring you won’t get confused because the male plants will sport their rich gold feathery flowers. Hit number three.

Aulax cancellata, male flower

Serruria adscendens is never hard to find on Rod’s Trail despite its Near Threatened conservation status in SANBI’s Red List. It’s one of the Trail’s signature plants, so we were happy to see them in their usual abundance – only they won’t flower until spring when we will have to go back to indulge ourselves in their silvery pink mop-head beauty and sweet perfume. Strike four. Home time.