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Why beauty?

Just stop for a minute, after looking at the lovely images of wild flowers now blooming at Rhebokskloof, and ask yourself this simple question: “Why should I find these colours and shapes beautiful and attractive?”  Why is the eye immediately drawn to shape and colour, where there was nothing days before?  Could there be any advantage to humans that are attracted to beauty, as opposed to those that simply take nature for granted?

Through the ages man has admired, collected and painted the flower.  The answer may not be as simple as one thinks, and comprises of a number of disciplines: physics, aesthetics, science and, as mentioned, art.  The first impression, that of symmetry appeals to the human eye, but it is colour that draws us to flowers, primarily.  As humans, we take delight in beautiful objects, as opposed to animals that experience their world primarily in terms of food, water, mating, shelter and the avoidance of predators.

 

Light from the sun, composed of the true colours of the rainbow, strikes an object and reflects it back to the eye in either pure colour, say blue or red, or in salient mixtures of these primary colours, such as browns and yellows. Our appreciation of colour is further expanded to other objects such as stones and the colour of the sky, for instance.  And now we come to the crux of the matter: beauty to humans, and “beauty” to insects, that pollinate and sometimes even eat these blossoms, are two totally different matters.

 

Let us consider insects first.  Through evolution, a mutually beneficial relationship has developed between plant and their pollinating insects.  One needs to go no further than to look at honeybees at work.  The very first attraction to any bee is colour.  Bees are dispatched from the hive to look for sources of nectar and pollen.  What better way for the flower to make sure it is visited, than to display vivid colour, with white and yellow being the most effective hues.  Once the bee lands, it is rewarded with high-energy nectar, the basis of honey, and pollen, which is used to make propolis.

But, plants have yet another trick up their colourful sleeves: smell.  The wonderful ways in which plants advertise themselves know no limits.  The sweet smelling plants have another suite of insects that do the job of pollination – the butterflies and moths.  Most plant advertising in this band has a highly specific pollinator, and the shape of the flower is finely tuned to accommodate just one insect, and the flower architecture is adapted to optimize pollination.  The combination of shape, colour and smell is highly optimized to ensure the continued survival of the plant.

But what about humans?  Why are we so strongly attracted to the lovely shapes and colours?  I argue that our love for flowers is mainly cultural.  Try to cast your mind back to your youth, when your parents first introduced you to flowers.  As a tiny baby you were held near the rose, the honeysuckle and the jasmine, and told about its marvels.  Small wonder then that different cultures hold specific flowers dear, and a good example is the Japanese with their deep love of the chrysanthemum.  More examples are the English, with their rose and peony culture, the Americans with magnolias, and the French, with fields of lavender.

Spring is the time to celebrate out unique South African flower culture, our love of the veld and its coat of many colours.  This is the time to visit Rhebokskloof, not only for its unique and superb wines, but also for its granite outcrops covered with of the finest fynbos to be found in the Cape.  Take your family and friends, and celebrate our unique flower culture.

 

 

Dave Pepler

Crown jewels of the water

Rhebokskloof Wine Estate is a multiple use business. When I say business, the core function of the estate is to produce award-winning wines that reflect the unique microclimate of this hidden valley. But the farm also boasts a spectacular swathe of montane fynbos above the vineyards, where one can find the iconic flowers and animals unique to the smallest but most biodiverse vegetation type on earth.

Around the old homestead and restaurant we find a lovely sculpted garden, somewhere between formal and wild, gently sloping down to a large dam with natural wetlands around the edges. Because of the lack of disturbance and good management, this water feature is remarkably rich in natural wildlife. Birds are the most conspicuous wildlife here, and even from the restaurant deck you can see and hear the comings and goings of coot, moorhen, reed warblers, Egyptian geese, hadedas, swallows and swifts, weavers and cormorants. In a future article we will look at these birds.

Only when you get close to the water, and sit quietly in the shade, you will notice brightly colored insects darting over the surface of the water. Dragonflies!

Often overlooked and missed by the casual stroller, it is worth taking a closer look at these truly spectacular jewels of the water. Dragonflies are true insects belonging to the Order Odonata, and thus have six legs and two pairs of gossamer wings. What distinguish this group from many insects are the highly developed composite eyes, and this becomes patently obvious if you try to catch one or move nest one – immediately it will dart away on golden wings.

The entire life cycle of dragonflies depend on water, and only the adult phase, that of the flying insect, is not dependent on water. Eggs are laid on the surface when the female dips the tip of her abdomen through the surface and deposits an egg. The egg hatches a ferocious larva, which will attack practically any animal it encounters, even tadpoles. The larva develops rapidly, and sheds its skin a number if times as it grows, finally metamorphosing into the adult dragonfly.

It may come as a surprise to learn that dragonflies are entirely predatory, and they are highly efficient aerial hunters. Prey in the form of smaller flying insects are rapidly pursued and caught in the basket like cage formed by the dragonflies’ legs. The strong jaws quickly immobilize and dispatch the prey, which is usually consumed on the wing.

When next you visit Rhebokskloof, take some time to wander down to the dam, take a seat in the shade, and wait. Soon your eyes will pick up the darting shapes over the water, and, if you are lucky, one will come and perch on a stick or leaf near your hiding place. Marvel at the golden sheen on their wings, the large mobile eyes, and the colours on their slender bodies. For these are the crown jewels of the water.

Dave Pepler

Life under rocks

In harsh environments all over the world, loose rocks in the environment shelter a large number of animals from heat, cold, rain predators and, especially in fynbos, from fire. On the coldest day the temperature under rocks will be quite moderate compared to “outside” and even after even the hottest fires in fynbos, the lizards, snakes, geckos and insects will be out and about within hours.

Geckos are highly specialized lizards that occur in most warm regions of the world. Their specialized feet that allow them to “stick” to almost any surface, including glass and they have very large eyes with pupils that can dilate widely at night, when most species are active, and contract to pinpricks in daytime. To protect their delicate eyes, most have transparent eyelids and some even have long tongues with which they clean their eyes! They have adapted well to human dwellings and have been carried all over the world in cargo.

Another little stone dweller is the Cape Legless Skink, a legless lizard that looks like a shiny snake! These lizards have lost their legs and their external ear openings therefore they use the entire body to pick up sound vibrations. They “swim” through loose sand feeding on earthworms and bugs.

Now we come to a creature that gives me cold shivers: I have an irrational fear of spiders and scorpions, but once one learns more about them, fear is replaced by absolute wonder. Related to spiders, scorpions are nocturnal predators easily recognized by their pinchers (pedipalps), and their tails with the well-known sting at the end. We have over 135 species in South Africa, and although most are not highly venomous, we also have some of the deadliest scorpions on earth.

Just before the end of my walk, I spotted a Cape Sand Snake in hot pursuit of a smaller lizard in a wild rosemary bush. One of the fastest snakes in fynbos, they have relatively large eyes and slender bodies. Although they are venomous, they are back fanged and pose no threat to humans.

At the height of summer, one is inclined to think that all life in fynbos has disappeared, but under the rocks one finds a collection of fascinating creatures. Next time you walk in the veld, spare a thought for life under every stone!

Dave Pepler

Rhebokskloof: Report for December 2019

When I visited Rhebokskloof in late December no trace remained of the spring flush of delicate bulbs; nor of the stark Art Deco styled proteas or sugar bushes. Vegetation above the verdant vineyards has now turned a monotone dull green. Has all life departed with the flowers? Of course not!

Now is the time to use your ears and eyes for small and insignificant cues. Ears? Plip-plip-plip calls a hidden creature from deep within a thicket, but to see it is near impossible. Here is a little secret: if you hear what you think is a concealed bird, clench your teeth and “swish” the air out. As if by magic, hidden birds pop up, bright eyes looking for this universal warning sound. And it’s a Bar Throated Apalis, one of the fynbos’s most elusive insectivores!

It is a tiny bird, weighing about 11gms, commonly found throughout fynbos. It has a distinctive, narrow black breast band, which is slightly broader in the males. The general colour varies across the range and it has a wonderfully bright and beady eye. Next time you hear plip-plip-plip, call them up!

Moving between the rocky outcrops on higher ground, I found the striking balloon milkweed, or Gomphocarpus physocarpus. While poisonous to people and animals, insects adore this plant. When flying insects visit it, the plant traps them and attaches a parcel of pollen to the insect, which the insect flies with to cross-pollinate the next plant! The African Monarch Butterfly also uses the milkweed as a host food plant for its larvae, transferring its poison to the butterfly and making it foul-tasting to any predator.

Today there was an ominous visitor on the milkweed; the Red Foam Grasshopper! Wherever you see yellow, red and black (known as aposematic colouring), be warned, because nature is telling you to avoid this creature. These spectacular grasshoppers adore milkweed and derive their highly irritating foam from these plants. The youngsters, known as nymphs, form bands and chomp their way through the veld and gardens like “weed eaters”.

When next you take your mountain bike out to Rhebokskloof, keep a sharp lookout for a flash of red, and prick your ears for Plip-plip-plip! This time you’ll know what you are seeing and hearing, adding value to your sport.

Dave Pepler

 

Photograph 1: Bar Throated Apalis, one of the most secretive birds in Fynbos

Photograph 2: Nature’s warning in red, black and yellow – the Red Foam Grasshopper

Photograph 3: The familiar Baloon Milkweed

Environmental Newsletter Dec 2018

When summer comes to Rhebokskloof, a profound change happens to the fynbos above the vineyards. Suddenly the pastel colours of delicate perennials such as gladioli, the creamy buttery flowers of red root (Wachendorfia) and “pypies” (Lachenalia) have withered to brown and the entire landscape has taken on hues of grey, rather like renosterveld. But wait, below this canopy of matt grey, there is life and colour and activity. Now, more than ever, you have to immerse yourself into the vegetation so see why this undergrowth type is world famous.

The very first thing that catches the eye, is kapokbos (Eriocephalus). The rosettes of small white flowers have now been replaced by little balls of pure white cotton, from where the plant gets its name, and you can bet that every nest of the resident robins, sugarbirds, flycatchers and thrush was lined with this natural botanical fleece during the breeding season. I have a suspicion that the wonderful rosemary essential oil in the leaves in rubs off on the birds whilst collecting the fibres, and might serve the purpose of protecting them from parasites, as well as lending a measure of waterproofing to the feathers.

Now, kneel next to the kapokbos, and lower yourself to ground level. The day before my visit, a light rain shower fell, and this was the stimulus for harvester termites to appear from the darkness underground and, quickly, while the soil was still wet, add additional passages and “rooms” to their mounds. While some workers were building, others were cutting dry grass and leaves for food. The cellulose in plant matter is indigestible to termites, so, in order to break it down, they have underground spaces where the grass is stored and inoculated with a special fungus. Once the plant matter has been digested, the fungus produces a crust of fruiting bodies (much like mushrooms), and this serves as food for the entire colony. It struck me that, at Rhebokskloof, two parallel processes are at work: fine wine is produced from grapes, carefully tended and nurtured by viticulturists and wine makers, whilst the surrounding fynbos has similar processes at work. Both these systems assure good soil health and sustainable life.

Walk deeper into the fynbos, and you will find that there is still colour. At least three species of plakkies (Cotyledon) is now in full bloom, but it is the larger species that catches the eye with its marvelous peach and yellow flowers. Closer to the grouns there are more plakkies, with little rosettes of buttery flowers. These plants are succulents, and it makes complete ecological sense for them to flower after the ephemeral gladiolus en red root. Why? If all plants flowered together, there would be severe competition for insects to pollinate them. But, if you stagger and time your flowers, you are assured of a dedicated work force of pollinators!

But colour is not restricted to plants alone on Rhebokskloof. Famed for its granite outcrops, the exposed rocks Paarl hosts of the loveliest lichens imaginable. Lichens, off course, are not single organisms, but rather a symbiotic (a relationship that benefits both) body comprising of interwoven fungi and algae. The health of any ecosystem can be measured by the presence and mixture of lichens, and going by Rhebokskloof’s wonderful spreads of lichen, the fynbos is healthy and thriving.

As the temperature increases, the fynbos will dry out even more, but, in my report for December, I can assure you of continued colour, continued wonders.

Dave Pepler

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