It is now practically the dead of winter, and the first good rains of the season have fallen in the Boland.  Although spring, with its spectacular displays of delicate veld flowers is still a long way off, already the very firsts signs of botanical awakening are becoming evident.  Known as “opslag”, a fine green sheen appears over the soil, as if by magic.  Opslag is composed mainly of sprouting grass seeds, but scattered in the green, there are little flowering gems hidden in the sea of uniformity.

The first colour of winter is salmon!  Oxalis, also known as “surings”, is a delicate flowering plant native to South Africa and South America.  Most of their leaves are clover like, in other words composed of three leaflets, and the corolla of the flower is twisted, somewhat like the twisted ice creams children love so much.  Much of the year they are hidden underground, where you will find a little bulb-like organ, known as a corm.  There are over 270 species in South Africa and most of them are confined to the winter rainfall area.

The second plant to show itself is the brilliant Spiloxene, or “sterretjie”, little star.  Exactly like Oxalis, it grows from a corm, which lies dormant in the dry soil for most of the year.  These little gems are wonderfully coloured, with pearly white and chrome yellow hues predominating.  They have no nectar to attract insects, but rely solely on their distinctive and bright colours, and some have a dark center in the flower, which serves as a target for visiting insects, mainly small beetles that see this spot as a potential mate.  How wonderful of nature to fool visitors to come and frolic in the heart of a flower so that it can be pollinated for free.

But, all is not safe and serene in this field of lovely colour because as one can expect from nature, there is always a predator on the prowl.  Having patiently waited through summer and autumn, now is the time for guinea fowl, Cape francolin and greywing francolin to cash in on the hidden bounty of succulent corms.  During the dry season, when Oxalis and Spiloxene are dormant, there is no physical above ground feature that advertises the nutrient rich storage organ lying hidden.  But suddenly the brightly coloured flower appears, it is like a beacon for the birds and one can now see them digging down the flower stalk towards the corm.  To the untrained eye, this would seem like extreme botanical foolishness.

But again, nature has a cunning plan.  Every year, tiny new corms, loosely attached, are formed around the old one. When ground birds such as the francolins start digging and scratching for the main corm, they unknowingly scatter the young corms around the mother plant, and so the plant is propagated.  This is the reason why, when you find oxalis or Spiloxene flowers, they usually form dense thickets, producing carpets of colour.

When you visit Rhebokskloof in winter, ask staff to direct you to the granite outcrops on the hills above the farm.  Take a bottle of wine, glasses, and the children and walk up.  Pour a glass of wine and revel in the subtle colours of nature’s first awakenings.

 

Dave Pepler