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.

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.

I have never taken a walk at Rhebokskloof without finding something new or something puzzling. Just last week I was walking on the large flat granite outcrops above the farm, when my eye caught something extraordinary. A drab, night flying moth, was systematically visiting the flowers of a Satyrium orchid, a rather common species in fynbos. Just by the way, in South Africa we have more than four hundred species of orchid!

Worldwide there are more than 28,000 species, thus forming the second largest plant group, after the more than 32,000 species of Asteraceae. A relatively small island like Borneo has more than 2000 species! One should also remember that, over and above their decorative importance, orchids also provide us with vanilla, that fragrant ingredient so widely used in cooking and confections.

But, when it comes to pollination, orchids are surely the masters of the plant kingdom. As early as the early 1850’s Charles Darwin was fascinated by the extreme adaptations of orchid flowers and also published a book, Fertilisation of Orchids, in 1853. When visiting Madagascar, during his round the world voyage on the Beagle, he found an orchid with a most unusual and long spur and predicted, accurately that it would be fertilized by a spesific long-tongued moth. More than a hundred years later he was proved to be right when the moth was discovered.

There are three ways in which orchids attract pollinaters. The first is colour, and when one looks at orchids in general, this becomes patently obvious. Some tropical orchids have truly bizarrely bright colours and this helps them to “advertise” their prescence in the dim light of rain forests. Then there is smell: of the most intoxicating smells in nature are to be found on these lovely plants. But the most bizarre adaptation in orchids is that of imitating, sometimes uncannnily, the female of the pollinating insect. Males, drawn closer by smell and colour, suddenly sees a beautiful female, and in a fit of passion, mates with the flower. In the throws of this coupling, he fertilizes the flower, subtly rewarded by sweet nectar.

Now it is time for the seeds to develop in capsules. Many orchids produce millions of seeds per capsule, which is then spread with the wind. They are so light because they have no endosperm (the food store needed to help the seddling develop), and rely on a highly spesific fungus to help them develop. Like most reproductive strategies of primitive plants, and insects for instance, they are successful if only one seed makes it to adulthood. They flood the market, hoping for a single success.

Although South Africa is blessed with many species of orchid, most of them are small, some microscopically so. Out most spectacular orchid is the internationally famous Disa uniflora, also known as the Pride of Table Mountain. Unfortunately this beauty does not grow at Rhebokskloof since it needs mossy banks of permanent mountain streams and waterfalls. But, Rhebokskloof has a smaller, similar looking orchid. Disperis capensis, or Moederkappie ( motherr’s bonnet) grows on the slopes above the vineyards. It is tiny, about the size of a thumb nail, but it is one of my favourites, simply for it’s sheer elegance.

When next you see spectacular orchids for sale at the florist, you can be assured that they are exotics and hybrids more than likely. But we have our own beauties, hidden until discovered. And this is more reason why you shuld take a fynbos walk, when next visiting Rhebokskloof.