I am from the small town of Dullstroom in Mpumalanga and one thing I have always been aware of is the wildflowers in our area. This is because of the active measures taken by the locals to not only protect the wildflowers but also raise awareness around the individual wildflowers and groupings of the flowers. Throughout the year there are numerous events that raise funds for the conservation of the flowers and/or raise awareness around the presence of the wildflowers. While I could never really understand why those efforts were so important, what I could appreciate was the beauty of the areas that were protected. One area comes to mind more than most- the Verloren Vallei Nature Reserve has some of the most stunning nature views I have come across. In my research, I have realised that the protected status of the area has allowed it to be beautiful.
In my nine years in Makhanda, I have not come across such concerted efforts to protect wildflowers until I heard of Vathiswa Zikishe and the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) programme.
CREW monitors wildflower species that are of conservation concern to ensure that proper data is collected around these species and their populations. This process informs the Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs with status reports of all plant species in South Africa per province.
I came across a rather surprising and concerning fact provided by Vathiswa in the CREW newsletter released in April of this year. She wrote, “The Eastern Cape forms part of our threatened plant data gap areas in the country.” This concerned me for a number of reasons, first and foremost was the fact that such a data gap means that botanists in the area do not have full knowledge of the wildflower species in the area. This lack of information will lead to a lack of action because no one knows where most rare and endangered wildflowers can be found and their population status.
Like everything else in nature, wildflowers have a role to play in the environment and removing them would cause a disruption in the ecosystems and the environment that would affect all. Beyond that, wildflowers are also used for medicinal purposes. Vathiswa notes that those who have been educated in the use of these flowers, like traditional healers, are especially aware of responsible harvesting and use of the flowers and have practices in place the protect the growth of the flowers while also harvesting them. This sort of information needs to be spread through all the schools in the area, giving children the knowledge they need to be appreciative of plant life around them.
There are numerous threats to wildflowers, but the major one is habitat loss. Building developments are the main cause for this but can be prevented through land use restrictions of areas that contain endangered species. Frequent fires and overgrazing cause degradation and habitat loss while invasive alien species also take over habitats and make them unsuitable for the indigenous wildflower species. Something as minor as changes in pollinator habits have significant implications on the distribution of wildflowers, which is why we need to take care of bees, butterflies. mice and other pollinators.
There are critically endangered flowers in and around Makhanda. I, unfortunately, cannot talk about them because as much as I would like to raise awareness for them there is a chance that those who do not have the best intentions will use that information to poach the flowers and sell them. I also cannot use photographs of those flowers because that could again aid in the poaching of the wildflowers. One of the most powerful tools used to protect wildflowers is declaring areas containing endangered wildflowers protected areas. The Biodiversity Programme is also working hard to promote biodiversity by coordinating with public and private groups.
There are way’s that the public can assist, by joining CREW groups on field trips to find rare and endangered flowers. You don’t need to have any knowledge of botany or flowers, just a keen eye and a willingness to help. You can find the contact details for the head of CREW cells at the end of the April 2019 Newsletter or you can fill in the volunteer application form. Alternatively, the Schoneland Herbarium and Albany Museum in Makhanda are in the lengthy process of digitizing all their data, and the public can help in this by transcribing information posted here.