National Geographic Young Explorer Evan Eifler is working to preserve the endangered ecosystems of South Africa, most notably the renosterveld. The renosterveld, once thought of as mere “wasteland”, actually contains a unique “floral kingdom” found nowhere else in the world that has an immense diversity of plant species. In order to save what little of it remains, Evan and his associates work closely with the local farmers, but the going is as rough and unyielding as the landscape.
In honor of the approaching South African Spring and the start of my fieldwork a year ago today, I thought I’d share a gallery dedicated to the unheeded bulb species of the Overberg region of the Western Cape where I spent the last year in the field.
For most parts of the year, the renosterveld (meaning rhino-field in Afrikaans) is a drab habitat looking like nothing more than dry patches of gnarled, grey bushes taking up space between fields of wheat stubble. There doesn’t appear to be much going on at the surface, even to a trained botanist. Actually, a glance out the window of a car at any time of year would probably yield the same, underwhelming conclusion. This is how I first came across the unusual habitat, a brief field trip into a leg-scratching patch of scrub. I suppose my strong desire to see what was really lying beneath the hard-pack was part of the impetus behind my National Geographic Young Explorers Grant and eventual return to the veld.
A year ago today I stepped into the field for the first time as a grantee. It was an unrecognizable space filled with garden flowers and flush with green. There were even flamingos in the flooded pan to put the cherry on the top of the surreal transformation. Every spring the renosterveld comes alive with color, and, what was a scraggly patch of grey bushes just a few months ago resumes its glory as the richest bulb habitat in the world. Members of the Iris, Hyacinth, and Amaryllis families abound, reminiscent of their derived relatives in ornamental gardens the world over.
You might not expect this extreme environment to produce such a variety of apparent garden flowers, but the extreme seasonality and the abundance of microhabitats in the Western Cape is exactly what has driven the evolution and radiation of bulb-bearing plant species to such an extreme. Bulbs, or underground storage organs, are an adaptation to the unyielding seasonality of the Western Cape; a plant can essentially hide from the heat and drought of high summer underground only to reemerge once the sun returns after the wet, cloudy winter.
With more bulb-bearing species per area than anywhere else on Earth, the renosterveld is a globally important slice of plant diversity, yet is exceptionally poorly understood—so poorly understood, in fact, that no one’s quite sure why it’s even called renosterveld (were there black rhinos in the area during early settlement? did the grey bush-covered hills remind them of rhino hide?). We’ll have to act fast if we’re ever going to learn more about this unique plant community as all renosterveld types in the Overberg region are listed as Critically Endangered with an estimated four to six percent of original renosterveld habitat remaining. The rest having been lost to agriculture.