Pedals for Petals
It seems as if we have a knack for choosing the near impossible as passion projects… the harder the challenge, the bigger our interest.
I have always wondered how it is possible to “lose” a species? I mean, you go out, you find said species, you note the location, and tada!!! you have a record in perpetuity, right? Wrong! Life happens, sometimes, try as we may, our location data gets lost, or your GPS files end up corrupted, or a pre-gps location was documented when there was only a single farm in an area, now there are 15, all with the same name… all things that in the end can result in the loss of a species.
Our story of the rediscovery of the lost population of Ixia leipoldtii, the Chameleon Cornflower, that was last seen in 1996 starts off with the loss of a location.
We became aware of its existence one afternoon during the Spring flowering season in 2019. A dear friend of my Mothers, who had passed away, left my Mom some of her most sentimental botanical books. We visited to collect some of botanical reference gems, and in one of the books that was set aside for us we found a small note that described two botanical species of interest that the anonymous scribbler found whilst exploring the farm.
This area is known as the Klein Karoo, the Western Cape’s semi-arid big-sky countryside that is as intriguing as it is vast. Being as inherently curious as we are, we both jumped onto google to find out more about these two species. The one I knew from way back when I found a population of Tritonia watermeyeri on a scree slope during an afternoon eco-exploration. The other, Ixia leipoldtii was unknown to both of us. What we found during our google search had Keir up and out the door before I could even blink!
This unique Ixia was collected from the wild for the first time on the 27th September 1935 on the farm Eikekraal in the Prince Albert region by C. L. Leipoldt. Although he was an avid botanist he was much better known for his contribution to the prose of the Afrikaans language. Unfortunately, it seems as if the location he collected this species from was recorded incorrectly. If finding it again relied on this location data Ixia leipoldtii was lost to the botanical world before it could even be seen in the wild for second time! Nevertheless, the species was finally described in 1954 by G.J.Lewis from the specimens that Leipoldt collected and deposited in the Bolus Herbarium. It took 42 years for this plant to be found in the wild again, by John Manning, our legendary bulb guru in South Africa. It was a chance discovery, he and a friend hopped a fence during a trip through the Klein Karoo and ambled into a piece of Montagu Shale Renosterveld just off the R62 on the Op de Tradouw Pass. Here they stumbled across this species eking out an existence in what was then already a precariously threatened location. Mannings observations predicted a dire future for this species, there were very few plants left in this single known population, it had a range-restricted distribution and was found in a highly fragmented habitat. From this he formed the opinion that Ixia leipoldtii was at high risk of extinction in the wild.
The location was noted without a GPS point, as Op de Tradouw Pass. In the years that followed the “Op de Tradouw Pass” expanded exponentially and when we finally started looking for this species in 2019, what was once a two kilometer stretch had now turned into 20km's that needed to be covered.
Keir was gone for hours when my phone starting pinging, photos of the most incredible Ixia’s started filtering through. His excitement was palpable. After poring over Ixia identities and consulting Ismail Ebrahim from the South African National Biodiversity Institute it was identified as Ixia gloriosa, an Endangered cornflower that is only known from two locations and has an extent of occurrence less than 11 km² in size! It was not Ixia leipoldtii, but this was an important distributional record and a significant population.
We searched for quite a few days, expanding our search to include the entire area now known as the Op de Tradouw Pass. Some landowners were welcoming, others was hostile the moment they heard “critically endangered plant”. On one area we found another Ixia which looked similar to Ixia gloriosa. This time it turned out to be Ixia superba. Even though we were a tiny bit disappointed, all was not lost. Ixia superba is a Vulnerable bulb species that was then only known from 3 locations.
By this stage, the flowering season had come to a near end, and we had to shelve our search for our target Ixia till spring 2020.
Our busiest time of year is from June to November, this is when most of our fieldwork for the various projects we implement commences, a crucial and very productive time of year for us, and it is also the time of year when we had to resume our search for Ixia leipoldtii again.
A catastrophic breakdown with our Mahindra S10 Double Cab upended all of our passion project survey plans for 11 weeks! Luckily we could continue implementing our contracted projects implemented for the Endangered Wildlife Trust through the use of their project vehicle – but outside of these projects we were left stuck at home. Stuck standing on our stoep, hands in our hair, through the most important botanical part of the year. We had moved back into the Klein Karoo and lived closer to the area where we could search for our Ixia. But, with no vehicle it was a moot exercise. It was too far to get to viable habitat and cover adequate ground on foot in one day to put in relative effort to find this lost species. It was just close enough to leave us standing and fuming on our porch over yet another flowering season that was rapidly slipping away before our eyes – we knew our time was limited to find this species, we were watching the agricultural development of the Op de Tradouw Pass for the last few months and we were getting frantic about the possibility that Ixia leipoldtii might land up under the plough if we did not find it in time.
Enter a steed of a different sort. Who came to our rescue? A Silverback mountain bike! Before I knew what was going on Keir was geared up, and off on his Spectra Sport, leaving me with a view of two wheels, a bum and frantic pedalling disappearing over the horizon each morning – only to return hours later, after a fruitless search, in a worse mood than when he had left.
Although most days ended empty handed, being able to hop on the saddle after a few hours of admin and escape the office every day, getting to the habitat we needed to survey - walking for hours, and pedalling back - quite literally saved his sanity. More importantly it gave us the opportunity to keep on searching for that darn Ixia!
But he had no luck, and we both knew he was days away from having to call it quits, again.
As a desperate last attempt, he contacted Manning and with new guidance retraced his footsteps again and found a site which looked as if it may well have held the right vegetation type and habitat as described in Mannings account of the species. What should have been a joyous occasion soon turned into a sad realization that we might be too late. The site was gone. We stood looking over a ploughed field, a feeling of dread engulfing us.
We sat in silence late that afternoon, sulking over our maps, retracing the days description of the location again. Then, in the desperate light of dusk we suddenly both realized that we had made a critical mistake. We were so disparaged at the sight of the ploughing that we did not consider any alternatives. We were 250m out on our search... Could we be lucky enough to have made such a mistake?
Keir hopped back on the bike, and rode out to the site – excitedly, but apprehensively, confirming that we REALLY needed to get into this property!
We met with the landowners the next morning. After explaining why we were creeping and drooling over their property, they explained to us that they had ploughed sections of their land after they applied for permission from Department of Agriculture and Landcare, as well as CapeNature for the ploughing – these two bodies visited the site and noted nothing of conservation value and gave them the permission to commence their agricultural development. The landowners had taken a break and was about to start resuming their ploughing end of Summer – which would include the section we wanted to survey. They eagerly joined us for a walk with them into the areas we frantically wanted to see.
Keir did his normal thing, within minutes he boerbokked his way to more than a hundred meters from us. The piece of in-tact and untouched pristine renosterveld we stood in, was incredible. The diversity was jaw-dropping and we found stunning species every few meters. Orchids, peas, daisies and doll’s roses adorned the veld, incredible to see. Chatting with the landowners I stepped around a renosterbos and came face to face with the most beautiful white flower, standing proud in a tiny sunlit clearing. It had a mauve and pink centre, white petals shivering lightly in the breeze. My heart stopped, my jaw dropped and as I was about to shriek with delight, I heard Keir give the joyous ‘woop’ of finding one as well!
There it was, Ixia leipoldtii in all its glory. It looked nothing like the long whispy Ixia's we knew. It was short stalked, with a flower five times the size of any Ixia we had seen to date. Everyone crouched down on their haunches to admire this enigma that has been evading us for two years, last “seen” in 1996, Critically Endangered, and mere meters and months away from impending doom.
Our relief was tremendous, the feeling of sitting in the presence of this species was indescribable - but the biggest reward was seeing the relief and disbelief on the faces of the landowners. The moment they realized what this meant for this species, the only population of this Critically Endangered species known in the wild – on their property, and it was theirs! They were the proud custodians of this species on their precious little farm, a stone’s throw from our doorstep. They were so happy that we had imposed on their privacy and committed to protecting this species and its habitat!
Our minds could rest, Ixia leipoldtii was safe.
We did a proper survey, counted over 70 plants in the population, marked some flowers as a home-schooling lesson, and returned two months later. We collected enough seed to deposit a significant amount into the Millennium Seed Bank, some more was sent to the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden for propagation, and the rest was left to reseed this precious habitat.
Buying this Silverback bicycle saved the day, it catalysed a chain of events that lead to us being able to find this population just in time...
Who would have thought that a bicycle could play such a big role in finding and saving a critically endangered botanical species? I wonder what we will find next on our cycling adventures?