The Queen in the Moor
The rediscovery of a lost population of one of South Africa's rarest orchids, Disa scullyi – the Moor Orchid.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir
On the verge of tears or murder, swatting left and right at hundreds of horseflies that were paying the nearby sweaty cattle no heed, I could feel my ire rising as every minute went by. They were leaving Keir alone. Poor Cian was being tormented as well, but it was my succulent thighs that were drawing the most bites, burning red welts spreading under my skin after every goosebump-inducing nibble! It was only 9 am and a full day of surveying loomed ahead of us.
We started early morning with our surveys of the high-altitude wetlands around Gaika's Kop and the Hogsback. Our partner, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, is collaboratively working with the South African National Botanical Institute to develop a management toolbox for the rehabilitation and restoration of wetlands and catchments across South Africa. Since we were already working in the Hogsback area, implementing a project for the EWT on the Critically Endangered Amathole Toad, we were assisting it on this project.
As the day grew warmer and warmer, the humidity climbed and with it the hordes of buzzing, stinging and biting beasts droning around our sweaty bodies. There was no respite, not from them, nor from the heat. We were tired, hot and bothered. It was late afternoon and we started heading "home".
Despite the pine plantations, the views as one drive along the grasslands are spectacular. Our daily wetland targets left us departing a different area of the grasslands, and we tried to take a different route back to the Hogsback hamlet every day. We were navigating a remote road along the base of the Hogsback mountain when we descended a steep incline and crossed a small, clear stream. We stopped to admire brightly coloured, drooping flowers growing on the water’s edge for a few minutes. Wild Sage grew amongst the spiny brambles, and a bright reddish-pink coloured iris-type flower had us debating its family and genus. On closer observation, we noticed the three scant little yellow teeth on the lower sepal. It reminded us of the Tritonia spp. we have growing close to our home. We later on confirmed that it was Tritonia disticha, a Pink Falling-star.
We are big fans of the Orchidaceae family. We have been known to rush after an orchid in bloom at the drop of a hat, and have seen some spectacular orchids in the Western Cape in the last three years. Every now and then the orchid-bible, "The Cape Orchids, a regional monograph of the Orchids of the Cape Floristic Region" by William R. Liltved and Steven D. Johnson, gets hauled out of the bookcase, and we pore over the wonders we still have to observe all over South Africa – a mental list forming of species that we hope one day to see. The grasslands we traversed during this survey were remarkably devoid of orchids, and in retrospect, I might have conjured up a ridiculously pre-conceived image of what orchid season in the grasslands would look like. After all, shouldn’t I have known that they are generally not so easy to spot?!
We scoured the edges of the little stream with the hope of finding some little gem hiding amongst the grasses on the bank, but with no luck. Cian had a quick dip of his feet and legs in the stream after he sunk away in the mud, and we could see his high spirit returning as he cooled off a bit. Working full days infield is not easy for a 12-year-old tech-junkie!
Keir decided to walk up the valley a bit to see what he could find higher up. I watched him, about ten meters from me, as he sank to his knees and chanted "look who found the first orchid!" at me in a lilting voice. I could not believe it! I scrambled over, almost sacrificing my shoe as I stepped mid-calve deep into silt and manure where the local Nguni herd had churned the mud and left deep hoof tracks.
It was a heart-stopping moment; before us, in this small four-square meter’s "wetland" in this little seep, stood the most unimaginably beautiful orchid we had ever seen. It was the epitome of what we always envision orchids to be - medium-sized, brightly coloured, intriguingly formed with a spur that reminds one of deep-set monkshood. It was incredible. We spent nearly an hour observing and photographing the seven specimens that we could find. I was very hesitant to leave without making sure that I had at least 2000 photographs! We descended from the mountain and drove to town for a well-deserved night’s rest. As soon as we had a signal, we consulted the citizen science platforms to see if we could find anything resembling this species that had been documented in the area.
Once back at the Hogsback Inn, we pulled out our field guide to Southern Africa's orchids. There were two possibilities: it was either Disa cooperi or Disa scullyi. We inspected the lower lip of the flowers we photographed, the leaves at the base, and the lateral sepals. We leaned towards Disa scullyi. The field guide mentioned that it is a rare habitat specialist that occurs from the KZN midlands to the Amathola district. I was so grateful that Keir found such a beautiful orchid!
We consulted the SANBI Redlist, an excellent resource of concise conservation information about all the flora of South Africa and read with interest that this species is Endangered.
Later the next day, I picked up my phone, read the SANBI Redlist entry on this species again, and realized that I had not read the full text. Keir was deep in concentration, working on GIS collating the spatial data gathered for the wetland surveys. I read the full text, and when I reached the last sentence my skin went cold, my mouth went dry, and I looked up at Keir and blurted out the Redlist entry to him… "Disa scullyi was thought to be extinct in the Hogsback area where it was last observed in 1966" it read.
We contacted Craig Peters, whom we know from the Animal Demography Units Virtual Museum OrchidMap panel. He confirmed our ID of the species as Disa scullyi. He offered to pull all known records of this species from all the citizen science platforms. We could use this to confirm whether this Moor Orchid have been observed in the Hogsback area since 1966. Very few observations of this species had been recorded, and it turned that our record was the first one confirmed for the Hogsback region in 54 years!
How incredible is that? Keir did it again! Last year he rediscovered an Ixia leipoldtii population that had not been seen for almost 30 years, and here he goes and finds one of South Africa's rarest orchids in an area where it had been thought to be extinct for more than half a century!
Now that we are familiar with their habitat, flowering time and the region, we will have to go back next year to survey other viable seeps in the hopes of finding more populations of this majestic queen.