The Cactus Patch
Volume 7       September 2004      Number 9

The Land of the Rooibos
A Letter From Bruce
by Bruce Hargreaves

On the 2nd of July Polly and I drove south to Kimberley, South Africa. It took an hour to get through the border, largely due to the inefficiency of the "upgraded" computerized system on the South African side. The ponds just north of Kimberley were pink with the usual contingent of flamingoes. We stayed at "Formula 1", part of a chain of cheap hotels where we had stayed before. One thing new was the "Choctaw Spur", part of a chain of fast food places making a pretence of a native American ambiance. The concrete teepees did not correlate with the "Choctaw" name!

Next day we stopped for Eberlanzia (a thorny-branched mesemb), pencil euphorbs and other succulents 60.8 km SW of Strydenburg and still made it to Britstown for lunch at the "Smartt Gastehuis & Restaurant". When we went to leave we found we had a flat. The garage across the road put in a new valve. On the north edge of Victoria West we stopped for what I thought were Hoodias, but they turned out to be Euphorbia stellaspina. That night we stayed at the "Formula 1" in Beaufort West.

On the 4th of July we found the "repaired" tire was flat and had it repaired at the Shell Ultra City at Leeu Gamka, having failed to do so at Beaufort West. (It was Sunday!) While having breakfast at the "Whistle Stop" there we saw a whole busload of students with BHS sports shirts. It turned out they were from Beaufort West, not Bakersfield. We got as far as Worcester before we had another flat - this time in a different tire. The Ultra City there could not fix it, so after lunch at another "Whistle Stop" (and the same BHS busload), we headed up the road to Ceres. That evening we checked into "The Village Guesthouse", a delightful garden setting with exotic oak trees (but of course it was winter). Although we were told the restaurant was closed on Sundays, we managed to get a delightful dinner.

Next morning we hosed the ice off the car (the TV called it a "bitter cold"), bought two new tires and toured the town. Ceres, South Africa, is the center of a fruit industry similar to that of Ceres, California, where my mother, Alice, was born. (Much of the juice and fresh fruit we enjoy in Botswana comes from the South African Ceres.) By coincidence, this was the same weekend they were opening my great-grandfather's house in Ceres, California, as a historic monument. We drove back over Michell's Pass to Gouda where we noted a Del Monte cannery similar to the cannery in Modesto, California which services Ceres. Passing through Porterville (Polly's mother was a Porter and the Guesthouse in Ceres was on Porter Street) we joined the N7 coming north from Capetown at Piketberg and stopped at Citrusdal for lunch. While Polly sat at a picnic table and watched malachite sunbirds feed on aloes, I went into a shop to buy lunch. I also bought a packet of Rooibos tea beautifully decorated with sunbirds as well as an unlabeled packet of mystery leaves.

At 12:52 we pulled into the Ausburg Agricultural College in Clanwilliam. I registered for the Indigenous Plant Use Forum and then we went to a nearby guesthouse to find a room. They phoned around for us and finally found a place 12 km W of town. Polly dropped me back at the college in time for the 2 o'clock opening and then went to check us in at the self-catering Ysterfontein Guestfarm. (They feature horses, but we didn't use this facility.) The forum began with a session on indigenous knowledge, then one on ethnoveterinary medicine and finally another one on i. k. The dinner was very superior to those of previous years.

Next day we heard a clunk as Polly started the car. We thought it was a belt as we had lost electricity, but at the garage they found the whole pulley had cracked. It would take a day to get another pulley. Polly joined me at the forum and listened to a day of papers devoted to rooibos and other bush teas. They served rooibos which I like and Polly tolerates, but we both agreed that tea from the daisy Athrixia phylicoides tastes a bit too "medicinal". This is a pity as there is a related daisy in Botswana which might be developed. The afternoon and evening were devoted to papers on conservation and cultivation and I presented "The marketing of Mosata". This is Stomatostemma monterioae, a viney milkweed with a succulent tuber and an edible fruit which is found in Botswana. Unfortunately, there is a similar plant, Marsdenia macrantha, which has a poisonous fruit. That evening Ben-Eric van Wyk, the forum leader, drove us back to the guest farm.

Next morning Mrs. van Wyk picked us up in good time for the business meeting. This was followed by a field trip across the Cedarberg to the Sevilla Trail on the Brandewyn River. Here we were shown a good sample of the rock art of this area which is said to have the most in the world. After rushing through the paintings, we had a leisurely stroll back with local experts explaining plant uses, including the botterboom (Butter Tree, Tylocoden paniculatum) which has a slippery sap which kids use for sliding on rocks. It was interesting to note both Euphorbia mauritanica which is highly poisonous and Euphorbia burmannii which is edible! We had a superb lunch at the Khoisan Kitchen and then looked at a sample of a few of the 300 "buchus". These are aromatic plants in the Rutaceae or Citrus family which makes it fitting that the "mystery" leaves I bought at Citrusdal turn out to be from one!

We returned to Clanwilliam and found the car repaired. The forum then toured the Rooibos factory and learned how the raw leaves (from a legume that grows only in that area) are pasteurized and packaged for markets as far away as Europe and the U.S.A. This has been a remarkable marketing story for a local plant. It has the advantage over "regular" tea of being free from caffeine and high in antioxidants. That evening we had a BBQ dinner, but the sheep were started late and it was quite cold by the time we sat down to eat.

The last day of the forum we had sessions on chemistry and biological activity. That evening we dined out at the Oliphantshuis (Elephant's House) and on the 10th we had breakfast at Nancy's Tea Room (which had catered the conference). We then toured the Clanwilliam museum (which had a room devoted to Louis Leipoldt who, among other things, collected plants and had a genus of mesembs named after him. We then set off up the road past Vanrhynsdorp where we entered Namaqualand which we had visited 10 years previously. After a brief stop for a late lunch at Wimpy's in Springbok we headed east and spent the night at the hotel in Pofadder (Puffadder - a snake like a rattler without rattles).

The TV in our room was fuzzy and both dinner and breakfast had a "mystery" meat we could have done without. The African grey parrot, however, was entertaining. He always one-upped me when I mimicked his whistling, eventually getting too complex for me to repeat. We then proceeded across the succulent riches of Bushmanland to Kakamas and Keimos on the Gariep (Orange) River. 8.6 km west of Kakamas there were plants of Euphorbia lignosa and Aloe claviflora with green hair trees which are very similar to the Palo Verde of California of the same genus Parkinsonia. (They occur on the SW corner of Botswana.) 8.4 km east of Kakamas we found a "stink corkwood" (Commiphora gracilifrondosa) which I at first thought was a caudiciform Rhus.

4.5 km NE of Keimos we pulled off the road with white smoke coming out of the engine. We feared the worst as ten years previously we had white smoke from a broken transmission seal which left us limping back to Gaborone from Brandvlei (Burning Valley) which is due south from Keimos. This time we were luckier. After a two-hour wait a tow truck arrived and the loose clamp on the transmission oil hose was tightened in a minute! The stop was also lucky in that I would otherwise have missed a stand of Euphorbia ferox in full bloom. We were soon in Upington where one of the garage attendants recognized us from our flat tire in Britstown the week before! We also learned they had hurried because the police had phoned and told them an "ouma and oupa" were waiting in the sun. (Luckily we had thermoses of coffee.) Just before Oliphantshoek (Elephant Corner - with only a statue of one in sight) we passed a hillside of Aloe hereoensis in bloom. This was heartening, as most of them in Botswana have mysteriously died.

We stayed the night at the Klipwerf Guest House in Kuruman (Kudumane) and ate at another Spur. On the 11th we stopped for shopping in Mafikeng, crossed the border rapidly and reached Lobatse in time to buy fresh milk at the Spar supermarket. (We knew we wouldn't be in time for the stores in Gaborone as they close at 2 on Sundays - not as bad as in the 60s when blue laws kept them completely closed.) At the Spar we saw some tubers marked "Ambrosia'. They were rung up as "Kan". Upon inquiry we found they are like "Pan" which is the vine (Piper betle) which is chewed with the fruit of the betel

palm. I have seen this Indian leaf for sale in Gaborone. The tuber is intended for cooking and mashing into porridge, but I have planted mine.

This was a long trip - and we left out a lot: the big hole from diamonds at Kimberley, the succulents at Strydenburg, the Karoo National Park at Beaufort West, the Karoo Botanic Garden at Worcester, Aughrabies National Park west of Upington, the Moffat Mission at Kuruman, the Boy Scout Memorial at Mafikeng etc. But we've done those before - no time for repeats. Life is too short.

The article on Echinopsis in the July Cactus Patch stirred some memories. The first echinopsis I grew was from a very large old plant in Ceres! My great-aunt Faye Davis had a son who went to Brazil as a missionary. Consequently she had a greenhouse full of exotic plants in Ceres. She also had an attic full of South American insects and a rhea egg. Perhaps the insects inspired my brother Robert (who collected them as a kid and left me with the epitaph "Buggsy's brother" in school), but that was a dead end. The cactus, however, was undoubtedly one of the influences on my later endeavors.

While shopping in Mafikeng I bought a book West Coast -- South African Wild Flower Guide 7 (John Manning & Peter Goldblatt, 1996, Botanical Soc. S. Af., Kirstenbosch, Claremont, S.Af.). This is the latest in a series of wonderful wild flower books. (I bought the sixth, "Karoo" at the Karoo National Park on the way back from the IPUF meeting in 2002.) The West Coast area is small (a 50 km wide strip just north of Cape Town), but it is rich in species (about 1200). I have not yet been there, but some of the plants occur outside the area and we saw a few at the IPUF meeting in Clanwilliam. The largest group is the mesembs with some 35 beautifully illustrated species. Another large group is Oxalis with 15 species. (We saw a lot of these at the IPUF field trip). There are 6 Crassulas, 3 Tylecodons and a Cotyledon. Unfortunately there are only 5 euphorbs. The aloes fare even worse with only Aloe mitriformis listed and Orbea variegata is the only stapeliad. One of the plants of commercial value shown is the honey bush, Cyclopia genistoides, a shrubby legume which makes a delicious tea.

Rooibos tea packet


Green Hair Tree with White Hair Man

Mistletoe (a member of the Loranthaceae)

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