28 February 2013

Stop to smell the flowers

Helen Lockhart - Communications & Sustainability Manager Two Oceans Aquarium

I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t often get to walk around the Aquarium slowly and really look at the exhibits as a visitor would do. Sad, but true! So weekend duties are a great opportunity to spend time studying the animals and plants on display, and discovering something I have never seen before.

A couple of Saturdays ago I was strolling through the Sappi River Meander Exhibit and this time it wasn’t the penguins, the oystercatchers or the waterfalls that caught my attention. It was these beautiful, delicate little flowers, glistening with water droplets after their early morning “shower” that stopped me in my tracks. The star-like white flowers look like creations in Madame Tussauds or icing decorations on a cake. They have a very subtle fragrance – so subtle, I ended up with pollen on my nose!

All photos by Helen Lockhart
No one in the Aquarium was quite sure of the name of the plant so I contacted an ex-colleague, Neil Major, who, once upon a time, was in charge of the Sappi River Meander. Neil now runs the Cape Flats Fynbos Nursery and is always my first port of call when trying to identify local plants.

He surmised that the mystery plant is the pineapple lily Eucomis autumnalis, but he wasn’t ready to put his head on a block for the identification. So I then contacted the fundis at Kirstenbosch through the website www.plantzafrica.com, an excellent resource for indigenous plant identification.

Two individuals, Graham Duncan and Anthony Magee, confirmed that the plant is the indeed the pineapple lily but with the scientific name of Eucomis comosa – distinguished from other very similar species, including Eucomis autumnalis, by their long pedicels and purple ovaries.

An indigenous bulb, the pineapple lily belongs to the hyacinth family. The first part of the Latin name Eucomis is apparently derived from the Greek eukomos, meaning “beautifully haired”. Approximately 11 species of Eucomis are found in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Ten of these occur in Southern Africa and can be seen in all nine provinces of South Africa, and in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. They are typically widespread in grassland, forest, swamps and riverbanks.

I was fascinated to learn that Eucomis autumnalis is used as a medicinal treatment for lower backache, urinary diseases, stomach ache, fevers, colic, flatulence, hangovers and syphilis, and to facilitate childbirth. This in spite of the fact that the bulb is toxic!

More information about Eucomis species can be found at this link.

The discovery of the delightful little flowers and the subsequent botany lesson reminded me of just how important it is to stop and smell the flowers from time to time. In our daily rush, we miss out on so much beauty and forget that our world is full of intrigue.

“Flowers ... are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world”. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844

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