Spotting in the Dark

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As dusk faded and the night turned pitch-black and cold, I laid out my sleeping bag to prepare for another easy night under the stars. But when I rolled over, I spotted what looked like a group of conspirators in the dark.

Their collected focus formed a tight pocket of light from their head-torches. They sat hunched over, consumed in a hushed but animated debate… while looking at flowers.

Erica in the night
I’m not sure what surprised me more: that they were skipping valuable time for sleeping to look at flowers, or that they were all holding books of considerable size and weight which had been stashed in their packs. We walk nearly sun-up to sun-down and all rest time is precious, especially tonight’s with a plan for a very early start the next morning. Our packs, while not the heaviest things people have carried into the mountains, have been trimmed of all items deemed unnecessary.

But here they are… intently inspecting little plants with hefty books in their lap.

Henry, a trail leader from the UK, made a promise to himself to learn to recognize and recall the scientific name of 40 species from the fynbos we walked through. That’s 10 species per-week while on trail and these half dozen plants collected from around camp were simply a kick-start making up for lost time.

As I approach the group is passing around a twig of Erica and trying to tease out which species it is. There’s some difficulty making a distinction in species of Ericas because, well, there’s just so many different types of them. Of the 860 species of Ericas identified by scientists, 660 of them come from South Africa (compare that to all of Europe only having 21). This means that identifying Ericas in South Africa is like a walking down an endless buffet of biodiversity and trying to find just the right one (there are books solely dedicated to just helping people identify every Erica out there).

These guys had left behind all the Erica-specific books, so they give up finding the species name and settle for the name of “Erica sp.,” the Genus with unknown species.

ericas

Plant names never appealed to me in the past. I love science and biology, but learning scientific names just hurts my brain. When anyone ever pointed out a scientific name to something I would thank them and show interest but forget it instantly. They could have turned around and asked me to repeat back what they said and I would be completely speechless.

But on this trip I started to learn why scientific names can be so great. When you are faced with massive amounts of biodiversity and plants, it helps to have a system in place to make sense of the relationships of the plants and life around you, and the stories start taking you deeper into the magic of the fynbos.

sundwe close up flower

sundew close up
This small flower’s common name is the Sundew, easily remembered by spying the sunlight reflecting off of the “dew drops” on the leaves of the plant, which is covered in red tentacles. Its scientific name, Drosera cistiflora, tells you more of it’s story.

The Genus name of Drosera tells you its part of one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants (which were so fascinating to Charles Darwin that he included 285 pages in his Insectivorous Plants Book about them). All carnivorous plants evolved to eat things like insects to be able to get additional nutrients lacking from the soil, and Drosera‘s trap their pray in their “dew drops” (made of a mucus which acts as a glue) and then wrap their leaves (slowly) around the insect.

A slow killer, the insect only dies from exhaustion or suffocation as the mucus slowly covers its body. Once the plant wraps its leaves around the insect, it releases enzymes to break-down the nutrients in the insect’s body, turning it into insect-soup. This vital soup of nutrients is then absorbed by the leaves.

Not bad for a little flower that I just thought grew in little wet spots along the trail. And now knowing this, I can have sweet dreams of being wrapped in its red embrace.