11 March 2013 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Wild about flowers

Retha van der Walt’s incredible knowledge of local wild flowers transformed a morning walk in Mapungubwe National Park into a botany lesson that made me feel like I have been visiting the park for years without really seeing it.

Retha collecting flower specimens

The Cleome oxyphyllia var. robusta, in Afrikaans known as a type of peultjiesbos, is a small pink flower with distinctive blue and yellow markings on two of its four petals. It occurs in Mapungubwe National Park and surrounding areas in the Limpopo Valley.

Hibiscus coddii supsp. coddii. Image courtesy Retha van der Walt

It is just one of the rare endemic blooms that Retha van der Walt's book, Wild Flowers of the Limpopo Valley, documents, and on a morning walk in the area for Wild magazine, I was lucky to have her as my guide.

I have been going to the Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site for years, but this is the first time I have really noticed its wild flowers, which pop up all over the normally austere landscape after the first rains (which were particularly heavy this year).

Hibiscus engleri

Retha’s book carefully documents more than 350 flowering plants that occur in the park, as well as about 50 more that occur in the Limpopo Valley and parts of the Kruger National Park, especially north of the Olifants River.

Retha’s interest in biodiversity dates from her student days when, after attending a nature camp in the Kruger National Park, she decided to study nature conservation, while qualifying as a teacher. She met her husband, Tuba, while completing her practical field work – work that has never really stopped. Her office is fill of orderly cupboards, drawers and shelves of carefully identified and preserved specimens of plants, flowers, butterflies – even the skeletons of animals killed on the road by passing vehicles, which Retha retrieves, cleans and documents.

An iridescent beetle on Cleome oxyphylla var. robusta

'The thing that really worries me is that this area is under pressure, from farming and mining, and we don’t even know what we’ve got,' she says, citing the one rare peristrophe species tha was last recorded on the farm that has been purchased by the controversial Vele coal mine.

Retha is not the first person to have noticed the area’s floral richness – Illtyd Pole-Evans had begun documenting the area’s flora in the 1920s. With the help of politician and amateur botanist Jan Smuts, he worked towards national protection for the area. In 1947 the huge Dongola Botanical Reserve was eventually proclaimed, named after the local koppie (hill) between Mapungubwe and the farm where Retha now lives. However, after the National Party won elections a year later, this national park was de-proclaimed. The park was re-proclaimed in the 1990s.

By publishing the book, knowledge about plant diversity becomes freely available – the more people who can access and use this knowledge, the better.

'By publishing the book, knowledge about plant diversity becomes freely available – the more people who can access and use this knowledge, the better,' says Retha.

Her decision to have the cost of producing the book partially covered by Coal of Africa, the company behind the Vele mine, has been controversial in some sectors. 'We live here and as such need to deal with the reality,' she says. 'With this book, we have one more way of holding companies that place these additional pressures on our natural resources accountable. We can’t preserve what we don’t know we have.'

Category: Attractions

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