Road verge a safe haven for rare orchid

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A tiny pink orchid is currently putting on a magnificent display on a roadside verge in Summerveld, an area situated in Outer West Durban, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The flowering success of this rare plant is due to the assistance of a now retired horticulturist who fought to stop mowing the area, and establishing a Roadside Ecology Nature Reserve Project.

The granny’s bonnet (Disperis woodii) orchids were discovered next to the road in2016 by the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW). However, when they returned to see if it seeded, the verge was cut.  The team approached Lance Rasmussen, at the time responsible for the contractors who mow the road verges across the city at the eThekwini Municipality, to look at possible solutions.

Granny’s bonnet is a small orchid that grows between 40 – 150mm, currently listed as Endangered on the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s Red List of South African Plants. It flowers in April/May and seeds in June/July. The orchid is found in the damp, sandy grasslands and sometimes inside grass tussocks of the Eastern Cape and KZN.

This orchid was once widespread in KZN and occurred from Shongweni to the Umgeni Valley, but urban development, invasive vegetation and sugar cane cultivation have played a significant role in their declining population numbers.

The importance of road verges

granny's bonnet (Disperis woodii)

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Road verges are important areas for the conservation of indigenous plants. These strips of vegetation or green corridors next to roads are often also last refuges for wild plants and flowers when spaces next to roads are developed.

Road verges are maintained by municipalities and local and national roads departments. The eThekwini Municipality cuts verges up to eight times a year. Verges are cut for aesthetic reasons, pedestrian safety and to prevent traffic hazards. Since the establishment of the conservation area, the municipality has committed to cutting a 1m strip adjacent to the road, instead of the normal 3-8m.

Regular mowing can cause woody vegetation to encroach on an area, says Rasmussen. “As cut grass decomposes it changes the pH of the soil, in many cases creating intolerable conditions for indigenous plants,” he says.

Protecting the orchid – a Roadside Ecology Nature Reserve Project

Protecting biodiversity on roadsides

Rasmussen knew the importance of leaving the orchids to flower and seed without disturbance, so decided to manage the road verge as a conservation pilot project. The Roadside Ecology Nature Reserve Project serves to protect the orchid and the other indigenous vegetation growing there.

Rasmussen says even property owners have bought into the project. The verge is now managed by various stakeholders including the eThekwini Municipality Parks, Leisure and Cemeteries Department, Conservation Nature Resources, the local conservancy, Kloof conservancy and CREW, a citizen science programme supported by the Botanical Society of South Africa. The mini conservation zone still complies with legislation and road bylaws.

Even more orchid discoveries

Since the discovery of the orchid, signage has been put up to educate interested parties about the protected road verge. The flowering this year has been spectacular. Regular monitoring also revealed that the verge is not only home to the one orchid, but five, flowering at different times of the year. These include the torch orchid (Disa chrysostachya), Wood’s disa (Disa woodii), blushing bride orchid (Satyrium longicauda) and short horned disa (Disa brevicornis).

Rasmussen says through monitoring, they have established that March is the best time to thoroughly cut the verge as all orchids have flowered and set seed.

For information or to visit the orchid site, contact Lance Rasmussen on +27 83 454 9819

Written by: René de Klerk

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