Ornithogalum halli rediscovered on the fringes of the Knersvlakte

Knersvlakte HalliiIn July 2014, Nick Helme became the second person to knowingly see Ornithogalum halli in the wild.

Stellar Organic Winery requested Helme to undertake a botanical assessment of a 428 ha property between Vredendal and Klawer, as they wanted to develop about 100 ha of new vineyards. As part of the Basic Assessment process for environmental authorisation, Stellar Winery asked Helme to survey the entire property and recommend possible areas for agricultural development. The landowners were willing to set aside the remainder for conservation.

During the initial survey he noticed an unusual looking bulb in a very particular hardpan habitat. These reddish hardpans are low points in the landscape, surrounded by deeper, sandy soils. “In 25 years of wandering the region, I had never seen anything quite like the candy-striped stem with its fringe of hairs” says Helme “As there was no sign of flowers or even buds, I guessed it might be a Chincheinchee (Ornithogalum), a genus that typically flowers in October or November – long after all the usual spring flowers are dead and done.”

Helme took photos and a few specimens and sent the photos to various experts for opinions. Dee Snijman immediately suggested Ornithogalum halli which Helme did not know at all. After some research he discovered that the species was only known from the type (original) locality on the farm Liebendal, some 10 km northwest of Vredendal. That type collection was made in May 1970 by a well-known Succulent Karoo specialist, the late Harry Hall. Hall clearly knew it was something new and he collected material on three subsequent trips between then and 1976, getting potted material to flower during early November. The species had not been found or re-collected since 1976, so it was, and still is at time of writing, Red Listed as Critically Endangered, Presumed Extinct (CR PE).

Based on examination of the type material Helme was fairly convinced that this was the species he had found some 8 km southeast of Vredendal, but flowering was needed for confirmation. Two weeks later he visited the area to collect some live material. These duly started to flower in early November. Doubt disappeared and John Manning confirmed that this was indeed a wonderful, healthy, second population of the long-lost Ornithogalum halli. 

Helme’s report to the landowner took a precautionary approach, suggesting that all new cultivation should be well outside the unusual hardpan habitat. The landowner was pleased with the resultant layout of new vineyards and was also happy to formally conserve the remaining 320 ha of natural vegetation on the property. This will hopefully be done by means of an agreement with CapeNature’s Stewardship Programme, although this aspect is still to be finalised pending a decision by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The original type locality has since been lost to cultivation, and a brief survey of remaining habitat in the vicinity yielded no little candy-stripped stems. There may be other undiscovered populations of this species in similar, nearby habitat. At least now it is known that this attractive little species, from the edge of the southern Knersvlakte, still has viable population of a few thousand plants, which should be conserved in what will one day become a conservation area.

An important lesson learnt is to not ignore apparently barren, rocky habitats as biological wastelands, or ‘afval grond’ as farmers often like to call it, and to take the time to identify all inhabitants of such areas, as they may just turn out to be unusual habitat specialists.

Article adapted from Veld & Flora, June 2015 by Nick Helme

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