Spring in Verloren Valei

Yellow is the dominant colour of the delayed, but long-anticipated, Verloren Valei spring—but the blue or purple of Disa baurii is well worth seeking out.

The high grasslands shake off the winter cold late; spring in Verloren Valei tends to start in October and not in September as it does at lower altitudes. In the grasslands, white or yellow Gazania flowers begin to show, and the marshes slowly turn yellow with the flowering of the two Ranuculus species—the Common Buttercup and the Nasturtium-leaved Buttercup—and also the Yellow Fire Lily.

Disa baurii, which grows in the dry grasslands of a remote corner of Verloren Valei during the region’s dry spring (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

As I wrote in an earlier article (“Orchid optimists” in the June newsletter), several species of orchid bloom before the rains come. One of the beauties among these pre-rainfall orchid flora is Disa baurii. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) it is not a yellow flower. The flowers are normally in shades of blue, and a white form is sometimes found.

As is the case with so many plants, this one has also suffered a few name changes. I became familiar with this plant under the name Herschelia baurii, then a botanist decided that the Herschelia species should in fact be called Herschelianthe, but that change was soon superseded when it was decided that the species actually is part of the Disa genus.

To add to the confusion, Disa baurii was also known as Disa hamatopetala and Disa barbata. Its Afrikaans common name, as is so often the case, is highly descriptive: Bloumoederkappie or Mother’s Blue Bonnet.

The flowers themselves, as always, remain in blissful ignorance of the botanists’ arguments, and continue to exist on their own terms as an exciting and beautiful plant species flowering in grasslands.

Disa baurii was only found in 2009 on Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, while it is quite common in the Dullstroom area. One reason for this is that it occurs in a far corner of the Reserve which is a bit far to reach on foot; in addition, it is not easy to spot in the dry grassland. If the veld is burned in July or August, the plants are easier to spot, but as Verloren Valei burns blocks only after good spring rains, these conditions are relatively rare.

In fact, the practice of burning after good spring rains can be detrimental to this and other pre-rainfall flora as the plants have already flowered or are in full flower. While the leaves fortunately have only just started to show and are not damaged, the seed-pods are destroyed. A two-year burning cycle can thus seriously affect seed production for all the pre-rainfall flora.

Disa baurii and other members of this section of the Disa genus are easily recognised by their very complex lips. The lips of Disa baurii are very dissected, and so very noticeable. Nine of the other members of this group occur in the Western Cape winter rainfall area, with one species occurring along the Garden Route.

Disa spathulata subsp. spathulata (Oupa-en-sy-Pyp), a Western Cape beauty and part of the same group within the Disa species as D. baurii (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

One of these, Disa spathulata subsp. spathulata, with the lovely Afrikaans common name of Oupa-en-sy-Pyp (Grandfather and His Pipe) has been a favourite of mine since I saw it for the first time in the Western Cape. If you are lucky enough to visit Verloren Valei in October, many of the pre-rainfall flowers will be evident, and but you will have to search carefully for Disa baurii. But then half the pleasure of orchids is in the hunt, isn’t it?

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