Hilton daisy clings to life

2010-07-29 00:00

MANY readers will have seen the letter published in Friday’s edition of The Witness written by Rene Els concerning the disappearance of clivias and Hilton daisies in the Pietermaritzburg area.

The Hilton daisy, named after the village of Hilton above Pietermaritzburg, in turn named after the farm “Hilton”, where Hilton College is now situated, used to be a common sight in the spring in the hills around the town — Hilton Road, World’s View, Swartkops Mountain and Blackridge — in the first part of the last century. The daisies were so plentiful in the grasslands around Hilton College that on Spring Day, each boy would wear the bright-scarlet flower in his blazer lapel. Sadly, the last few daisies disappeared from the Estate in the eighties, reputedly dug out by keen but ignorant gardeners. Transplanted Hilton daisies seldom survive as they have very specific growth needs.

First collected by the intrepid botanical explorer Christian Ferdinand Krauss during his visit to Natal in 1839 “ad collium latera prope Pietermaritzburg” (from hills close to Pietermaritzburg), and sent back to Europe to be described by the botanist Schulz Bipontinus in 1844, the botanical name of the Hilton daisy is Gerbera aurantiaca. The genus Gerbera is named for Traugott Gerber, a Polish medical doctor and botanist who created the Moscow Botanical Garden, but whose connections with the Gerbera daisies remains a mystery, and the species name aurantiaca is the Latin for “beautiful orange”. While the typical colour of the Hilton daisies is red, the flowers range from yellow through orange to bright red and deep scarlet. The specimen described was clearly a bright orange, a common colour in the now scarce Swartkops populations. The name Gerbera will be familiar to many readers because of the well-known commercial cut flower bred from the closely related Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii) and another Gerbera species from northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The reason the Hilton daisy is so rare these days is because it grows only in the high-rainfall mist-belt grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa, an area ideal for the commercial timber industry and agriculture. This has resulted in large tracts of our mist-belt grassland being irreversibly transformed. Over 90% of this grassland type has been affected by agricultural and timber development (anyone driving to Greytown, for instance, will battle to find pristine grassland), as well as urban sprawl, so that the daisy is now confined to small, isolated fragments, and threatened here by overgrazing, alien plant invasion, horticultural gathering, and, in the longer term, climate change.

In common with many mist-belt grassland plants, the Hilton daisy is long-lived, spanning several generations. Spreading vegetatively by means of underground stems, plants formed clonally may eventually reach well over a metre in diameter. It has a cluster of fleshy roots which allow it to become dormant and survive the cold dry winters and frequent fires experienced by our summer-rainfall grasslands. However, sexual reproduction and the production and survival of new, genetically different individuals are critically important for the long-term survival of any species in a changing environment. In plants, this involves the participation of a third party, most commonly an insect, bird or the wind, to transport the male genes in the pollen grains between the flowers. The red-flowered Hilton daisy populations in and around Pietermaritzburg are pollinated mainly by the brown monkey beetle, which uses the daisy flowers as a food source by eating the pollen, as an overnight stop by burrowing down into the flowerhead for protection, and as a platform for rendezvous with fellow (and feminine) monkey beetles. The densely haired body of the monkey beetle is ideal for trapping and transporting the large pollen grains from flower to flower, thereby allowing the plants to cross-pollinate and set seed. We understand little of the life cycle of these beetles, other than that the larvae live underground and probably feed on plant roots, but worryingly, their numbers seem to be decreasing, especially in the smaller daisy populations.

I have been studying the daisies over the past few years as part of my doctoral thesis in the School of Biological and Conservation Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in an attempt to better understand the processes essential for the survival of this very special Pietermaritzburg inhabitant, so that we can give advice to the landowners and land custodians on how best to ensure its long-term survival. My research is looking at aspects of the breeding system of the daisies, using experimental crosses and genetic techniques, as well as the inheritance of flower colour.

Lastly, a plea to leave these beautiful daisies and many other mist-belt grassland plants and animals where they belong and to help actively to conserve the few small places where they still occur by raising public awareness of their plight.

RESEARCH ON PLANT POLLINATION SYSTEMS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL

 

MOST plants require pollination, usually carried out by insects, to produce seed. For this reason, pollination is critically important for seed production by indigenous and cultivated plant species. Under the helm of Professor Steve Johnson, the pollination biology research group at UKZN has become a world leader in this field.

Consisting of 15 postgraduate students and several international researchers, the group is tackling a diverse range of research topics, ranging from the reproductive ecology of invasive plant species to the role of pollination in plant evolution. Techniques used include tracking of pollen dispersal in populations, analysis of genetic variation and identification of chemical cues used by insects to locate host flowers.

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