Rock Gardens

2011-08-17 00:00

THE subject of Jerry Gosnell’s book is at the bottom of his Ramsgate garden, where the ocean waves crash onto the rocks and then withdraw. That zone of continual attack and retreat, or, more specifically, the plant life that inhabits it, provides the content of The Beach Book — Vegetation from Rock Pools to Dune Bush.

A small book — A6 size — it’s a handy guide to the common plants of the dunes and the seaweeds of the rock pools along the eastern coast of South Africa from Kosi Bay down to East London.

Jerry and Marilyn Gosnell moved to Ramsgate in 1998 after having spent what Jerry describes as “40 years in the bush”, courtesy of his professional life as a sugar-cane agronomist that took the Gosnell family from Kenya, to the then Rhodesia and finally to Swaziland.

The sugar-cane industry provided Gosnell with the subject of his previous book, Gallic Thunderbolt: The story of René Leclézio and Lonrho­ Sugar.

That a sugar-cane man should retire to another area also well- known for the crop was entirely coincidental says Gosnell, who is now more interested in what can be found in the nearby rock pools.

“It was only when we got here that I became interested in seaweed,” Gosnell says. “I have always been interested in plants — bushveld plants in particular — but the plants in this part of the world are completely different. It was a new learning experience for me.”

Gosnell began by taking photographs of the various seaweed and dune plant species. “But the real breakthrough was when I went digital in 2002. I got a digital camera on my 70th birthday. Since then I have been photographing seaweeds and dune plants, and have built up a vast collection of images.”

An added spur was the existence of 17 grandchildren. “I like to get them interested,” Gosnell says. Accordingly, he created a series of A4 files containing photographs and brief descriptions of his subjects. When a friend, the renowned botanist Elsa Pooley, saw these files she declared: “These must be published.” Enter the Flora and Fauna Publications Trust which was established in 1992 to raise sponsorship for the publication of authoritative but affordable books on the indigenous plants of KwaZulu- Natal­ and the Eastern Cape region in a bid to inspire greater care and understanding of our exceptionally rich environment.

Just as Gosnell has focused on a particular ecological niche his book neatly fills another, bibliographical niche. Existing books on the subject such as George Branch’s Two Oceans, Pooley’s A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region and The Guide to the Seaweeds of KwaZulu-Natal by O. De Clerkc et al, are all large books, not exactly suited to beach conditions.

Caption: Winter Poker (‘Kniphofia rooperi’) grows on marshy areas close to the sea

“The Beach Book conveniently slips into your pocket,” says Gosnell, “and if it should fall out into a rock pool it’s cheap enough to replace.”

Gosnell’s user-friendly book comes in a protective plastic slip case. There is a brief introduction to rock pools and dunes and the type of plants that inhabit them, while the bulk of the book is taken up with large clear colour photographs accompanied by small amounts of text. These feature the three categories of seaweed — green, brown and red, and the fore and rear dune plants, including dune scrub, grasses, the colourful marguerite, vygies and gazania, as well as creepers, aloes, the Natal wild banana and the hardy coastal trees.

A short section in The Beach Book deals with organisms that can be confused with seaweeds: zoanthids, sponges and sea squirts — which look like seaweeds, but are in fact animals. To work out which was which Gosnell enlisted the assistance of seaweed authority­ Rob Anderson. He also acknowledges assistance from Kerry­ Sink, Elsa Pooley and Geoff Nichols. “I’m not the expert,” insists Gosnell, “I’m the amateur.”

The Beach Book also has an Interne­t component — activity sheets designed to be used in conjunction with the book are available at three age levels, from five to 15. These were created by his wife, Marilyn, and can be downloaded from www.floratrust.kzn

She also provided the end sheet- line drawings featuring the profiles for rock pools, the beaches and the dunes.

Gosnell says the best period for viewing seaweeds is from November to April, which conveniently includes the Christmas and Easter holidays, when the weather is warm. Quite apart from beach goer comfort, the seaweed grows more vigorously in warm weather. Low tide is the best time for viewing, especially the spring lows around the time of the full and new moons.

Seaweeds play a vital role in the intertidal zone. “All the animals that inhabit the rocks where the seaweed grows — the fish to little things like sea urchins and sea anemones — depend on the seaweed, that’s all they can eat.”

These animals graze the weed much like land animals graze grass. “Someone created a framed exclusion zone that kept out these animals,” says Gosnell. “Inside the frame the seaweed flourished and billowed, outside it was flattened like well-grazed turf.”

Unlike their counterparts on dry land, seaweeds don’t have roots, instead they have “holdfasts” which effectively glue them onto the rocks, as well as shells and other seaweeds. “And whereas land plants take up nutrients through their roots with seaweeds all nutrients are taken from the sea water­,” says Gosnell.

Although seaweeds are often edible (think sushi), none of these edible species occur on our eastern shores. According to Gosnell, certain red seaweeds are a source of agar, a jelly-like substance used in the food, medical and pharmaceutical industry. “About 100 tons of Gelidium is harvested in the Eastern Cape and used for agar.”

Gosnell says he won’t be doing another book, although he enthuses about digital photography and the possibilities it opens up for other “amateurs” like himself. “You don’t have to go the SLR route,” he says. “A digital camera that has a 12-times zoom or more is ideal for taking publishable photographs of plants and birds.” So pick your subject and get clicking.

• The Beach Book — Vegetation from Rock Pools to Dune Bush by Jerry Gosnell with Rob Anderson contributing on seaweeds is published by the Flora and Fauna Publications Trust.

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