#03 2022

New field identification guide aids research through showcasing Limpopo’s botanical riches

By Dr Dave Thompson, Scientist, SAEON Ndlovu Node

While the Cape flora has been explored since the early 17th century, the flora of the northernmost part of South Africa was only investigated from the 19th century, with this part of the country remaining comparatively under-botanised. Much of Limpopo’s vegetation is savanna, with a sprinkling of grassland and Afromontane forest patches confined to the higher elevations of the province’s mountains. Here, where these biomes converge, diverse and unique and, in some cases, threatened or endangered vegetation communities exist, with Limpopo supporting three of the 13 national centres of floristic endemism (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The northernmost reaches of South Africa host rich botanical diversity, with Limpopo province supporting three national centres of endemism (Map courtesy of SANBI Graphics & Editing)

Figure 2. The Ndlovu biodiversity team sampling vegetation in permanent monitoring plots in the Haenertsburg Nature Reserve, home to over 600 plant species and the largest remaining fragment of critically endangered Woodbush Granite Grassland (Photo: Sylvie Kremer-Kӧhne)

Conducting floristic research and monitoring here is challenging. Not only are these areas of exceptional diversity and high levels of endemism, they also house seldom-seen rare and endangered species whose identities and distributions may be poorly documented.

There are few botanical reference books or field identification guides for the province that capture this botanical wealth; a shortcoming which has hindered local study. This is especially true where study tackles climate change, land-use and disturbance questions, and where the response of the vegetation (from species to community level) to these global drivers is underpinned by the correct identification of species.

Long-term vegetation monitoring plots in the savannas and grasslands of Limpopo 

Since 2007, the biodiversity team at the SAEON Ndlovu Node have established, maintained and sampled long-term vegetation monitoring plots in the savannas and grasslands of Limpopo to address such research questions – a task that involves the careful identification and documenting of plant species as they change through time and space (Fig. 2). This recognition of similarity and difference, this observation and identification of species, is critical when engaging in change-detection research and in the assessment of conservation, management intervention and sustainable development efforts.

New field identification guide 

Looking ahead to the next sampling campaign and continued plant-centric research at SAEON’s monitoring sites in Limpopo, the task of identifying the individuals encountered has been greatly aided by the publication of a new field identification guide. The Photographic guide to the wildflowers of the Limpopo Province (Fig. 3.) is a vibrant showcase of the province’s diverse flora.

With excellent colour photographs, easy to understand text, and distribution maps (Fig. 4.) that indicate where the plants occur in Limpopo, the guide facilitates accurate identification of nearly 800 plant species. The content advances taxonomy and biogeographic research and will contribute to the description, mapping, assessment and thus, the improved management, of plants and plant communities in South Africa.

There is no doubt that the publication of this guide fills a large gap in the South African botanical landscape. And, in so doing, makes the flora of north-eastern South Africa more accessible to wildflower enthusiasts while simultaneously aiding student study, academic research and environmental decision-making.

Figure 3. The Photographic guide to the wildflowers of the Limpopo Province is proudly published as a joint venture between SANBI and NRF-SAEON (Courtesy of SANBI)

Figure 4. The identification guide includes species descriptions, colour photographs and Limpopo distribution maps for both frequently seen and less common plant species (Courtesy of SANBI Graphics & Editing)

The author, Sylvie Kremer-Köhne (Fig. 5), holds a Master of Science degree from WITS University, which she completed in 2018 under the supervision of Prof. Ed Witkowski (WITS) and Dr Dave Thompson (SAEON). She lives in Haenertsburg, adjacent to Limpopo’s most threatened vegetation type, the Woodbush Granite Grassland. These grasslands host unmatched plant diversity – including many endemic and threatened species, such as Aloe lettyae, the species on which her MSc research was focused.

Sylvie, along with other members of the local NPO Friends of the Haenertsburg Grasslands, championed tirelessly to get the largest fragment of the Woodbush Granite Grassland protected, and in 2016 the Haenertsburg Nature Reserve was declared. This reserve forms one of SAEON’s long-term research platforms. Sylvie remains involved in SAEON activities at the site and holds a visiting research fellowship at WITS.

Figure 5. The author, Sylvie Kremer-Köhne, with faithful field companion Pluto (Photo: Dione Kufner)

Figure 6. Author Sylvie Kremer-Köhne (left) and SAEON Ndlovu scientist Dr Dave Thompson celebrate the release of a resource that is bound to find its way onto countless bookshelves, and into as many backpacks, cubby-holes, field boxes and coffee-table collections (Photo: Stefan Kӧhne)

The Photographic guide to the wildflowers of the Limpopo Province is proudly published as part of the Strelitzia series as a joint venture between the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and SAEON. A PDF publication is available for download, or a hardcopy can be ordered from the SANBI Bookshop or select retail outlets.

For enquiries and information, please contact Dr Dave Thompson.