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Topic : Botanical : Nectar

Article 26 bullet 14 March 2007

Red Sunbird Bush – tops for nectar
Metarungia pubinervia

by Geoff Nichols

You can imagine my excitement in early April 2000 when a friend by the name of David Styles phoned me to say he had a specimen of a plant that he had never seen before. I said bring it round and let’s have a look. He is a keen member of a group of mildly eccentric plant nuts, of which I must add; I like to include myself in.

He and Rod Edwards have during 1999 with intermittent help from the likes of the local Ezimvelo KwaZulu-Natal Conservation Services Park Warden, Ian Pattrick, and a band of people like Richard Boon, Peter Turner, Isabel Eyeberg, Neil Crouch and Richard Symmonds had been fossicking about in the steep densely wooded slopes of the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve adding plants to the already extensive plant list of the Reserve.

Red Sunbird Bush

Red Sunbird Bush, much sought after by sunbirds when flowering.

The real botanists and experts in the Acanthus Family - Trevor Edwards in Pietermaritzburg, Kevin Balkwill in Johannesburg, Brian Schrire and the Kaj Vollesen at Kew Gardens in the England helped us to give this plant its real name, Metarungia pubinervia Red Sunbird Bush or Rooisuikerbekkiebos. The Latin species name of pubi – hairy and nervia - nerves or veins is apt because under the leaves the main veins are covered in fine hairs. The lag time in getting plants identified was cut dramatically by using digital photography to send images over the internet to the other side of the world and get an answer in hours rather than days or weeks.

The Krantzkloof Nature Reserve is a deep gorge cut through the Natal Group Sandstone by two main rivers the Molweni and Nkutu, that help form the escarpment between the coastal plain and the interior inland of Durban.

Surrounded by a sea of suburbia above, and a semi-formal settlement below, the Krantzkloof gorges are a life raft for a vast number of plant species, many rare or endangered. Some are near local endemics, and one of these, Brachystelma natalense, is believed extinct except for the area’s last small population.

An Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea feeding on nectar.

An Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea feeding on nectar.

At about 1 500 hectares the gorge system is Durban’s largest remaining natural area and a unique remnant of what existed a brief 150 years before a tidal wave of settlement, suburbia and sugarcane engulfed the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

Continuing residential development continues to whittle away at the natural area, with the greatest impact on grasslands on the gorge plateaus. Yet much of the remaining natural area survives because of its difficult terrain, and a core area of 584 hectares is protected within the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1950.

This gorge has yielded surprises over the years and now with the keen eyes of this band of enthusiasts at least 20 species new to the Durban Metropolitan Region have been unearthed and amongst this list is the plant I am going to describe to you.

How this plant has escaped detection over the years will always remain a mystery I have personally walked through the plants at least twice in the last 25 years. Probably with my eyes shut because of the heat and humidity down in the depths of the Gorge!!

There are literally thousands of specimens from relatively large shrubs of around 4-5 metres tall down to the youngest seedlings and suckers that develop when a plant is damaged and the stem touches the soil it roots to form another plant. A KZNCS Game Guard, Eseu Dlamini has discovered another group of plants, in his patrols through the dense bush in the Gorge. These plants grow on the south facing slopes of the gorge in virtually full shade for most of the year.

When we first visited the site to photograph this species with other “plant nutters” the mature specimens were in full bud and some plants just starting to flower properly. June and July are the peak flowering months with seed appearing in late July to August, ready for the spring rains to get the young plants off to a good start.

The normal Metarungia that is in the horticultural trade is Metarungia longistrobus from the Mpumalanga Lowveld. This species has orange flowers at the ends of the branches in May and June.

There is another species from the eastern Cape near East London known as Metarungia galpinii this species also has orange flowers at the ends of branches.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalbeus (KwaZulu-Natal race subalaris with broad breast band) that also feeds on the flowers.

Our Durban species has flowers that are produced on the upper side of each branch in the same spikes that are about the size of a human little finger. The red flowers pop out of the spike a little like a snapdragon flower. The primary pollinators of this plant are the forest sunbirds like the Grey, Olive and Collared sunbirds. Just sitting quietly in the colony these birds can be seen flitting about from bush to bush feeding. In my own garden in 2007 there is a single flowering specimen where Olive and Grey sunbirds find this single plant in a see of concrete covered suburbia.

It forms a dominant undergrowth layer of plants under the larger forest trees on the rocky scree slopes that are formed below the high cliffs in the Gorge. Another interesting plant amongst the colony is the stemless forest cycad – Encephalartos villosus.

The walk to these plants is not for the faint hearted. It is steep and rocky and I knew I had muscles that I had not used in a while after our trip.

Purple-banded Sunbird Cinnyris bifasciatus

Purple-banded Sunbird Cinnyris bifasciatus

The plant roots easily from cuttings and once the permits and other bureaucratic formalities are complete this botanical group will be making plants available to the public via seed and cuttings.

This effort will be used as a tool for this cash strapped plant group to boost the funds for developing and maintaining a herbarium developed by the locals and housed in the Krantzkloof Reserve to record the rich variety of plants found in this gem of gorge right in the middle of a huge human settlement that is Durban.



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