‘Extinct’ wetland plant rediscovered in Bay

Guy Rogers rogersg@avusa.co.za

A LITTLE wetland plant which has not been recorded for 200 years and which was thought to be extinct has been been re-discovered in a vlei on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.

Co-inciding with World Wetland Day today (January 31), the exciting find emphasises the importance of protecting our remaining wetlands as rich repositories of often rare plant and animal life, experts said yesterday.

According to the Red Data List of South African plants of the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), Lobelia zwartkopensis  is “known only from two collections, made presumably at the same site, in the early 1800s. Probably extinct due to urban development.”

The incredible re-discovery was made by Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality conservation officer Wesley Berrington, while he was exploring the vleis on the western outskirts of PE. Its exact position is being kept secret until protection of the site is ensured.

Berrington, who is manager of the Van Stadens Wild Flower Reserve, was exploring the area in the hope of recording more details about the prevalence of another vlei plant, a lily, Crinum companulatum.

One variety of this lily, white with red stripes,  occurs throughout the wetlands of the Eastern Cape, but the pure white variety occurs only in the Port Elizabeth area, he explained.

“I was exploring new areas to see how far its range extends, and what factors this range seems to be related to.”

Intent on looking for lilies, he practically walked over the Lobelia before he noticed it, he said.

“There was a whole spray of them on the bank of a vlei just a few metres from the actual water body with no competition from sedges [a tufted marsh plant] or grasses. 

“It consisted of a creeper and perhaps 1000 white flowers stretched over about 30 square metres, but it was hard to see them because they were so tiny.” 

He said he had known immediately he was onto something special.

“I didn’t recognise it at first, so I knew it was something unusual. Then I thought it was Lobelia zwartkopensis but I wasn’t sure, so I sent it to the herbarium in Grahamstown to make sure.”

It wasn’t long before he received excited confirmation from Grahamstown. It was indeed indeed what he had surmised – Lobelia zwartkopensis, back from the abyss.

He said it was clear that Lobelia was very range restricted. 

“It’s very unique. It’s another one of our special jewels here in Nelson Mandela Bay metro that we can really be proud of – another reason why our wetlands must not be destroyed.”

Berrington has passed on the photographs and news of his confirmed finding to Sanbi and will also be collecting samples for them. The listing of the plant will be updated within a month. 

Dr Japie Buckle, who is Eastern Cape co-ordinator of the parastatal conservation group Working for Wetlands, confirmed he had heard the news, and he was equally elated.

“All the taxonomists thought this plant was gone for good.”

Eighty per cent of Port Elizabeth’s fresh water wetlands have been destroyed by development, with much of the damage done in suburbs like Woodlands, Lorraine, Charlo and Broadwood, where large tracts of wetland have been drained to build houses, shopping centres and roads, he noted.

“In Port Elizabeth, there are now just 3-4 very special freshwater wetlands left which rely on groundwater as opposed to drainage. They’re in the Rocklands and St Alban’s areas, and where Wesley made his find.

“These are unique spots for birds and frogs, as well as plants. Do we not want to be able to show these places to our children’s children? Surely we don’t want to lose them?”

The hope is that these areas will be turned into conservation flagships for the metro, he said.

“We need to make a real hoo-ha about them.

“My aim is that my organisation will work together with the metro and groups like the Wildlife and Environment Society, and private land owners, where these vleis are on private land, to establish proper protection systems around them.”

Wetlands are also natural sponges, retaining water during dry spells and containing it during floods and, at the same time, filtering out pollutants. They also provide building material in the form of reeds, and can be the focal point for tourism. This year, the theme for World Wetlands’ Day 2012 is “wetlands and tourism”.

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