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Botany

I'm Principal Scientist for Botany at the RHS and work on the correct naming of plants and manage the RHS Herbarium. I am part of an expedition to South Africa this January to study Kniphofia and their natural hybrids.

Recent Comments

  • On top of the Cape

    Chris Whitehouse on 31 Jan 2012 at 09:53 AM

    Are you a person who has to climb something "because it's there"?  Despite my focus on plants on this trip, there is still a part of that mentality inside me which is difficult to shake.  So when I had found all the Kniphofia I was wanting to find at Rhodes by 11 o'clock this morning, there still lay before me the temptation of the highest peak in the Eastern Cape: Ben McDhui.  My body felt the lack of oxygen at these high altitudes, but it was worth the climb for the views into Lesotho and to observe how the vegetation changed so suddenly as one reached the windswept top.  It is a tough life for a plant at 3000m altitude in South Africa: wind, drought, snow, and scorching sun.  Surprisingly, there was still a lot of colour, even if most of the plants did not get more than a few inches high.

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  • Eastern Cape Wilderness

    Chris Whitehouse on 30 Jan 2012 at 01:00 PM

    There are not many places in the world where you can drive for 50km and not pass another car but the highlands of the Eastern Cape is one such place.  It is hard to understand why this area is so rarely visited, the scenery is beautiful and spectacular in its wildness.  Possibly it loses out to the renown of the Western Cape flora and wines, the imposing cliffs of the KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg or the game parks of Mpumalanga.

     

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  • Hogsback in flower

    Chris Whitehouse on 29 Jan 2012 at 12:59 PM

    If yesterday was a disappointing day, today could hardly have gone better.  But it would unlikely to have been so without the helpful assistance of Monique, the manager of the King's Lodge at Hogsback.  I have received a lot of assistance in planning my route from a variety of experts, but there is nothing like local knowledge and upon my arrival Monique went out of her way to contact those people who knew the plants and how to get there.  As a result, by 9.30 this morning I had found three different species of Kniphofia and they were all flowering (K. linearifolia, K. triangularis and K. parviflora).

    This included the rare brown-flowered form of the unusual K. parviflora.  It is the only species that has nodding flowerheads like this, and although the flowers are normally yellow to white, the brownish red flowers of this form make it even less red hot poker like

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  • The original red hot poker

    Chris Whitehouse on 28 Jan 2012 at 12:56 PM

    Sometimes it is better not to build up expectation - a lot of planning has gone into this trip and in the process I have imagined the joy of coming across the various Kniphofia that I will be seeking. Today was my venture into the eastern end of the fynbos in search of the "original" red hot poker, K. uvaria.  (Fynbos is the heath-like habitat of the Cape Floral Kingdom, with a plant diversity as rich as any rainforest.)  It was K. uvaria that was illustrated by Justus Heurnius when he visited the Cape in 1624, thereby bringing it to the attention of the European world.  And it was the name K. uvaria that subsequently came to be used by the horticultural world for almost any red and yellow poker.  However, upon spotting the species today, it became clear that if this was the best that red hot pokers could do, they would not have featured very prominently on most people's planting list.

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  • Journey over the edge

    Chris Whitehouse on 27 Jan 2012 at 03:05 PM

    One of the reasons Colesberg gets so cold is that it is so high, 1400m (around the height of Ben Nevis).  The central plateau of Africa is all at a considerable altitude from Nairobi to Johannesburg.  At some point, though, as one heads towards the coast one has to descend and in South Africa, this descent is usually quite sudden.  The edge of this central plateau is known as the Great Escarpment.

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  • Mr Tuck's poker

    Chris Whitehouse on 26 Jan 2012 at 02:21 PM

    Kuilfontein Farm is not the sort of place that one would expect to find a common British garden plant to be growing.  The Karoo is a generally harsh environment, where most plants barely get over a foot tall, either because of the shallow soil, the lack of rain or the constant grazing.

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  • Road work botany

    Chris Whitehouse on 24 Jan 2012 at 11:29 AM

    South Africa us a country of great diversity: it has some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery in the world, but it also has a large portions which never get into any guide book.  I have driven through a large chunk of the latter today, making my way from Johannesburg to Colesberg for the first stop on my trip.

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  • Field Guides of South Africa

    Chris Whitehouse on 23 Jan 2012 at 10:16 AM

    Do you take some "light" reading with you when you travel abroad?  I think this is one of the hardest decisions I have to make whenever I travel somewhere: which books do I want? Which ones will I actually use? Do I need to keep some weight allowance to bring some books back?  This trip to South Africa is no exception and here is a selection of the books I will be taking:

    Although my aim is to hunt down Kniphofia, and hence I have the latest and most comprehensive guides to the genus in my travel bag, I am sure there will be many other plants that will grab my interest along the way.  The trouble is that the flora of South Africa has over 22,000 species and many of those species are very local as well.  This means that no one book can cover in detail all the plants one is likely to see, especially if you are travelling over such vast distances as I will be covering in the next three weeks.  Even with all these field guides, there will be many plants that I see that are not even mentioned but having these guides available will at least help me out with the more eye-catching or distinctive species

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  • Poking around in South Africa

    Chris Whitehouse on 18 Jan 2012 at 04:08 PM

    I am sure that you can recognise a red hot poker when you see one but did you realise that there were around 70 species in the genus Kniphofia?  The majority of these species grow in the eastern half of South Africa and next week I am off on an expedition to try and see as many of these as possible in the wild.

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