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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.

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  • Expedition to see Kniphofia in South Africa

    Chris Whitehouse on 24 Feb 2012 at 03:21 PM

     

    This page is to act as a summary of my expedition to find Kniphofia, red hot pokers, with links through to the relevant day's blog for those who may have missed them.  A copy of the full report from the trip can be found here: http://issuu.com/christopherwhitehouse/docs/kniphofia_report.  It is also a chance to thank all those who have helped me along the way, whether giving advice, either beforehand or on the trip itself, showing me around, or making my stay at the various B&Bs/cottages so pleasant.  I won't name people explicitly here for fear of missing someone out but hopefully the links through to relevant places is a small way of showing my appreciation

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  • A medley of pokers

    Chris Whitehouse on 18 Feb 2012 at 04:26 PM

    Safely back home, it is now time to assess the expedition and write up the reports.  A first analysis of the results makes very pleasing reading.  Of the 52 taxa recorded for the Flora of Southern Africa (48 species and 4 subspecies or varieties) I managed to see 23 in flower and another 8 in the wild but not flowering.  Considering that a large number of those that I missed were either never on my route or not flowering at the time I visited, I probably saw about 90% of the ones that I could have seen.  My biggest regret is not finding K. brachystachya, as I was thwarted in the two places that I was likely to have seen it: Bushman's Nek and Highmoor. But I had many finds that I had not been hopeful of seeing at all such as K. evansii and K. splendida.

    So here is a collection of all the ones I saw in flower.  I hope it gives a taste for the variety of the species present in the wild. (Click on a photo to link through to the day where I spotted the species if you want to read more about where it was found.

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  • The Last Poker

    Chris Whitehouse on 14 Feb 2012 at 11:01 AM

    And so the trip ends. Today it was just a question of returning from Buffelskloof to the airport in time to catch my evening flight home.  There was no great rush to the day but one never likes to leave catching a flight to the last minute.  John and Sandie gave me a locality along the main road back to Johannesburg that they had been told about for the unusual Kniphofia typhoides. A poker with a tall thin spike of short black flowers that make it look like a bulrush (Typha), hence the name.  Finding the locality was easy, finding the plants was not - only Typha capensis appeared to be present.  However, driving on a bit more I found something that looked very hopeful from the road.

    Closer inspection unfortunately revealed that the tall thin blackish spikes were actually old flower spikes.  Still they might have been old flower spikes of K. typhoides.  That was until I spotted a few flowers remaining on two old spikes.  The flowers were clearly not K. typhoides but appeared to belong to K. ensifolia subsp. ensifolia and thus the last poker I saw on my trip was the same as the first poker I had seen back in Colesberg. Either I had misinterpreted the locality, or the old flower spikes that had previously been spotted from the road had been misinterpreted as K. typhoides

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  • Pokerhunters

    Chris Whitehouse on 13 Feb 2012 at 04:55 PM

    Today was a mammoth day of travelling: an almost 600km round trip very kindly driven entirely by John Burrows of Buffelskloof, with Sandie providing an extra pair of eyes.  The aim was to find Kniphofia albescens, which he had seen in the uplands near Piet Retief some years ago.  If that was successful we hoped to go on to find K. splendida near the Swaziland border, but John had not seen that in South Africa before.  The day started well enough as the mist dissipated but sightings of Kniphofia were not forthcoming.  Even the widespread K. linearifolia was showing no signs in the vleis where John had seen it before.  Finally, having set off early at 6am, we found our first poker over five hours later. A rather handsome form of K. linearifolia but still not really what we were hunting for.

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  • Good day, bad day

    Chris Whitehouse on 12 Feb 2012 at 02:23 PM

    Good day - rain had stopped overnight and I was up by 6am ready to drive around the local area looking for Kniphofia with John Burrows, the manager of Buffelskloof Nature Reserve.

    Bad day - Wallet was missing, spent next hour looking everywhere in my cottage and luggage to no avail.  To my relief, it was found on the patio having fallen out when I had been chatting the previous night

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  • A British summertime drive

    Chris Whitehouse on 11 Feb 2012 at 10:35 AM

    I have now arrived at Buffelskloof and my final stop on my expedition but getting here was not a journey to remember.  Apart from the long roadworks and the frequent lorries reducing speed to a crawl, those bits of the countryside that did look appealing to drive through were blighted by continual rain and heavy cloud (at times it felt rather like a British summer getaway).  A proposed seven hour drive took me nine hours and I am just grateful that I have arrived somewhere with a warm welcome and the prospect of good botanising in the next couple of days.  I only took a couple of photos all day, but the one interesting find was a poker near Memel, which reminded me of K. albomontana, but it does not fit the key, nor is that species supposed to occur that far north.  Requires further investigation!

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  • Dumb and Dumbe

    Chris Whitehouse on 10 Feb 2012 at 10:28 AM

    One should never be such in a hurry that one does not pause to double-check.  At the top of Dumbe mountain that I climbed this morning, I had a breathtaking view of Cape Vultures catching the thermals at eye-level to where I was standing and soaring upwards.  I started taking photographs but my memory card was full.  So keen to catch a picture while they were still close by, I quickly took out a new memory card and swapped it with the old one.  The new memory card still had photos on from previously, but these had been safely backed up, so I just formatted the card and started shooting away.  It was only returning to my cottage after my hike, that I noticed my error: in the speed of swapping the cards, I had put back exactly the same card I had been using that morning.  I had wiped all my photographs from the hike up the mountain, leaving me only with the ones I took on the way down again!

     

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  • Third Pass Lucky

    Chris Whitehouse on 09 Feb 2012 at 09:21 PM

    Today had quite a simple brief to it, travel about 80km to the next stop at Dumbe, on the way the road goes up Oliviershoek Pass where I would find K. breviflora.  Syd had assured me that it was easy to find, saying that friends of his who were not even interested in pokers had spotted it there.  The day also started well, with clear skies showing me Cathedral Peak and the escarpment in all its splendour (just a day too late!).

    At Oliviershoek, I got out of the car near the bottom and walked part way up the road - no luck.  So I drove slowly to the top of the pass, sure that I would see it on the way. But still having not seen it I parked at the top and walked down some way - nothing. Presuming now, that it was not in flower, I decided to drive down once more slowly, hoping not to upset the other drivers on the road (fortunately only few passed me).  Stopping every while, so that I could look around more carefully, I reached the bottom of where I knew it could be having failed to spot anything that looked remotely hopeful, and so turned the car around and decided to head on to Dumbe. As I drove up the pass, my eyes were maybe looking to a further horizon, for I glimpsed a couple of yellow blobs in the distance. Stopping the car, I got out my binoculars, and there halfway up the hillside were two small K. breviflora.  I jumped the fence and ran up to take some photographs.  There were two other small spikes nearby but that was it.  Either Syd's friends had better eyesight than me, or the plants were flowering more profusely or closer to the road when they passed this way. Read More...

  • Tantalising glimpses

    Chris Whitehouse on 08 Feb 2012 at 10:57 AM

    This was to be my last day in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and it started off much as yesterday had.  The cloud was low and to add to my problems I also found out that the pass to take cars up to the Little Berg was closed.  This meant that I had to start my hiking at around 1400m rather than the 1900m I had hoped to do.  Although not raining, the mist had made every blade of grass a miniature drainpipe that poured water down my legs and into my boots as I passed.  Within a short time my feet squelched with every step I took. Even when I waded through a river up to my knees, my boots felt no wetter at the end of it. But as I climbed up out of the valley, so the clouds did not so much lift as part every now and then, offering me fleeting views of the high escarpment beyond.

    My aim today was to find the Cathedral Peak poker, K. evansii, but the locality details I had were sketchy to say the least (Cathedral Peak Catchment was as good as it got).  The species looks superficially like K. triangularis, but is unique in the genus for the shortness of its stamens. These do not even reach halfway along the tube, whereas in all other pokers the stamens come nearly to the end or stick out of the tube.  Hopes were raised along the way as I came across plants of K. triangularis (or was it K. angustifolia again?), but closer examination revealed long stamens.  As I climbed, I also came across a new species, K. porphyrantha, a rather chubby flowered-species, as well as more K. ichopensis. Read More...

  • Pokers in the mist

    Chris Whitehouse on 07 Feb 2012 at 10:43 AM

    If I thought the cloud was low yesterday, it was nothing compared with today.  Not even the wetlands in front of the cottage were visible.  My plan to do a hike on the way to my next stop were abandoned and I just hoped that as I headed north the weather would improve.  I planned my route to see if I could find K. albomontana on the way.  It was first found near a place called White Mountain, hence its name.  Amazingly, there were some plants just by the roadside, for if they had been any further away I would have completely missed them.

    Having arrived at Cathedral Peak earlier than planned, I was not allowed to check-in until 2pm.  So I set off on a short hike to visit the enticingly named Rainbow Gorge.  The clouds had lifted a bit, and although not enough to see the high peaks, above the level of the gorge.  It was not prime poker country but it did lead to some beautiful forest, with lots of waterfalls, ferns and lianas.  The patches of forest in the Drakensberg are only found in those areas that receive enough water and also avoid any fires.  It was interesting to see several well known houseplants, such as Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri', Begonia sutherlandii, and Streptocarpus gardenii, and yet in almost exactly the same habitat, Eucomis bicolor, a species that is perfectly hardy outside in the UK. Read More...

  • A mix of pokers

    Chris Whitehouse on 06 Feb 2012 at 09:35 AM

    On any trip there are days where regardless of planning things go wrong and there is nothing you can do about it.  The target today was a good long walk on Highmoor towards the Giant's Castle.  I woke to find the clouds so low that one would not even know that there were mountains across the valley.  I decided to go up anyway but stick to the paths close to the forest station.  However, my car decided otherwise.  Overnight the battery had gone completely flat (no I did not leave the lights on - I had not even used the lights yesterday).  It was gone 1 o'clock before my replacement car arrived.

    However, despite the frustrations of the morning, I eventually got up to Highmoor for a couple of hours, more in hope than expectation of seeing anything.  But despite the short time it was worth the effort, for I soon came across what looked like a pale creamy white version of K. laxiflora but more graceful.  I believe it was K. ichopensis that we had spent so long looking for yesterday.  I also came across genuine K. laxiflora in the same vicinity so was able to compare the two and note the differences.  Then I found a third plant that had the colour of K. laxiflora but some of the characters of K. ichopensis.  There is a third species that is supposed to occur in this area, K. angustifolia, which it could have been, but equally it could have been a hybrid.  As I found more and more examples, the size and shape of the flowers and leaves appeared to vary depending upon where they were growing.  The colour seemed to show the full range between almost white and coral-red.  I was suitably confused by the end.  So in that short space of time, I may have found one, two or three species, and/or hybrids between them.  Whatever, they were very attractive plants to look at. Read More...

  • An unexpected hike

    Chris Whitehouse on 05 Feb 2012 at 09:22 AM

    It was time to move on from the heat and humidity of Durban.  Syd kindly accompanied me out to the Natal Midlands, where we hoped we might find K. ichopensis and K. buchananii, but we only managed to find more populations, albeit good ones, of K. laxiflora and K. linearifolia.

    I then carried on back to the Drakensberg, where I will be spending the next 5 days.  I have arrived at a guest farm called Heronmoor, situated above the damp meadows that lie at the base of Highmoor and Giant's Castle.  After settling in, I was asked if I would like to see a nearby waterfall by my hostess, Ruth.  So we set off in her landrover, up the rough forestry tracks to the cliffs that border Mount Lebanon.  Having hiked up a small pass onto the grasslands above, we set off across a couple of kilometres to the waterfall.  Although the hike was not as tough, there were flashbacks of the Mount Sutherland hike, for we saw no pokers along the way until the final valley where the waterfall was, K. laxiflora again, and just as we arrived the clouds rolled in and the thunder started to rumble.  Fortunately, not only was it less distance back but the thunderstorm never developed to the same extent as the one a few days ago.  Although, it was an unexpected addition to my day, it was a wonderful hike to a part of the Berg that I would have been very unlikely to have got to any other way. Read More...

  • A day with the experts

    Chris Whitehouse on 04 Feb 2012 at 09:13 AM

    Today I was privileged to be shown around Durban by two of the experts in Kniphofia, Dr Syd Ramdhani and Prof. Himansu Baijnath.  Although not the most floriferous day on the trip, it was one of the more enlightening ones because apart from seeing the pokers in the field, I was able to talk about poker biology and evolution.  In particular, we visited the site of the racecourse lily, Kniphofia pauciflora, probably the rarest Kniphofia.

    Kniphofia pauciflora grows in the middle of the Clairwood Racecourse, a patch of rough ground not more than a few square metres.  There are possible less than 20 plants surviving in the wild, although it has been distributed widely in cultivation.  The plant was not flowering but to see its last wild refuge, a small plot in the middle of a racecourse that is possibly to be sold for development, was a great reminder of the fragility of many species

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  • Graceful and tall

    Chris Whitehouse on 03 Feb 2012 at 09:47 AM
    Yesterday was an exhilarating day except for the lack of pokers: a good long walk, many beautiful flowers and the tension of trying to out run a thunderstorm.  It had felt worthwhile because I had come across one poker right at the furthest extreme of the walk.  However, that feeling was rapidly taken away today, for within a few kilometres of leaving the rustic charm of Pear Tree Cottage, I came across exactly the same species, K. laxiflora, growing by the roadside. 

    It is a very variable species, and as I drove on I came across at least two more colour forms.  They were once again the only poker I saw all day, only this time it had not taken quite so much effort.  K. laxiflora has a very graceful habit and it is surprising that this has not been bred into more cultivated pokers.  The tall slender spikes with space between the flowers would be a very useful addition to the range of variation in the cultivars.

      I did try to find another poker.  I had been given very accurate instructions on where to find K. littoralis at the seaside town of Park Rynie.  I found the spot just as described but either the plants had gone or the vegetation was so overgrown that I could not find them.  Unfortunately, it was not the time of the year for them to be flowering, which would have made spotting them a whole lot easier. 

    At least now I have arrived at Durban and will be assisted in my poker hunting over the next two days by two experts on all matters pokerish: Dr Syd Ramdhani and Prof. Himansu Baijnath.  Even if the plants are not flowering, we should be able to find the plants with their knowledge. Read More...

  • Gambling doesn't pay

    Chris Whitehouse on 02 Feb 2012 at 09:45 AM

    When I arrived at Elton Farm, my intention was to use it as a base for exploring Bushman's Nek, where I hoped to find Kniphofia brachystachya.  It had been recorded from a couple of sites in the area, although neither of the localities was very specific. However, one cannot ignore the imposing presence of Mount Sutherland, which lies directly behind the farm.  Mount Sutherland is an outlying spur from the main escarpment.  One of the localities for K. brachystachya was on a similar spur across the valley.  I therefore thought that rather than getting into a car again, I would use the opportunity to walk directly from my cottage up Mount Sutherland.

    It would be fair to say that the gamble did not pay.  There were no Kniphofia in flower at all on Mount Sutherland, although I believe I did find some non-flowering rosettes. It was too late now to change plans, especially after expending so much effort getting up there, so I decided to walk further along the spur towards the escarpment, sure that the next peak along the ridge would bring me some luck.  It did not, nor the next one; it became a game of thinking that around the next corner my luck would change.  In a way it did, just as I really was on the point of saying enough, I spotted a single spike of a Kniphofia laxiflora.  It was not K. brachystachya, but at least it was a Kniphofia.  A hunt around the area revealed a few more spikes, but with storm clouds gathering rapidly and my energy already used up, that was the end of my search

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  • South African flower quiz

    Chris Whitehouse on 01 Feb 2012 at 09:43 AM

    I hope you will forgive me if I keep this short after another long drive.  I also want to be a bit self-indulgent as my boys wanted to see what sort of car I was driving up all these mountains.  So here is a photo of my car on the descent from Naude's Nek pass.

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  • 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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