Plant hunting in southern Africa

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Iain Darbyshire, a Kew Gardens botanist, recently identified a new plant species while walking through the garden’s glasshouses. The news of his chance discovery, and of the other new species found by Kew botanists this year, reminded me of my own plant collecting expeditions, part of a PhD in evolutionary botany, which took me across southern Africa.

After weeks tackling the bureaucracy of obtaining permits to collect plant specimens – many countries are understandably cautious about allowing foreigners to remove their flora – the slightly odd adventure that is plant collecting began.

I travelled widely in South Africa in a tiny VW Chico (picture a no-frills Polo circa 1990) taking in the three Cape Provinces and also visiting Namibia in a search for exotic groundsel species. The aim was to reclassify them based on their DNA.

Gardeners in the UK may be familiar with (and not entirely keen on) groundsels, but most will be unaware that they belong to one of the largest and most diverse plant genera, ranging from the familiar diminutive weeds to small trees. Southern Africa alone contains somewhere between 350 and 500 species, many unique to the area, and all scientifically neglected since the 19th Century.

Based in Cape Town, I drove east along the Garden Route as far as East London, and to Springbok in the terracotta-red, sun-baked north. The search found me combing beaches, scrambling up mountains and strolling through forests and heathlands – highlighting the ecological diversity both of groundsels and of South Africa. In Namibia, scouring the desert along the Skeleton Coast yielded a little known succulent species, kept alive by coastal mist.

A peculiarity of looking for plants is the need to spend a disproportionate amount of time staring at the ground just ahead, but this makes the view even more breathtaking when you do happen to look up. In Namibia, the vast barren landscapes are something to behold (left). Even in my native Scotland, I have never seen such wide, open expanses without signs of human habitation.

Concentrating on the ground also means there is a danger of stumbling into unsuspecting wild animals. A small wildcat was the worst I encountered, but it was enough to make me sing as I walked alone in the wilderness, in the hope of scaring off anything more threatening before I encountered it face to face.

Evenings were spent in cheap hostels – one an ex-apartheid era jail, another an ex-mental hospital – pressing collected specimens and cataloguing the day’s finds, followed by a well-earned beer or two with my PhD supervisor and sometime travelling companion, Professor Richard Abbott.

Southern Africa is a fascinating area to visit. Namibia, which was German South West Africa until 1915, is an odd and sometimes uncomfortable mix of traditional Africa and colonial era Germany.

In South Africa, although witnessing overt racism from the white community was not uncommon and the spectre of HIV/AIDS was ever present, there was a lingering feeling of hope for the future and a sense that things were better, and fairer, than they had ever been.

Although I successfully collected many species of interest in southern Africa, I wasn’t fortunate enough to find any that were new to science. Perhaps I should have just gone to Kew instead, but I’m glad I didn’t.

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