A blooming fraud
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The biggest BLOOMING FRAUD and why we are actually celebrating an ecological tragedy.
Every few years, after good seasonal rains, and for a few short weeks in August and September, vast swaths of the western and northern Cape turn into a profusion of brilliant colour - and the citizens go bonkers. From Goegap to the Biedouw, from Nieuwoudtville to Skilpad and from Kamieskroon to Nababeep (and pretty much everywhere in between) guest houses are overrun with visitors flocking to Instagram the 'spectacular miracle of nature'. The seasonal wildflowers are now on a bucket list along with the ‘migration and the ‘sardine run’.
The sad irony is that the profusion of ‘daisies’ (often reported as being more impressive and more bountiful with the passing of each year) is actually a stark indicator of a terrible ecological tragedy that will take thousands of years to repair - but probably never will.
The proliferation of Asteraceous flowers does not represent a healthy, diverse landscape but rather a denuded veld that has suffered repetitive previous clearing (for marginal production of winter wheat, potatoes, livestock grazing etc). These flowers - specifically the daises - are pioneer species (weeds some might call them) and they neatly correspond to the fence lines of livestock enclosures and former fallow fields. The flower 'carpets' represent 300 years of repetitive ecological disturbance, not ecological diversity, and certainly not a healthily functioning ecosystem. In almost all of the pictures you will witness, the steeper slopes are covered in diverse albeit ‘drab’ scrub (Strandveld, Sand Plain Fynbos, Nama Karoo, Succulent Karoo etc.) inter-fused with diverse flowering sp. – this mosaic is what the broader landscape SHOULD look like. And yet, the valleys and gentle slopes (ie easily ploughed) are mostly devoid of scrub and bushes having been habitually cleared, burned and overgrazed for the past 300 years – since the onset of colonial farming.
Interestingly, one can see the impact of early farming practices on the natural vegetation in pollen records preserved in sediments from the Strandveld region. As the widespread practice of systematic burning, ploughing and the popular scouring method of dragging old railway tracks behind a tractor (from the 1930s onwards, to stimulate grazing) took hold among these marginal agricultural and grazing lands, so the preserved pollen ‘signature’ of the indigenous vegetation takes a dramatic shift. In the absence of the diverse, permanent ground cover, the fallow fields and over-gazed camps lie barren, often for many years, before good winter rains unleash the seed-banks of annual ‘weeds’ – and the daisies erupt in uniform, monotone profusion. Tragically, the spectacle only lasts for a few weeks before the denuded veld once again dries out and becomes increasingly barren and lifeless. If only the flower photographers would return in April to recapture the same landscapes – they might realise the true extent of the problem….
Uniform carpets of flowers are an ecological tragedy - and we should stop celebrating them as if they represent nature's bounty. Early travelers to the Cape regions, while admiring the great diversity of spring flowers and the variety of flowering plants including annuals and geophytes, never reported seeing carpets of uniformity. This is a modern construct arising from deliberate and questionable ‘veld-management’. The pollen records (which provide a signature for vegetation) for the past 300 years (collected from preserved sediments) show a dramatic and progressive increase in the pollen from daisies and other flowering annuals from around 1700 proving that the uniform floral displays we observe today across vast swaths of the western and northern Cape are just another tragic consequence of destructive modern agricultural practices.