Geissorhiza Research Update

Evan Eifler
Fri, 22 Sep 2017 14:13:37 PDT
Hi Everyone,

I wanted to pass along another update on my field research and remind you
that there's *one week left* of my crowdfunding campaign with ~$2,000 left
to go so if you were considering pledging to support my research, now's the
time! Thank you to those of you who have already donated. Here's the link -…

I've pasted the text of my update below, but please check out the update on
my campaign's website to see photos -

I'm currently very busy with fieldwork and the campaign, but I will add
photos to the wiki as soon as I have a chance.

Anyway, enjoy! And as always, let me know if you have any questions or



Ups and Downs

The first two weeks of my trip have been very successful. Despite the
severe drought that is threatening Cape Town’s water supply, I have still
been able to find most of the species I’ve been looking for and have been
able to secure a few of the species on the top of my ‘most wanted’ list. I
picked up two local endemics found only in tiny areas around two small
towns north of Cape Town, *Geissorhiza radians* - the radiant winecup, and
a species that I have collected in the past but this time I sampled a
population that is completely different than the rest – a population whose
flowers are lipstick red (the only red flower in the genus) when all other
populations of the species are cream or white. Both *G. radians* and the
red form of *G. inflexa* are thought to be strange examples of floral
mimicry, but more on that next week when I spend time in the field with
pollination biologist, Steve Johnson, who is flying in just to work on *G.
radians* with me. Please see images of some of the new finds below.

BUT, I could never have expected my entire trip to go so smoothly – so is
fieldwork – which brings me (in a very roundabout manner) to why I have
ample time to write to you today…

Part of what makes the genus *Geissorhiza* so interesting is that it’s
almost completely confined to the Cape Floristic Region (CFR). I say
‘almost’ because there are a few species that have boldly gone where no
*Geissorhiza* has gone before, spilling over into the semi-arid regions
that surround the CFR. It is thought that the ancestors of
*Geissorhiza *evolved
in the grasslands of south eastern Africa and slowly made their way west
and then somewhat north (imagine a Nike swoosh) into what is now the CFR as
ancient forests opened up and gave way to the scrubby fynbos vegetation
present today which allowed more light to reach the diminutive
*Geissorhizas*. *Geissorhiza’s* potential march north was ultimately halted
by the Karoo (semi-arid region) to the north and northeast of the CFR
because its underground storage organs are too small to survive long
without the consistent, yearly rain found in the Cape. The few species that
have found their way into the Karoo are thought to be the most
evolutionarily derived species, meaning they are least like their
ancestors. I was lucky enough to find one of these species, *G. corrugata*,
on my short trip to South Africa last year (see image below). This time, I
took aim at three more species each only known from small areas of the
Great Karoo. I left on Tuesday morning with a tent, some food and water,
and a map of the previous records of each species – exact gps points for
where they had been seen and collected in the past.

I drove for four hours progressively deeper into the middle of nowhere, the
relatively lush Cape mountains slowly giving way to stark, gaping expanse.
Once I arrived at my first point, I got out of the car and the first thing
that struck me was the utter silence. The kind of silence that leaves your
ears straining to hear something, anything. There were no sounds of distant
cars or mowers, planes, or even birds at that moment. I was at once both
alarmed by the complete isolation and thrilled by the rare experience and
feeling of being completely alone (I should note here that I had a working
cell phone, food and water in the car, and always stayed within eyesight of
the tarred road where other vehicles passed every 20-30 minutes or so – in
case of emergency). Anyway, I spent about two hours scouring the exact
hillslope that corresponded with a previous record of my target species and
when I was about to give up, I found a clump of three individuals growing
in some bushes at the base of a fencerow. Unfortunately, the individuals
were passed flowering so I wasn’t convinced it was the right species at
first, but after re-reading the description and noting that the violet
flowers turn blue when dry, just like the dry petals on the found plants, I
was happy I had found it.

I drove another forty-five minutes to the small and very remote town of
Sutherland known for stargazing and being the coldest place in South Africa
where I camped for the night… under cloudy skies. The next morning, I woke
to the birds and set out to find the other two local endemics closely
related to *G. corrugata*. Once again, I drove to the exact spot where
previous collections of the species had been made. I walked around for a
while, not seeing much in the dry, cracked earth, but once my eyes
adjusted, I started seeing my target species everywhere – a tiny,
curly-leaved plant very similar to *G. corrugata*. Unfortunately, this
species was also well passed flowering and was beginning to dry up and die
back to the ground, but I was thrilled to have found it so easily and felt
like I was on a roll, one more species to go and I’d be on my way!

I drove back in the direction of civilization and the empty landscape that
had looked blue and calm the cloudy afternoon before now looked threatening
in the blinding midday sun. I came to the turnoff that the map showed would
lead me to the site of the last species and paused. It was the kind of
back-country road that shoots off into the distance with no apparent
destination, a dirt road with no end or farm structures in sight. I thought
about passing it up, just driving back to Cape Town, but the species was an
important one for my collection and I had come all this way. In my head, I
briefly went through everything that could go wrong and was more or less
prepared for those situations so I headed down the road. My destination was
much farther down this road than I would have liked, but I did pass another
car on the way in and a single farm which eased my nerves a little. Once
again, I arrived at the very hillside that should hold my quarry, and the
previous record was pretty specific about where I should look. But, after
an hour or two spent combing the area, I hadn’t found what I was looking
for. I had found a surprising diversity of bulbs on the hill, but not what
I was looking for. In fact, I found what was perhaps the opposite of what I
was looking for.

I found more of the species I had just collected in Sutherland. The species
that ONLY occurs in Sutherland. A species that shouldn’t occur here, and
one that I had clearly misidentified. Not only that, but I found another
example of the species I had collected the day before – but this time it
was in flower. And the flower didn’t look quite right. After rereading the
description of the species and its closest relatives, I found out that it
is vegetatively indistinguishable from the one relative, one I have already
collected – meaning that unless it’s in flower, you can’t tell them apart.
My heart sank. I was no longer confident that I had collected any of the
correct species on this trip. It occurred to me that I should have enough
time on my way out to recheck the spot I found the first species to see if
I could find anymore, perhaps one in flower, so I held out hope.

Feeling defeated, I started driving the many miles back to the tared road.
That’s when I heard a “POP” and the alarms in my car started going off, the
digital screen in the dash blinking “PUNCTURE.” My heart sank even lower
and my stomach got a little queasy as I slowed to a stop. The first gravel
road I’ve been on this trip, and only one of two punctured tires I’ve
suffered over the last 5 years of fieldwork in South Africa, and it was
timed perfectly so that I was still miles from the one farm I had seen and
the tar road. I did my best to stay calm as I got out of the car and
unpacked the trunk. I hadn’t even checked to make sure there was a spare
tire, I had just assumed, so I held my breath as I pulled up the mat. There
was a tire, but one fit for a go-cart that had a label advising not to
exceed 80km an hour. I swapped the tires quickly, trying to keep my mind
occupied so as not to think about how the situation could get worse, and
carried on, the alarms no longer going off and screen no longer blinking. I
couldn’t help but think what might happen if I got another flat, and about
5 minutes later I heard another noise, my car resumed its alarm and
blinking “PUNCTURE” once again. I didn’t have the stomach to pull over
again, I just kept driving. I drove until I was on the edge of the lone
farm and could see washing hung out to dry, a domestic scene that was
immensely comforting at the time. I hoped out, held my breath, and slowly
walked from tire to tire. They were all fine, the car must have
reregistered the initial puncture. I let out an audible sigh of relief and
kept driving.

Needless to say, I didn’t stop to recheck for the flowering *Geissorhiza*.
Instead I drove to the nearest tire shop, still about 40 miles away, but
the tire had an inch and a half tear and was un-patchable and they didn’t
have the right size for me to buy a new one. So, after my great trek into
the Karoo, I limped all the way back to Cape Town Wednesday night on my toy
tire with one questionable-at-best *Geissorhiza* having left my dignity and
whatever was left of my ego somewhere far behind. I think the drought
affected these three semi-arid species more severely than the more coastal
species so much of their population may not have flowered at all this year,
and the ones that did may have bloomed earlier in the season. These things
are hard to predict! It took a day and a half for the rental car company to
replace my car which is why I had time to write this all down. Tomorrow,
I’m back on the road with many more *Geissorhizas* to find and adventures
to be had.
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