16 March, 2012

My pioneer plant - spekboom or Portulacaria afra

Dozen for Diana 3

As a gardener something I learnt about years after it was too late, was pioneer plants or nurse trees.

Spekboom against a blue, still summer, sky

In Ernst van Jaarsveld’s Wonderful Waterwise Gardening I find a list of pioneer species for a fynbos or renosterveld garden. Euryops pectinatus and virgineus (yellow daisy bushes), Metalasia (honeybush, tiny fragrant white flowers), Chrysanthemoides monilifera (bushtick berry or bietou donated by our birds), Pelargonium capitatum, Carpobrotus (sour fig, a groundcover with thick succulent leaves), Podalyria sericea (silver sweetpea bush, Cape satin bush) and our annual daisies Dimorphotheca, Ursinia and Arctotis.

Grateful for lush green spekboom leaves

By accident and lessons learnt with grudging difficulty, we have most of these plants in our garden. Now we are tackling the bits that didn’t work. The Ungardener is working on the dry sunny bit between the ash trees and Ungardening Pond – which is in your face as you cross the verandah to But it’s NOT A Garden!! A second neighbour has donated his spekboom Portulacaria afra cuttings to our garden. And we have taken cuttings to our new garden in False Bay.

Lichen encrusted spekboom at Addo

As seen in Addo with real elephants, Spekboom comes from the Eastern Cape with its summer rainfall. It is a tough succulent with small leaves, eminently able to thrive here despite our hot dry mediterranean summer. Given time the shrubby plants grow into small trees amongst which it is hard to see the elephants, until they come to the waterhole or cross the road.

Elephants eating spekboom at Addo

From yearinthewild at Baviaanskloof. Spekboom produces a huge amount of leaf litter – incredibly, as much as wet forest ecosystems! It is this massive amount of leaf litter which allows other plants to grow and thrive in a semi-arid region. The rich organic soil which is generated sustains plenty of life, including herds of buffalo and eland.
The spekboom veld is able to create its own micro climate, in which thousands of other species can live. But if it is overgrazed, and the soil is damaged, it has disastrous consequences, as the whole system collapses and desert conditions will eventually prevail. The rainfall here is notoriously variable, and temperatures can soar in summer.
This ecosystem collapse has happened on a lot of farms which border the river in the valley. 

Our elephant in his spekboom forest

We went to the Baviaanskloof in November 2010 where we saw the thicket restoration project. Carbon sequestration as part of our response to battling global weirding.

Spekboom at Elephant's Eye Light Railway

As the elephants chomp happily on whole branches, so you too can nibble a few lemony-sour leaves. These are plants which don’t sulk and fade when an elephant knocks a branch to the ground. Even a little cluster of leaves landing on the ground will grow. Once you have established plants, you have a ready supply of bits to spread around.

Growing across and over the path, volunteer cuttings of spekboom

For the Dozen for Diana meme return with me to your imaginary empty small garden.
1. A newly cleared bed where the tree came down?
2. Choose plants that you know will grow happily in your climate and soil!   
3. I lean to indigenous/native for wildlife.
4. Colour, scent, texture or interest - so we see a garden.
What would be the chosen pioneer/nurse for your own garden?

Dozen for Diana, now we are 3

I began this year with my signature blue sage, and added a witkaree tree. Originally my third choice was a groundcover Plectranthus madagascariensis but I’ve learnt the pioneer comes first!


Donna at gardenseyeview has Trilliums.  I’m enchanted by both the burgundy flowers, and the spotted trifoliate leaves.

TheSageButterfly in the other hemisphere is dancing with her spring daffodils.

Laura at PatioPatch is going Franco-Japanese with a hydrangea Mariesii Perfecta.

Christine who shares a shadier version of my climate has chosen our wild iris Dietes grandiflora.

Pam in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania brings her black walnut trees. They don't 'play nicely' with other plants so Pam gardens with informed care.

Beth combines fond memories with today's exuberance in Magnolia stellata.

The Violet Fern brings the magick and alchemy of Lady's Mantle and her dew.


Joining later, we have the first pioneer choice experiments-with-plants Pinks.

Pictures and words by Diana of  Elephant's Eye 
- wildlife gardening in Porterville, near Cape Town in South Africa
(If you mouse over brown text, it turns shriek pink. Those are my links.) 


  1. Plus the added advantage of Spekboom is that it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere :) But I didn't know it could be nibbled by humans - thanks :)

  2. Love your picture of the elephant munching! He looks so happy. That is an interesting plant - I had not heard of it before.

  3. Diana, I love the texture of the spekboom. And the importance of these plants to the surrounding flora and wildlife is just another wonderful attribute. Love this post!

  4. Dani - carbon sequestration in my earlier post, and the yearinthewild link.

  5. This is interesting Diana - we don't need much in the way of pioneer plants here, though sweetpeas and beans are always good because of the added nitrates. The sandy soils of High Weald (not really high - just not the thick clay of the Low Weald)are low in nutrients and there the Silver Birch is the pioneer par excellence. The leaf litter it drops is ready food for Birch Boletes which it lives with in symbiosis. These scavenge very effectively for nutrients which they pass back to the trees building up the nutrient levels in the upper layers.

  6. Diana I love this plant...how it can sprout from stems that drop to the ground...I was surprised to see elephants eating it...we don't see anything larger than a deer so it was different...I can see where the ecosystem is so fragile for you. I love plants you can eat too.

  7. Facinating to read how the Spekboom leads its own ecosystem and produces so much leaf litter.

  8. I've seen those growing here as tropicals...have to take a good closer look next time I see them.

    Amazing story.

    Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

  9. Sounds like a vital plant for the landscape. The leaf litter part is really important. When we, the people, start messing with the ecosystems....especially along the rivers....we have the ability to destroy what has grown there for thousands of years. The Amazon is the exact same way....that leaf litter, etc is important for keeping the ground moist and rich....without the shade or trees, the place would turn into a desert environment. Fun shot of the elephant.:) These plants are important to the health of our individual ecosystems.

  10. You won't believe this - I was at Stodels today and in the short time I was there I saw three people put Spekboom in their trolleys. I bet it was your post that sent people shopping for it!!

    I've never really taken note of this shrub and will take another look now. It looks fabulous in your photos and I liked what I saw today. Lovely choice & thanks for introducing me to another fabulous South African plant!

  11. Christine - In my dreams ;~))

  12. I enjoyed seeing your photos and a glimpse of the railway! I was unfamiliar with spekboom until reading this post. Very interesting, and points out how important particular species can be. It reminds me that we all are interconnected, with each part playing a vital role.

  13. Diana, now you've sent me on a research kick to find pioneer species for New Mexico. An obstacle I've run up against in an urban setting is that the close walls change the environment--there's not enough light for most desert plants, but too much heat and not enough moisture for more montane/riparian ones. Blue grama grass seems to be my best pioneer choice so far (though some ecologists consider it a climax species, too!).

    The vibrant green of your spekboom is wonderful--that color is all too rare in an arid climate. Enjoyed all the information about it, as well as your elephants, large and small.

  14. A great post Diana, I'm beginning to understand that English gardeners really don't understand the necessity for use of natives, pioneers etc. even with a hosepipe ban already in SE England most plants will grow everywhere. It is never too cold, never too hot and even if there isn't rain there is mist and humidity. I'm going to follow your lead and discover more about pioneers in my area. Love the elephants! Christina

  15. those pioneers give a lot back for seemingly little effort oot! Such a natural looking garden Diana, the elephants will soon stop by for a graze on your succulent Spekboom
    p.s. have not gone native but Franco-Japanese this time

  16. Diana, thank you--it's so kind of you to ask! The wind is strong here (38 mph sustained winds, gusts to 65 mph), but the hatches have been battened down and all is well. The photo you sent was taken just a couple of miles from my house.

  17. Dear Diana, Love your pioneer -- those leaves look really juicy, so it is obvious why the elephants love it too. (My walnut tree is coming -- the weather has been too nice to post.) Pam x

  18. Fascinating post - and like everyone I loved the shot of the elephants eating spekboom. In New Delhi we only see them working and being fed fruit.
    I remember studying pioneer plants when I was in the US, but have no idea what they might be here on the dry plains of north India. I shall be following Stacy and Christina in doing some research.

  19. I love Spekboom and have a couple in my garden. I even have a bonsai spekboom. As for Addo, its one of my favorite destinations.

  20. Hi Diana - My post is now live:

  21. Pioneer plant or nurse plant... hmmm, have to look it up in the net as I have never heard about it before... thank you for sharing the information...

  22. Dear Diana, I posted my third signature plant, Black Walnut tree, at last. Sorry I took so long. P. x

  23. No apologies Pam! This is an as and when meme. Running on African time ;~)

  24. Diana: I learned a lot from this post. Thanks so much! I didn't know anything about Spekboom before this. I just finished up the "Lessons Learned" wrap-up late last night. I'm glad you found it! Thanks for info about the rankings! And thanks again for joining in the meme! I will post my "plant of the month" on Friday.

  25. The concepts of nurse trees and pioneer plants were unknown to me till I read this article. I actually had figured out for myself the function of nurse trees and have been planting several recently without giving them that title. For people like us who are trying to establish sustainable naturalized gardens that are part of healthy ecosystems, pioneer plants are essential. Thinking of that book Rambunctious Garden, I think they don't strictly need to be indigenous. Great post. Great elephants.

  26. I could use a spekboom in my poor dry garden. Too bad it is to cold here.

  27. Hi Diana: I'm probably too late for this month, but my "plant of the month" post is now live at http://bit.ly/GYWtIC. Thanks! Beth

  28. Beth - never too late. Always welcome to join in!

  29. Fascinating article. I'm originally from Southern California and now living in Sweden for 6 years. Wanting to move away from this climate and a back to the heat. I'm a desert rat at heart.

    The plant you referenced is commonly grown in so-Cal, but you never know or appreciate where from. I just posted on a few traditionally grown plants in So-Cal that actuallt hail from the Canary Islands, Canary Island Pines, for which I understand some places in South Afirca have gotten away as a weed of sorts in the mountains there if I'm correct. And of course their native Date Palm

    Love the reference to nurse plants. I actually have three blogs and one is dedicated to what I call the Earth's Internet, which deals with mycorrhizal relationships of all sorts. Certainly nurse plants will be a major subject down the road once I get past some more basics.

    Thanks for your blog. I'll check regularly. Looking forward to any info on African Acacias. I'm interested in Savanah and desert restoration projects and work with alot of African students here.

    Take care, Kevin


  30. Diana - Better late than never - I hope. Your post helped me to discover that I have a pioneer plant in my garden : http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/pinks-15-apr-2012.html


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