Wednesday, July 07, 2004

I'm an alien 

Our new house (how long until it becomes just “our house” – 6 months? A year? 3 months and counting…) is in an estate that encourages indigenous plants in the residents’ gardens. Given the (realtively) newly inclusive, all-embracing nature of South Africa, the attitude to alien vegetation is conspicuously xenophobic. Cape Town is probably unique in that its climate supports both oak and palm trees, and neither looks out of place. Both are probably considered alien, i.e. introduced at some point from abroad. If you follow this logic for the inhabitants of the Rainbow Nation, then of course any non black South African is also alien. Maybe the botany people are testing the waters for Home Affairs. There will be a bounty offered for bringing in aliens, double if your captive has a blue gum up his arse…

Anyway, there are some very good reasons for discouraging alien plant species, especially the nasty Australian ones, since they contribute to several problems. The first is water shortages: the foreigners apparently drink too much, in the grand tradition of ex-pats, which means that other plants struggle for moisture, and little grows in their shade. The second problem is when things burn, which they often do – the blue gums and wattles make better firewood, burning hotter and longer, and delaying the new growth after the fire. The native proteas apparently enjoy a good roasting every so often to help with seed germination from underground buds, but the aussies are too hot for them.

Back home, because it fits in with the general design ethos of the estate, or because the developers felt guilty about destroying a large area of hillside, or maybe just because it looks nice, we have detailed guidelines on what we are encouraged to grow in our garden. I’m not quite sure what “encouraged” means. Perhaps a scruffy bloke in baggy trousers comes around at the weekend to frown at your lavender (very thirsty and often French, apparently). Or maybe a middle aged lady with twigs in her hair pops over to tut at your oaks. (Too English, too big – rather like Martin Johnson. Must plant one.)

We’ve been quite good so far, mainly because we spent all our money, and quite a lot of the bank’s, building the house, so have none left over for greenery. We have therefore economised by nicking cuttings from the communal bits of the garden, and replanting them in our garden, with some success. Apart from the bit where the dog likes to flop. I wonder if cacti are kosher?

As I have said before, one of the fun things about South Africa is that the whole environment is exciting, certainly in relation to the UK. Apart from the spectacular scenery, the regular flora and fauna are fascinating, at least to this pom. On the way home from the movies the other night, we saw a couple of porcupines disappearing into the bushes on the side of the road. Even the starlings are interesting. On the greener side of things, the Cape is pretty impressive. The Cape Peninsular is classified as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Although it is the smallest in area, it is home to the highest number of species. Of the 8600 plant species in the Cape, 5800 are not found anywhere else in the world. There are more plant species to be found on Table Mountain alone than in the whole of the British Isles. Table Mountain isn’t even that big. It only qualifies as a mountain by about 90 metres, and you could drive right around it in an hour if the traffic wasn’t too bad.

In my parents’ garden in England, the most dangerous thing was the stinging nettle. This obnoxious little bush was good for some fun with visiting Americans. They had never seen one before, so would always get sent into the nettles to fetch errant balls. “Yow! That bush bit me!” The cure for a nettle sting, as every British kid knows, is the doc leaf, which was always growing nearby: problem and solution. I discovered the other day that there is a similar thing in South Africa. Walking along a beach, it is easy to step on the tendril of a “blue bottle” – a type of jellyfish (not an irritating fly, like in the UK). These little buggers sting like hell, but the remedy is again close at hand – usually in the sand dunes in the form of a small aloe plant. You snap off a leaf, split it open, and apply the goo to the wound to soothe it. Problem and solution again. These aloes are the same things that grow so well from cuttings pinched from our estate’s gardens, which is how I got onto this train of thought.

Every problem lies close to a solution: you just have to know where to look. I wish I had some more profound message to round off with, but really it’s as simple as that.

Listening to: Ocean Colour Scene – whatever happened to them?

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