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Haasendal Restoration: Saving fynbos, one seedling at a time

The Haasendal Nature Reserve in Kuils River, Cape Town, is a diamond in the rough – and one of the last vestiges of a Critically Endangered vegetation type.

MAY 26, 2022 | WRITTEN BY BOTSOC NATIONAL. PHOTOS BY CAITLIN VON WITT, CEINWEN SMITH AND DAVID MORRIS

 

Above: Serruria aemula var. congesta seen during the Haasendal restoration team’s scoping field trip in September 2021. Image: Ceinwen Smith

 

The Haasendal Nature Reserve is home to some incredible species of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos – the most diverse sand fynbos type, and one that is endemic to the City of Cape Town.

This vegetation type is severely threatened and only about 15% of it remains in the city. Of this 15%, only 1% is currently conserved.

A recent restoration effort – a partnership between the Botanical Society national team and the Kirstenbosch branch, with FynbosLIFE and other incredible partners – aims to ensure that a small part of this distinctive fynbos type is protected for years to come. Thanks to funding by BotSoc and the Rowland & Leta Hill Trust, a team of botanists and volunteers have undertaken an endeavour to reintroduce locally indigenous species into the reserve.

Dr Caitlin von Witt, Botanical Ecologist at FynbosLIFE, says: “The reserve is situated in an urban area within Bottelary Hills near Kuils River, and is about 50 hectares in size. This year, we are working on 500 m². Every single remaining area of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos must be protected.”

 

Top left: Nandipha Khwananzi of FynbosLIFE inspects Brunsvigia orientalis during a seed collecting trip in February 2023. Top right: Over 50 trays of cuttings were propagated by FynbosLIFE restoration horticulturists. Bottom right: Haasendal restoration team members in action. Bottom left: The FynbosLIFE restoration team has cultivated a whopping 750 plants of the Extinct in the Wild Serruria aemula var. congesta. Photos by Caitlin von Witt
 

But despite the rare vegetation it houses, Haasendal – like many other urban nature reserves – has seen better days.

Caitlin says, “This is a rapidly developing area, so there is very little natural vegetation left, and sadly most of the reserve has also been disturbed or transformed at some stage. There are old fields at the bottom and only a small area of intact vegetation at the top.”

Besides urban expansion, indigenous species are also threatened by invasive species. The prevalence of Port Jackson trees (Acacia saligna) has been a particularly formidable challenge, but recent alien clearing efforts have helped manage this problem – most of these trees have been cleared but follow ups are needed, says Caitlin.

Verbesina encelioides, a large asteraceous herbaceous annual, has reared its head recently, and there are always new invaders to ward off on the horizon. Also on the north-western boundary, where the Bottelary Stream is, there’s a large patch of kikuyu grass in the wetter areas. And there’s potential for that to invade into the reserve from the west side as well.”

Expert intervention is needed

Although natural systems have the remarkable ability to restore themselves, the vegetation at Haasendal has been damaged to the point where expert intervention is needed if the fynbos is to be saved.

Caitlin explains, “Unfortunately, the area that is very degraded hasn’t passively restored from the seed bank, so what remains are very open sandy areas. As a result there isn’t a good balance of biodiversity, with an overpopulation of rodents and an abundance of mole heaps. It’s a vicious cycle, which makes it almost impossible for [natural] restoration to happen.”

These factors make their project challenging, but necessary. “Because of the disturbance in the reserve and how it has become impossible for it to restore passively, we need to undertake an active restoration project.”

Above: One of the approximately 30 plants of Serruria aemula var. congesta which have been previously restored to Haasendal. Photo by Ceinwen Smith

 

Salvation through seeds

By planting local species grown from both seeds and cuttings, the conservation team is helping to boost the natural vegetation and restore it to its former glory.

The team started in 2021 by applying for the necessary permits from the appropriate authorities to collect material from existing plants. Then they embarked on field trips, with support from volunteers, to collect both seed and cutting material.

The cuttings were prepared, and the seeds were smoked to kickstart germination.

Caitlin explains that the variety of species were chosen with great discernment. “We’re going to be planting some pioneers – hardy, fast-growing species – just to re-introduce some relatively immediate cover. We also want to re-establish a variety of different plant growth forms and species diversity. So, species across various plant families including succulents, geophytes, annuals and longer-lived woody shrubs.”

Rooted propagules were subsequently potted into plugs, and these plantlets are now strong enough for re-introduction into the Haasendal reserve. The planting sites will be prepared by using the applied nucleation method. This method entails planting vegetation in strategic focal clusters, rather than over a large site.

Caitlin says: “We’re going to use circular plots that will each be 15 m in diameter. First we need to clear those areas of any invasive grasses and mark them out, and then we’ll do a separate trip for planting.”

Above: The team collects ripe fruit from female plants of the “fynbos star-apple” Diospyros glabra on a degraded granite outcrop. Photo by Caitlin von Witt

Waiting for rain

Collecting material, cultivating seedlings and planting them out require a lot of time and labour. So the team wants to ensure that the new plants take well to their new home and thrive in their native soil. One way to do this is to make sure the seedlings are in optimal condition before planting them out.

Cailtin explains, “We allow the plants to grow in the nursery, but we want to keep them fairly small so that the roots are actively growing and support the foliage. We don’t want to plant big top-heavy plants that don’t have a sufficiently large root ball to support them.”

Another crucial factor is timing the planting day just right with the changing seasons. The team wants to plant just before rain comes, but they also want to introduce the seedlings into already-saturated soil.

“We’ll make sure that we choose a time that is not before or after the first rains; it will be after the second or third rains,” says Caitlin. “We also want to make sure that it is in the middle of winter, so that the plants have a long time after that to establish.”

 

Above: This photo was taken by reserve manager David Morris at the second seed and cutting collecting trip. Photo by David Morris

 

Withstanding the dry summers

The team will also be doing broadcast seed sowing in late May, and will be monitoring the area’s recovery for a year after planting and providing support where needed. But the team is careful not to coddle the plants during the follow-up visits – after all, they must be able to withstand the Western Cape’s dry summers on their own.

Caitlin says, “With any restoration project, we don’t water the plants at all. So they rely entirely on rainwater, groundwater and condensation to survive. To promote the survival of the plants, the follow-ups will include weeding and, if the plants are getting a bit lanky, they could be trimmed down a bit.”

It takes a village…

The team of experts have put careful planning into this project, but they cannot do all the work alone. Volunteers have been invaluable in the collecting and preparing stages, and more hands are needed to help with planting and monitoring when the time comes.

Caitlin invites all botany enthusiasts to join. “We would particularly like to involve BotSoc members from the surrounding communities, like the Northern Suburbs, and also Friends of Bracken Nature Reserve. By getting volunteers to join us in the field, they will really get to know the veld type and learn how important it is that we restore everything that is left.”

The transferral of valuable skills is another aim of the project, says Caitlin. Some of the staff involved have no prior experience with active restoration projects, and can learn through the process. “We want to simplify the restoration process and teach volunteers and other staff about seed and cutting collection, smoke treatment, seed sowing, propagation, potting and planting, and also maintenance.”

Get involved

Any volunteers based in Cape Town who would like to become involved with the Haasendal restoration project, can contact Caitlin at restorehaasendal@gmail.com.

Volunteers are also invited to join the first planting day at Haasendal on Wednesday 7 June, from 10am to 1pm. We’ll meet at the nature reserve entrance at 10am, for a fun, active planting session with fellow plant lovers (including our BotSoc members).

Kirstenbosch Branch

We’re a thriving branch, with more than 6 000 members. And our members get involved in conservation projects across Cape Town to protect our Cape Floral Kingdom.

3 Comments

  1. i would like to know more about this area to get involved.
    Adele Scheeepers

  2. Would love to be involved !

  3. Such a noble and (sounds like) a well intentioned and well thought out project…Amanzi!

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