In the wild

with Ernst van Jaarsveld

Russian researcher LIUDMILA OZEROVA celebrates plant guru Ernst van Jaarsveld’s 70th this year through her cherished memories of field trips with him

Photos by Liudmila Ozerova

In the wild with Ernst van Jaarsveld

Russian researcher LIUDMILA OZEROVA celebrates plant guru Ernst van Jaarsveld’s 70th this year through her cherished memories of field trips with him

Photos by Liudmila Ozerova
Russian succulent specialist Liudmila Ozerova delights in the landscape of the Richtersveld, complete with quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum).


To me, Ernst van Jaarsveld is the centre of South Africa’s botanical universe! He curated the Kirstenbosch succulent collections and displays for many years, has written several books and is a teacher, lecturer and organiser of international botanical expeditions to South Africa.

We met in 2008, when my colleagues and I first came on a study trip to South Africa. All my scientific life I had studied succulent daisies (Asteraceae) but had never seen them in the wild. Now, finally, my dream had come true. I was captivated by South Africa’s waterfalls, mountains and amazing plants.

I came for an internship with Ernst to learn about growing succulent plants. I enjoyed working in his succulent collections, learning the secrets of growing the world’s rarest fig-marigolds, or Aizoaceae plants. At Kirstenbosch, Ernst’s wonderful display of tweeblaarkanniedood (Welwitschia mirabilis) clearly showed all stages of development from seedlings to adults with cones. His book about welwitschia, Uncrowned Monarch of the Namib (Penrock), written with Uschi Pond, was published in 2013.

Clockwise from top left: Here’s health to Ernst van Jaarsveld! Ernst sets up a picture of a ribbon plant (Trachyandra) in the Namaqua National Park; Ernst at work in the succulent house at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, with the welwitschia display taking shape to his right; Ernst keeps sharp for a demanding day in the field by doing a vigorous exercise programme, including handstands, and eating mainly fruit and vegetables during the day.



The absolute highlight of my study visits has always been travelling thousands of kilometres across expanses of southern Africa on numerous trips between 2008 and 2019, studying plants, collecting herbarium specimens, seeds and plants for the Kirstenbosch collection. I was fortunate to visit during every season of the year and to see all South Africa’s provinces as well as Namibia.

What I had not expected was Ernst’s very athletic and energetic field skills. He did exercises every morning, stood on his hands, climbed rocks and could scramble down any chasm. Foodwise, he followed the diet principles of the Nama people – only vegetables and fruit during the day, and a piece of meat in the evening. Often all we got for breakfast was a cup of coffee with a raw carrot.


On each expedition, Ernst kept a diary in Afrikaans and set a goal.

On one of our expeditions, we were looking for parasitic plants. Ernst has built a unique collection of parasitic plants at Kirstenbosch. I have not seen a similar one in any other botanical garden.

We wanted to find Tapinanthus crassifolius (now known as Agelanthus crassifolius). It is part of the showy mistletoe family (Loranthaceae), grows in the Kruger National Park and parasitises marula (Sclerocarya caffra).

Collecting specimens is not for the faint hearted – Ernst shins up a lofty tree looking for the parasite Agelanthus crassifolius.



Ernst’s detailed diaries provide a useful cumulative reference of when species were seen where. Here is an excerpt of some of his entries on our trip to Limpopo and Mpumalanga:


VERSAMELTOG NA LIMPOPO EN MPUMALANGA (7-17 APRIL 2015) Metgeselle: Ntotoko Mabuya (South Africa), Luidmila Ozerova (Russia), Claudia Guerredo (Argentina).Voergtuig: CA 105309. (Nuwe Toyota 4X4), Afstand afeglê: 7400 km

Doel: Verskeie soorte, Drimia (Damkop), Malephora herrei (Hanover), Albuca sp. nov. (Verlorenkloof), Euphorbia sp. nov. (Serenity), Encephalartos transvenosus (Modjadji), Cotyledon barbeyi var. soutpansbergensis, Aloe Barbara-jeppei, Aloe braamvanwykii, (Wolmaransstad), Sclerochiton harveyanus, Dracaena transvaalensis (Strydpoortberge), Tapinanthus crassifolius, Anisotes rogersii (Pafuri), Malelaan (Euphorbia sp. nov., Portulacaria afra).

Ons vertrek Dinsdag oggend 6 vm tel eers vir Milla op in Brackenfell (kuier by Danny Gildenhuys se suster), Ntotoko op by Worcester en dan via Beaufort Wes tot Hanover vir Malephora. Dan verder met die N1, ons bly oor in Maselspoort (Milla betaal ons akkommodasie). Dan deur na Buffelskloof (John Burrows) (2 nagte) en dan na die Laeveld Botaniese Tuin, Nelspruit (2 nagte), ry na Strydom Tonnel, slaap aand in Zaneen (gastehuis), dan na Punda Maria en Pafuri en slaap aand by Tjipese. Pietersburg ook ‘n nag en tot by die Waterberge en deur tot by Britstown waar ons oornag en dan terug Kirstenbosch toe. Laai eers vir Ntotoko af, Milla kom saam en neem haar eers op die boomslang en gee plante en dan weer terug na Brackenfell die aand. Kom eers laat in Kooi.

1 DAMKOP  (Dindsdag 7 April, 2015). Gamka Karoo (Nama Karoo Bioom)

Aloe variegata, Drimia anomale, Gasteria disticha, Senecio articulates, 25808 Haworthia tessellata 25809 Stapelia olevacea2 HANOVER (Dinsdag 7 April, 2015). Oostelike Bo-karoo (Nama Karoo Bioom)

25811 Malephora herrei  (steggies en ekemplare), 25812 MestoklemaSlaap dinsdagaand in Maselspoort

Woensdag ry vanaf Maselspoort tot Lydenburg en dan Buffelskloof die Woensdagnag (John Butrows se gasteplek) 

3 BUFFELSKLOOF, LYDENBURG (Donnerdag 9 April). Lydenburg Doringveld, Noordelike Misbelt woud John gee ons verskeie steggies en stap roete saam met ons.
25815 Aeollanthus canescens,25816 Aloe dyeranus,25819 Carissa bispinosa subsp. Zambesiaca.

(From left) Ernst van Jaarsveld, John Burrows and Claudia Guerredo plan our next move at Buffelskloof private nature reserve.


We were fortunate to visit Buffelskloof, which felt like a unique place to me. It is a small private nature reserve of about 1 500 hectares that protects a large area of indigenous forest. The altitude ranges from 1 000 to 1 800 metres.

The reserve is open only to researchers and students, for research projects in natural history, bioconservation or any environmental science. All visits had to be approved in advance by then chief manager John Burrows.

The reserve herbarium (BNRH) contains more than 10 000 specimens and includes an extensive collection of plants found at Buffelskloof and at nearby sites along the northern Drakensberg in Mpumalanga.

Exploring Kaokoveld

Most of all, I remember the expedition to Namibia’s Kaokoveld. We camped in a cave, set around with ferns like a garden and a waterfall of clear mountain water.

The Kaokoveld area is a centre of endemism, with 10 endemic genera and about 300 endemic species. Kaokoveld’s flora totals about 1 600 species, with nearly 550 genera in 130 families.

The goal of the expedition set by Ernst – to find Aloe catengiana on Omavanda, a mountain about 2 000 metres high in Kaokoveld, and to explore Zebraberge and the area around the mining town of Rosh Pinah area to the south.

Kaokoveld is one of the least visited regions in Namibia. It was almost inaccessible south of Kunene, where there were virtually no roads of any kind. The tracks are either rocky or consist of deep, soft sand. Only a fully equipped expedition, with good transport and in the company of an experienced guide could penetrate here.

East of Epupa falls in Namibia’s Kaokoveld, we surveyed a small population of the endemic Euphorbia leistneri. It is now at risk due to habitat loss but had expanded over the previous three years due to heavy rainfall.

Left: Our team takes a breather in a cave in the Kaokoveld: (from left) Ernst van Jaarsveld, Ricardo Riddles, Gregory Nicolson, Leevi Nanyeni and Wessel Swanepoel. Right: The fundamentals of sleeping in a cave, 21st-century style.

Dr Liudmila Ozerova (lyozerova@yandex.ru) is a specialist at the main botanical garden of the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow. Her research was carried out in accordance with Russian Government order for Tsitsin Main Botanical Garden of Russian Academy of Sciences (project No. 122042700002-6. ‘Unique Scientific Installation Fund Greenhouse’).

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