Rejoicing at rescue and regeneration
Decades of struggle to rescue and restore a precious conservation area at Cape Town’s Princess Vlei has grown a community with a passion for indigenous plants
BY BRIDGET PITT
Nikita January brought her husband and children back to Cape Town’s Princess Vlei to take part in the tradition of community planting that she had helped pioneer more than 10 years earlier.
A decade after Nikita January planted fynbos at Princess Vlei with her Lotus High classmates in protest against a planned shopping mall, she returned for a community planting marking 16 June. Nikita and her classmates were the pioneers who planted the first of the thousands of fynbos plants flourishing today in the 109-hectare Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area.
This lies near the Cape Flats suburbs of Fairways, Southfield, Heathfield, Grassy Park and Retreat on the one hand and near Rondevlei, Zeekoevlei and Zandvlei at the entrance to the protected wetlands of False Bay on the other. Over the years, many organisations and donors, including BotSoc’s Kirstenbosch branch, the Botanical Education Trust and the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, have helped the Princess Vlei Forum bring this important area and its two vleis back to health. But it is the local community who have really been at the heart of making it happen.
GENERATION TO GENERATION
“When I first became part of the environmental club at school, it was an escape from everyday challenges,” Nikita recalls. “Later, it became something deeper when I joined the Princess Vlei Forum because then I got to be part of something greater than myself.” Nikita said.
“Ten years later my daughter got to enjoy this beautiful space. I remember it as plans and meetings and after-school clean-ups. Now it has become this beautiful serene space where I can bring my kids. I could not be any more proud.”
This time, Nikita had come back to share the planting experience with her husband and two small children.
The land had been exploited and neglected in turn for well over a century, decimating its biodiversity. Back in the 1800s, it was already no longer pristine, as sections were used for vegetable and flower farming.
The natural vleis also suffered when it was decided to stabilise the soil by planting trees that we now know to be alien invasives, rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and Port Jackson willow (Acacia saligna).
The land was degraded further in the 1940s when the municipality tried canal construction in the 1940s to manage storm and seasonal water flow. Later, dredging was attempted.
DEGRADING AND NEGLECT
For many years, the delicate soils and plants were not properly managed and battled to withstand the area’s heavy use for recreation, from sports to dog walking and braais. Neglect was entrenched by many years of racially discriminatory distribution of resources during apartheid.
Then another danger loomed. A shopping mall was planned for Princess Vlei. This threat was averted only by a fierce campaign waged by the community and environmental champions.
The desolation at Princess Vlei (top) in 2013, showing what it looked like before the restoration planting took place. Hip-hop star Emile YX (left) is one of many community champions of the Princess Vlei restoration project.
Timeline of hope
Restoring the indigenous plants at Princess Vlei has always been part of the community vision. It was consistently identified as a priority by the community in several surveys and workshops. This timeline shows how the community fought back.
Kelvin Cochrane’s project, Dressing the Princess, kickstarts restoration efforts. In the following years, many youth and community members planted fynbos and trees on the site as a form of protest against the proposed shopping mall.
The Princess Vlei Forum is formed, unifying individuals, organisations and the surrounding communities, all rallying around the cause to save Princess Vlei.
The City of Cape Town finally agrees to scrap shopping mall plans thanks to a community campaign led by the Princess Vlei Forum. With the threat of the mall removed, restoration could now begin in earnest.
The Princess Vlei Forum appoints Alex Lansdowne as a restoration consultant to help its project manager Denisha Anand plan and implement a five-year restoration project.
The Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area is declared a provincial heritage site, due to its biodiversity and cultural heritage value.
2021 - 2023
Restoration work is extended to the northern and western shores.
Restoration planting four years ago immediately increased biodiversity from four species, three of which were invasive, to nearly 50 species. This picture shows Princess Vlei thriving in 2022.
Alex Lansdowne conducted an extensive habitat assessment of the conservation area and researched the species that had been recorded historically. The survey revealed 10 hectares of intact dune strandveld on the southern shore, with restoration potential for strandveld and lowland freshwater plants on the eastern shore and critically endangered Cape Flats sand fynbos on the northern shore.
We began with the eastern shore, clearing about 1 000 square metres of alien grasses and weeds and planting more than 3 000 restoration grade plants which had been cultivated for this purpose. This increased the biodiversity in this area from four species, three of which were invasive, to nearly 50 species. Among the plants we reintroduced were the whorled heath (Erica verticillata), which is extinct in the wild, and the critically endangered Rondevlei spiderhead (Serruria foeniculacea).
Most of the plants survived and the plot was doing well – until it suffered a shocking setback in 2021. A City contractor severely damaged it during an operation to clear water hyacinth by ripping up the shoreline, crushing plants with machinery and dumping a large heap of biomass and sludge on the site. Through intensive work, the site has recovered, although progress has been set back three years.
We know that we must stay alert to dangers. Management has improved but the site is still short changed of resources invested. Littering, illegal dumping and, worst of all, sand mining all continue to impact some areas.
In 2021, we began work on the northern shore, which contains one of the few remaining ‘ecotone’ areas in Cape Town where it is possible to grow species that cross over between dune strandveld and Cape Flats sand fynbos.
We planted out 1 700 plants from 44 species of the Cape Flats sand fynbos family. They included species such as Kenilworth heath (Erica turgida), which is extinct in the wild and grows only in a small area between Kenilworth race course and Princess Vlei. Other species included thistle protea (Protea scolymocephala), Cape Flats conebush (Leucadendron levisanus), tolbos (Leucadendron floridum), geelkruid (Steirodiscus tagetes) and silwer keurtjie (Podalyria sericea).
While clearing this 1 500-square-metre plot of grasses and weeds, we uncovered a seasonal wetland pond. Until Princess Vlei was dredged to prevent flooding across Prince George Drive in the 1970s, it was a much larger, shallower wetland, with many seasonal water bodies.
Uncovering the pond enabled us to plant wetland species such as a miniature, narrow-leaved form of waterblommetjie (Aponogeton angustifolius). This meant we could nurture a habitat for the Cape Flats micro frog (Microbatrachella capensis).
Cape Flats conebush (Leucadendron levisanus) is one of four proteas on the site.
CLEARING THE GROUND
Kirstenbosch BotSoc branch’s hacking team helped us clear areas of Port Jackson willow, black alder, poplar, eucalyptus trees and other invasive species, greatly extending the overall area that we have been able to restore passively.
One of these areas is a seep between the larger and smaller vleis, which was heavily infested with alien species. Clearing these has led to the re-emergence of species such as the sugarbush (P. repens). To speed up rehabilitation and to prevent alien trees from regrowing, we have also planted several species in this area.
One of our signature species has been the protea, which was last recorded on site 150 years ago. The reintroduction of protea species has been extremely successful.
These include the Rondevlei spiderhead, which was believed to be extinct in the wild until the 1970s when Howard Langley discovered a specimen and planted it out at Rondevlei, where he was manager. Princess Vlei is the ideal habitat for this species and it is doing well here.
Other notable members of the protea family planted at Princess Vlei include thistle protea, which has mostly been grown from seed, and tolbos. Both have established themselves very well.
In 2020, we had a tiny lockdown planting with members of Kirstenbosch BotSoc. They included Keith Kirsten, then branch chairperson, who planted a number of thistle protea which are still flourishing.
The geophytic species are also doing well, in particular kaneeltjie (Pelargonium triste). It is showing signs of spontaneously recovering, especially where we have planted it out in areas cleared of alien trees.
The thistle protea (Protea scolymocephala) is flourishing at Princess Vlei. The first of these plants was put in by Keith Kirsten in 2020.
GROWING TO KNOW FYNBOS
The biodiversity gains are significant – but this project is about more than fynbos. It has shown that sustainable conservation can be achieved in a socially and economically disadvantaged urban area, providing a much-needed refuge of natural beauty.
Scores of children have grown to know and love fynbos, a relationship which will endure and strengthen through their lives. Community members such as Nikita January have been empowered and inspired by seeing their efforts bear fruit and are ready to introduce this space to a new generation.
Imange Nondela, a Grade 7 learner from Floreat Primary School in Retreat, is one of hundreds of youngsters and older community members who plant at Princess Vlei. In July 2022, she was planting with her classmates in our restoration plot on Princess Vlei’s northern shore.
Like all the other learners, Imange was given a wooden sucker stick and invited to write her name on it with an encouraging message for the plants. Through activities such as this, we grow a sense of connection with and passion for indigenous fynbos among our young Princess Vlei Nature Guardians.
PLANTING IN HOPE
“The plant I planted is a reed,” Imange wrote. “My name is Imange and I wrote on my lucky stick, ‘I hope you grow little Imareed’.
“I named it half of my name so it could grow, and maybe it will know me when I am old. I hope to come back to Princess Vlei and to still find my stick and my plant in the same place as I planted it.”
Imange Nondela happily displays her message of hope for her plant.
Bridget Pitt is deputy chairperson of the Princess Vlei Forum.
Contact the Princess Vlei Forum at: email@example.com; WhatsApp Bridget at 0824621308; website www.princessvlei.org
Rondevlei spiderhead (Serruria foeniculacea) happily thriving where it belongs at Princesss Vlei.
Over the past five years we have fully restored 1 hectare and rehabilitated nearly 6 more.
42 000 PLANTS
More than 42 000 plants have been put in the ground by about 500 community members and 2 500 school learners.
13 THREATENED PLANT SPECIES
have been restored to the area.
The biodiversity has massively improved, offering an important habitat for indigenous plants, birds, invertebrates, and mammals.
Know, grow, protect and enjoy South Africa’s indigenous plants.
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