Invasives and natives: Saints Walk saunter

Kniphofia flowers ablaze in the grassland alongside Saints Walk.

I HAD some spare time and nothing urgent to do with it recently, so I put it to constructive use, treating myself to a contemplative stroll along Saints Walk.

The popular shoreline pathway between St Michaels and Uvongo beaches winds through fairly pristine coastal grasslands and the scrubby bush that lines our beaches.

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It offers lovely views of the ocean, the rocky coastline and some pretty little beaches. The walkway is also a good vantage point for whale and dolphin watching or sardine spotting so, all in all, it provides walkers with some delightful urban wildlife experiences.

I am always fascinated by the tough beach vegetation that manages to survive the salty winds and sandy soil in this harsh, ever-changing environment.

A trio of baddies, a Brazilian pepper sapling, a young triffid weed bush and sword fern, will soon be evicted by the Ivungu River Conservancy as part of its alien invasive management programme along Saints Walk.

So many interesting native species thrive here, taking turns to announce themselves by putting on a seasonal display of striking flowers or fruit.

The most spectacular Saints Walk offering at the moment is the large splash of bright orange kniphofias or red hot pokers in the grasslands adjacent to the St Michaels side of the walkway.

I am not sure which species these are. The different species are quite hard to identify for a layman like me. Whatever their formal name, though, they are stunning at the moment.

I can’t help noticing the ‘baddies’ in that corner of grassland. In spite of the best efforts of the Ivungu River Conservancy to vanquish them from the Saints Walk area, a couple of castor oil plants have raised their ugly heads.

Some Indian shot cannas have also managed to escape the conservancy’s recent alien invasive operation, part of an ongoing programme to control these troublesome plants.

Ficus burtt-davyi is a scrambling shrub when it grows near the sea.

The conservancy takes care of the environmental side of things along Saints Walk. In spite of their rigorous alien invasive management programme, members find it a never ending battle to keep the invasives at bay.

The first section of the pathway from the St Michaels side takes walkers through a thick green tunnel of bushy vegetation. To appreciate the amazing variety of species that make up this thick vegetation, you need to look closely at the green and leafy mass.

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You might be puzzled by one of the little bushes there. It has leathery, grey-green leaves very like those of the coastal red milkwood (Minusops caffra) and looks to all intents and purposes like a miniature version this large, eye-catching tree.

It is in fact the same species. When protected from the salty winds, the milkwood grows into the majestic tree we know but, close to the beach where it has no protection, the salty winds limit its growth and it remains a small, stunted bush.

Another tree that bonsais itself when it grows in the salty wind zone is one of our wild figs, the Ficus burtt-davyi. In a forest, protected from the sea air it can grow into a tall, strangling fig but here along the coastline it is a low-growing, scrambling shrub. It is particularly noticeable when it bears its small, attractive, white-dotted fruit.

Carpobrotus dimidiatus sap is a blue bottle sting antidote.

A lovely little shrub that is also happy to grow in the sea air alongside Saints Walk is the dune myrtle or Eugenia capensis. Everything about this plant is dainty – its neat, round leaves, frothy white flowers and purple black berries.

It is not flowering at the moment so is difficult to spot but one of my favourite shrubs that make up the bushy green Saints walk tunnel. It is the Turraea obtusifolia, or small honeysuckle tree.

As its name suggests, it has gorgeous white, sweet-scented flowers and, as it blooms for most of the summer months, it makes an excellent garden subject.

Other interesting plants to look out for along this section are the dune false current (Allophylus natalensis) with its toothed trifoliolate leaves and pretty red berries. The Natal guarrie or Euclea natalensis, another tree that is turned into a bonsai near the beach, also bears bright berries.

A favourite dune survivors along Saints walk is the Pavetta revoluta. Well-named as the dune bride’s bush, it is covered in a froth of white flowers that look like miniature bride’s bouquets.

Carissa macrocarpa or num num, a prickly customer, winds its way into the thick green bush, offering glossy green leaves, white star flowers and bright red berries that are consumed with enjoyment by birds, animals and people.

Coastal red milkwood (Minusops caffra) alongside the beach where it is stunted by the salty winds

In summer, scarlet flowering flame lilies or Gloriosa superba light up the greenery along Saints Walk. And throughout spring and summer, the flowering dune crossberry or Grewia accidentalis likes to surprises walkers with a splash of pretty pink.

The bush tick berry (Chrysanthemoides momilifera) a useful pioneer plant in a coastal garden, supplies cheerful yellow. Incidentally this species was introduced into Australia to use for stabilising dunes but has now become a problematic alien invasive there.

Further along the pathway, I find a group of baddies, a small Brazilian pepper tree that is keeping bad company with a young triffid weed bush and a swathe of sword fern.

The conservancy has already spotted these undesirables and has earmarked them for removal during the next of its regular anti-alien invasive operations.

What is surprising is that the pepper tree sapling is the only one I spot during my Saints walk ramble. When the Ivungu Conservancy offered to take over the responsibility of managing the alien invasives along the walkway, it was heavily infested by pepper trees.

Ridding the area of these pepper trees has been a difficult, expensive but successful exercise and it has been a joy to watch the natural vegetation filling up the gaps after they and the other invasives were removed. All the same, alien invasive clearing and management is an ongoing exercise and these problem plants constantly re-occur.

The last of the baleria flowers that have put on a grand show along Saints Walk recently.

As for the sword fern at the foot of the pepper sapling, it is very likely that this invasive species were introduced by thoughtless gardeners illegally dumping garden refuse in the grasslands next to the walkway.

We have to be so careful about introducing alien garden plants into a natural environment. Many garden escapees have become invasive pests.

Further along Saints Walk towards Uvongo, the green tunnel gives way to rocky shores and coastal grassland. A while ago much of this area was a misty blue and purple, thanks to the flowering baleria and a type of pea flower that were then in full bloom.

There are still little pockets of baleria flowering here and there, but one of the little floral treasure now attracting attention is a flowering Burchelia bubaline, growing in a rocky section alongside the pathway.

Bright Burchelia bubaline, now in flower alongside the pathway.

Thanks to the tough conditions it faces it is a stunted version of the ones found in forest areas but it is covered in the bright red tubular flowers that earn it the common name, wild pomegranate. I wonder how many people notice this little beauty as they stroll or stride along Saints Walk.

There are plenty of other ground covers that manage to find a little niche in this harsh environment and to thrive in spite of the difficulties. These include members of the vygie family like various dainty Delosperma plants and the Carpobrotus dimidiatus, also called dune vygie or ice plant. Most surfers know this plant well as the leaf sap is a good antidote to blue bottle stings.

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All sorts of daisy type flowers are sprinkled liberally across the rocky earth as are some of the native morning glories. Along with the different types of grasses, sedges, reeds and juncus, these and other pretty plants represent a huge and fascinating variety of flora that has managed to adapt to the unforgiving environment at the edge of the sea.

We who live on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast are fortunate to have access to Saints Walk and to many other lovely shoreline pathways through fairly pristine vegetation.

We are also lucky to have so many wonderful conservancies that have united to help fight the never-ending war against alien invasives, the members working hard to ensure that the wonderful beach vegetation won’t be swamped by these undesirables. Their task is not an easy one and they deserve our thanks.

Saints Walk is a vantage point for whale, dolphin and sardine spotting.

If you would like to know more about our fascinating coastal vegetation, treat yourself to a copy of the pocket-sized guide book, ‘The Beach Book’ by the late Jerry Gosnell who was living in Ramsgate when he wrote it. Published by the Flora and Fauna Publications Trust, it is packed with information about the beach vegetation, from rock pools to dune bush, and is available a local book stores.

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Judi Davis
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