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Sunday, 25 May 2008 02:00

Forward! Slash!

By  Travis Lyle
You think you're a forward-thinking kinda person, do you? Lemme be the one to break it to you, sunshine – you're as lame as the next person who also thinks they're pretty damn special. God loves all of his little children, doesn't he? Dunno, we don't talk much anymore. I talk to the plants rather, they don't gimme lip. Take the issue of indigenous plants, for example. With all the bonsai classes you've been to, and all the books you have, you're still as dim as fog when it comes to the real issues. Why? Because you've accepted the notion that you've got it down, that you're well informed. Lemme tell you – nobody will ever get plants down, because it's such a motherfucker-size field of knowledge. Ask any botanist or hort. It's enormous, and it grows every time some clever explorer comes gasping outta the bush with a previously undiscovered specimen in his shaky paw.

The issue of exotic plants puts people on edge, whether by cause of people being opposed to their extermination (exotic plants, darling, not people) for nostalgic reasons, or being in favour of their extermination on environmental grounds. At the core of the issue is a common misconception that many species of plants are indigenous by default; people assume that because they've been part of the landscape forever they must be African. That logic is dangerous and would class AK47's as traditional weapons by association. Tsk, tsk, misguided plant lovers. Best check your facts before locking horns with a well-informed plant fundi at dinner over that lovely glass of Merlot. Things could get messy.

A tree like the lowly wattle does not elicit as much moon-faced sighing from "forward-thinking" people as does a specimen such as the jacaranda in full bloom. No wattle-loving protesters waving placards for a plant that most recognise as roadside scrub, oh no. No contest, it seems, in the mind of those whose memory lanes are lined with prolific purple blooms. Floral fascists. What a pity then, that they, as with the lowly wattle, shall all have to be cut down to size. Entirely. Lovely tree, the jacaranda. Beautiful plumage. But they're pining for the Amazon and as such should see the business end of a chainsaw, every last one of them. The fact is that they don't belong in South Africa, and have few redeeming features. One of these is that they make great perches for strangler figs. Another is that jacaranda wood has a lovely grain and light colour, making it perfect for bowls and sculpture. For those who verlang na die ou dae, it would be best to take a Polaroid before they all go to the big chipboard factory in the sky. Take a deep suck on your G&T, tannie. It's time for the chipper to sing.

As far as those not-so-lovely wattle trees go, we have a philanthropic eighteenth-century bishop to thank for this Australian plant's successful invasion of KwaZulu Natal. The story goes that in his magnanimous wisdom, this misguided missionary took it upon himself to provide the locals with an eternal supply of firewood. This he achieved by scattering wattle seeds at the roadside while on his meandering ministrations, which covered a substantial part of the province. We now have a handsome crop of wattle, which unfortunately compounds soil erosion problems and thrives in the absence of natural enemies. Makes good firewood, though. But then so do bishops, but it's against the law to burn them.

The issue of invasive alien plants serves to highlight a general ignorance of the importance of indigenous flora on the part of South Africans. Most of us have the reckoning of a 6-year old when it comes to identifying plants – it's a shocker, it's true, but a lot of people, when pressed, could probably only identify three kinds of plants: Tree. Bush. Grass. Oh, wait – maybe four if you include "Cactus". Typically, when looking at plants we tend to be most enamoured with the pretty and the unusual, which, if applied in human terms would translate to only having eyes for supermodels and circus freaks. Which sounds about right when you consider the images that capture our attention in the media. Oh, how fickle we are.

Consider the jacaranda; lovely tree, beautiful plumage. Now, where's my chainsaw?
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