The northern end of the Amatola Mountains (alt. 1200-2000 m) is like a
garden wall to one side of Stutterheim (alt. 850-950 m), easily accessible for a hike of anything from an hour to a full day, and a place to revive your soul. The indigenous forests are magical, while the montane grassland above them is a treasure trove of a great many plant species.
From early spring to late autumn there are usually some large yellow Moraea flowers to be seen, any one of five species depending on the season -
M. huttonii, muddii, spathulata, graminicola and reticulata. They belong to the Moraea subgenus Grandiflora, which includes 15 species (Goldblatt 1986) mostly with large yellow flowers, from the summer rainfall region.
The subgenus Grandiflora is characterized by having a single leaf, usually channelled, fairly leathery and often very long, mostly evergreen, but
M. muddii and M. graminicola are deciduous. The flowers are more long-lived than the Western Cape species, often lasting three days, and flowering takes place over a number of weeks as many flowers are produced from the single stem.
Moraea is an African genus found south of the Sahara, with a concentration in the Western Cape where they are winter growing, mostly with colourful
flowers. The name Moraea commemorates Dr Moraeus, the father-in-law of Linnaeus. There is a cluster of the summer growing yellow Grandiflora group in the highland areas of the Eastern Cape, mostly at altitudes ranging from
1000-2500 metres. The rainfall is mainly from spring to mid-autumn,
averaging 900mm on our Stutterheim property. In winter there may be a
little light rain, or snow on the higher mountains.
There are several common names for Moraea in South Africa. 'Peacock Flower' refers mainly to the Western Cape ones with 'eyes' on the tepals, while the yellows are often referred to as 'flappies' when the connotation is 'iris-like', 'uintjie' for the edible ones especially of the Western Cape, and 'tulp' which
implies it is poisonous to stock. The Grandiflora group are mostly poisonous to stock and so should not be planted where grazing animals could get to them. However, Pearse (1978) reports that moles and porcupines seem to be immune to the poison, and the plant called 'ihlamvu elincane' (M. spathulata) is used as a traditional medicinal remedy for women who fail to conceive - one corm is ground up and mixed with some maize, and three small cakes are made, two for the woman to eat and one for the man - and "it isn't long
before the patter of little feet is heard".
For us mere mortals who are not botanists and who need to distinguish
between the five species, the simpler characteristics to look for are in the
combination of: flowering time, (un)branched stem, clump-forming or solitary plants, leaf width, and for final confirmation if necessary, tepal shape and
colouring. In case the plant is found in seed, the shape of the capsule can also help to identify the species.
Description of the species
The first flowers to be seen in early spring are of M. huttonii, most often
growing in prolific clumps on the banks of mountain streams. An earlier rather apt name for this species in KwaZulu-Natal was M. rivularis. When it was first described by Baker in 1875, it was named Dietes huttonii, because the plants sent to Kew (by Henry Hutton) seemed to him to have a woody rootstock. What a pity the 'rivularis' name wasn't first. The plants occur in a broad band from the Amatola Mountains in the south, along the Drakensberg Mountains and into southern Mpumalanga.
It is easy to distinguish M. huttonii from the others by the branched stem,
often hidden in the sheathing bracts. The other four species have unbranched stems. The flowering stem is about 80 cm tall and the leaf, up to 2.5 cm wide, can reach 150 cm in length. The scented flowers are a clear bright
yellow with yellow-brown nectar guides that are edged with darker veins on the outer tepals, which are up to 5.5 cm long. A constant succession of
flowers ensures a bright show for many weeks when the surroundings are
often still clad in shades of brown from the dry winter cold.
From the end of September to October, the locally rare M. muddii can
occasionally be seen. There are unfortunately some stray cattle that like
eating off the flowers, so seeds are scarce. And then when seed does get a chance to form, the porcupines ignore the tops and go for the corms, despite the name muddii! It appears that the plants are much less toxic later in the growing season. The name is in honour of Christopher Mudd who collected plants in 1877.
M. muddii occurs in the higher grassland parts of the Amatola Mountains, and then there is a puzzling gap until it is again found in the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal and up into Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe. It is smaller than the other four species, being seldom taller than 40 cm, does not form clumps and has a narrow leaf 3-6 cm wide, so channelled that it appears
cylindrical. The flowers are pale yellow marked with darker yellow nectar guides and a few darker veins on the outer tepals, which are up to 5 cm long.
M. spathulata is very sparsely distributed here, but in the Drakensberg, Pearse (1978) notes "it is not unusual to find great masses of yellow colour against the dark grey of the basalt". They occur from the edge of the winter rainfall area near Port Elizabeth all the way up the eastern parts of South Africa, and far into Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe, at altitudes ranging from low coastal regions to mountains over 2000 m. The flowers appear at different times of the year, depending on the locality. In the south with some winter rain, or along the coast where there is no frost, flowering can be any time during winter and spring. Here in the mountain grasslands of the Stutterheim district, it flowers around October and November; in the Drakensberg in midsummer; further north the flowers appear in late summer. A variable and adaptable species indeed!
The inner tepals are spatula-shaped - broadest towards the ends - hence the name M. spathulata. It has also been known under the names Iris spathulata (when first described by Linnaeus the younger in 1782), Iris spathacea, and M. spathacea. M. longispatha, described by Klatt in 1866, now also falls under M. spathulata.
The plants of M. spathulata are usually in clumps, about 80 cm tall, each plant having a very long leaf, 1.5+ cm wide and easily up to 2 m, or even longer in cultivation. The leaf is persistent, i.e. the same leaf continues to grow each season, with the end drying off. These long tough leaves are used by the local people for making ropes, and the corms for the traditional remedy mentioned above. The flowers are a good yellow with deep yellow nectar guides on the outer tepals, which are up to 5 cm long.
As the season progresses, the next to be seen around here is M. graminicola subsp. notata, flowering in a few localities from November to January.
According to Goldblatt (1986) the distribution is "along the coast and near
interior Transkei between Port St Johns in the north and East London in the south". The specimens we have found in the Amatola Mountains are therefore an extension of the range by about 100 km, and at higher altitudes - to about 1600 m. 'Graminicola' refers to the grassland habitat, and 'notata' means 'southern' - the more northerly species in Kwazulu-Natal is M. graminicola subsp. graminicola. Apart from the north-south division, the main differences between the two subspecies are: 3 sheathing bracts and dark blotches at the base of the crests in subsp. notata, and only 1-2 sheathing bracts and no blotches on the crests in subsp. graminicola.
M. graminicola subsp. notata flowers are dramatic, having unusual grey-yellow tones with deep yellow nectar guides surrounded by a dark mauve band from which mauve veins radiate out. These outer tepals are about 7 cm long. The leaf is stiff and relatively broad, usually about one cm wide and 50 cm long. The tip is folded into a point. Obermeyer (1968) notes that a new leaf is formed each year, in contrast to the persistent leaf of M. spathulata.
Apparently there may be branching in the stem, but it is rare - we haven't seen branching yet. The plants are sometimes up to 60 cm tall, but often as short as 30cm.
The last to flower is M. reticulata, from February to May. The name is derived from the fibrous network (reticulate) like a fishnet enclosing the base of the stem and bracts for 10-20 cm. It is separated from M. spathulata by its
solitary habit (not clump-forming as in the latter), by the pronounced fibrous network (sometimes there is a weakly developed network in M. spathulata), and by the different flowering time in this region. M. reticulata occurs only here, from Bedford to Queenstown on steep grassy slopes, with the Amatola Mountains as its centre point. It seems to have been missed by early
collectors - it was described in 1973 only.
M. reticulata is about 60 cm tall, with a long leaf, 1.5+ m in length and 1.5 cm wide. The flowers are bright yellow with orange nectar guides and a few darker veins on the outer tepals, which are about 7 cm long.