Social networking, forest-style

Hello from Ferncliffe, where leaves are turning various shades of 70s gold and brown, before settling into piles of delicious litter. (All the better for Ferncliffe’s seven endemic millipede species to trundle through).

We’ve been quiet on the newsletter front, but not on the ground. Starting a restoration programme and NGO means lots and lots of communicating.

You tree-loving folk have no doubt tapped into the research about how many plants are social beings. Forests aren’t a mass of individuals, standing in silent isolation. Their roots happily exchange all sorts of information, aided in turn by the spongy miracle that is the mycorrhizal biome: the fungal network or “wood wide web” as Dr. Suzanne Simard coined it, to the delight of editors everywhere. The old ways of thinking, about species being in vicious competition for light and space, is challenged by evidence that suggests far more community-minded intelligence. Some trees feed extra nutrients to their young, or even to other species if they have more than they need…

A Split-gill mushroom, a thumbnail-sized species that helps break down wood

We wish we could hear what the Ferncliffe trees are gossiping about in the pilot project areas. Can they celebrate the sudden absence of an invasive 100kg Mauritius Thorn creeper from a neighbour’s crown? Are some — once bare, skeletal goths, now dressed up in rich foliage — admiring new sunlit areas like art collectors at a key show? Do they cheer on Mxolisi Nkambini, Khayelisha Gabashe, Wandile Nakabini and Khulekani Khumalo as they lower a new tree into the ground, or attack the ever-sprouting bamboo?

Anthropomorphism is fun, but of course facts matter.

Some numbers:

Trees planted: 260! Whoop!

Days of employment created: 118 thanks to you, and over 200 thanks to the Amanzi ethu Nobuntu project last year.

Invasives cleared: 6,300m2. This will climb again in winter; summer has been about holding our position and repeated follow-up.

Tree Survival rate: Still at 97% 😊

Gratitude: Off the charts.

Mxolisi Nkambini, a Weeder Extraordinaire, constructs a tree guard around a Crossberry (Grewia occidentalis) that he’s just planted.

We have been social beings ourselves, welcoming experts to the forest to record and comment on what they see.

First up, in February, was a Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa visit led by Mark Liptrot (director of the Flora and Fauna Publications Trust chair) and Steve Woodhall (yes, he of the accessible Field Guide to Butterflies of SA). The fundis arrived with some powerful banana bait and traps to attract fast-flying canopy-loving charaxes and swallowtails. While a wealth of Mocker Swallowtails (Papilio dardanus cenea) danced by, it wasn’t madly busy butterflying – early April seems to be peak season. Still, lovely things such as Bush Beauties (Paralethe dendrophilus) and Pearl and Green-veined Charaxes (Charaxes varanes varanes and Charaxes candiope) were seen and snapped – nets are only for catch and release in these circles.

A gorgeous Green-veined Charaxes, somewhat befuddled after a dose of banana bait. Pic: Mark Liptrot

Soon after, the local branch of the Botanical Society came to amble through the pilot sites. Alison Young can tell the difference between moss and filmy ferns at 20 paces, which makes her sought-after company in our circles. The botanists found a couple of trees that all were hard-pressed to identify (samples of leaves on branches were carried off to be “keyed out”, terminology that refers to a careful step-by-step approach to narrow down the possibilities… Are the leaves alternate or opposite? Petioles long or short? Leaves serrated or not? Smooth or bristly?) We hope to have a few more locals to add to the species lists once they’re done.

Ferns versus mosses? It’s not always as obvious as you’d think. This is, however, a fern. Pic: Vanessa Stephen

We also had a great volunteer tree-planting day on the UN International Day of Forests, 21 March: some dedicated locals came by to pop a few lucky trees in the ground. The planting sites are expanding! A new tree in the ground, in a new site, is like an injection of instant happiness. New species include the beautiful and glossy Bladdernut (Diospyros whyteana), and the False Assegai (Measa lanceolata).

It was Earth Day on the 22 April, a time to think of the planet’s complex, wondrous yet beleaguered ecosystems. How nothing can exist in isolation. Like us! Thank you to everyone who has supported the project, be it through tree donations and knowledge (here’s looking at you Twinstreams,  The Indigenous Nursery and Nkosi Nursery), spreading the word, or sending good vibes.

We can’t do this job without you.

Connor & Janine

PS: Thanks again to Husqvarna SA for their trusty electric brushcutters and chainsaw. Check out their Silent Nature range if you’re anti-petrol fumes and noise on-site, like we are.