This past Saturday I had the privilege to go on a walk at the Smuts Museum to learn about the natural environment in and around that area. An environmental expert assisted us on the tour to tell us more about the plant species and the soil, as well as the rock formations. We also learned a little bit more about General Smuts and the special connection he had with the natural environment.
General Smuts used to be a botanist and took great interest in botany and related issues. However, surprisingly in those days he was rather concerned with foreign plant species and sadly not so much with indigenous flora. This is evident when you walk around the Smuts museum. Therefore closest to the house, the immediate surroundings are recognised by foreign and invasive plants and trees.
One of the examples of this can be seen in the pine forest that has been planted around the house. Although pine trees hold a special place in many people’s hearts, we learned just how bad pine trees and pine forests are for the environment. Pine trees tend to expand their reach quite quickly, and the needles that they shed covers the ground and eventually smothers everything underneath it.
The only plants that are able to grow under the pine canopies are other invasive weeds and unfortunately the presence of pines have a devastating effect on the natural fauna and flora. Our guides also made us aware of the fact that indigenous bird species are also absent from the pine forests and after listening for a while it became clear just how quiet the pine forest was – all due to the fact that indigenous fauna and flora have been driven away by the pine trees.
In addition to the pine trees there were also other invasive species present such Blue Gum trees. These trees are extremely thirsty and takes up all of the underground water for their own root system which further exacerbates the issue of driving away indigenous species.
Fortunately, the further we moved away from the house, the more the natural fauna and flora seemed to flourish and were we informed of the cycle that takes place when indigenous environments are threatened. The white Stinkwood forest was a good example of the type of foliage that can be found at the bottom of the hill and as we walked out of the forest and up the mountain the scenery changed drastically. This is all due to aspects such as air pressure, temperature, wind and the way water is dispersed. How animals use the environment also influences how the plants and trees are dispersed.
This was another interesting fact that was explained to us, that acacia trees are able to “talk” to each other when animals feed off their leaves. This dialogue between the trees is made possible through the wind, and once the message has been communicated the trees naturally adjust the acidity in their leaves so that animals such as giraffes would rather not eat it. However, the animals are clever and so evolved as well and will now only feed when the wind blows in a certain direction so that the trees cannot communicate with each other!
Finally we saw some interesting plants and fungus that grow in the area, such as a very particular Welwitschia that is indigenous to this part of the country. It was truly an eye opening experience, to see the biodiversity that is just a stone’s throw away from our homes and work. The trip also highlighted again how important it is to protect the natural environment because once it is gone we can never have it back.