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Tephrosia pondoensis

Tephrosia pondoensis; Pondo Poison Pea, Pondo Fish Poison-pea; Pondo-visgifertjie, Baster-kurkbos (Afrikaans)

Now, whether it is because this plant is threatened due to human interference or because it occurs in the landscape at such low densities that it is not able to overcome inertia, it struck me that many rare plants are in fact, very easily propagated. We have often found that if we take the seeds or propagules out of the natural system, these seeds or divisions just leap away in cultivation.

This is another example of a plant that lives in such low numbers in the wild that it is seldom encountered. It is also an endemic, distributed along a strip of coast that is not more than a 100 kilometres long, from inland of about Port Shepstone, southwards to near Port St John’s.

I first found this plant in the early 1980s, down at Port Edward, on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. I was with a bunch of plant enthusiasts, people like the late Messrs. Hugh Nicholson, Rudolf Strey, Dick Foster and Tony Abbott, and the renowned botanist Prof. Braam van Wyk. (Latterly a group known as the Pondoland CREW - Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers - have continued the work of exploring southern KZN for botanical treasures.) They have all have made a huge contribution to our botanical knowledge of this Pondoland Centre of Plant Endemism. The other person that in the 1980s had this plant in his mind, was Dr. Brian Schrire, formerly of the South African National Biodiversity Institute at the KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium in Durban, but who then worked at the Royal Botanic Garden – Kew, until his retirement in 2016. In 1985 he renamed the plant from Mundulea pondoensis to its present name.

I know this plant from three wild localities. The one that I first collected some seed from, was at Oribi Gorge. I had a few seedlings that grew easily in well-drained sandy soil, fortified with a good dose of organic matter. Once the somewhat slender seedlings were planted out into the open ground, they just leapt away and became fairly robust plants, about 5 metres tall, and one of those plants is still producing masses of seed about 20 years later. I now use this delicate-looking plant in many of the plantings in which I am involved.

What makes this so different from the other local Tephrosias, is that it has orange flowers. The showy flowers are about 20mm across and are produced during the early summer for at least a month. If you grow this species in the full sun, it gives a better display of darker orange flowers. Where it grows naturally on the edge of Scarp Forest, it is often over-shadowed by large trees, making the plant tall and rangy, with rather insipid-coloured flowers. Once the flowers have finished, the plant then makes a credible display of its slender drooping pods. This species prefers to be planted out and does not do very well in containers - a feature that many of our legumes have.

From a wildlife point of view this shrub is visited by carpenter bees that do the pollination. Large red ants that look like what I call “sugar ants” also visit the inflorescences and seem to get some reward from the base of each flower.

It is said that the powdered root, if put in water, will poison fish, a bit like Derris root. However, I have not yet seen this to be true - I will have to try it out sometime when my Tilapia reach pan size!

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