Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Bringing butterflies into your garden

The larger the variety of suitable butterfly larval food plants and plants to provide the adult butterflies with nectar that are introduced into the garden, as well as the more natural it is laid out the bigger the variety of butterflies that will be attracted into it. 
Mother of Pearly Butterfly Protogoniomorpha parhassus aethiops
My own interest in butterflies started as a young child but was really awakened after I was told about the “Garten der Schmetterlinge” http://www.gartenderschmetterlinge.de/  the butterfly garden which had been established in the historical glasshouse of Otto von Bismarck at Friedrichsruh just outside of Hamburg in Germany by Geoff Nichols.  On my next trip to Germany in July 1989 with a wife heavily pregnant with our first child we ventured off from Wilhelmshaven to go and visit the “Garten der Schmetterlinge”. All I can say is that our visit to the “Garten der Schmetterlinge” was a life changing experience which changed my view towards butterflies considerably. Since then my interest in butterflies was really awakened, I started noticing butterflies where I had not noticed them before, I started to note what plants that they laid their eggs on, I started to collect the plants they use as larval host plants and to breed butterflies for release. Now everywhere I go I see butterflies that I never saw before, since then I have gone out of my way to provide conditions in my own garden to attract butterflies.

Below are a few photos of some the most common butterflies that are very easy to attract into any garden in the Durban Area including some of their larval food plants.

The African Monarch Butterfly Danaus chrysippus aegyptius
In my garden this spectacular butterfly is probably the most numerous and is seen for most of the year nearly always feeding on or fluttering around the African Milkweed Gomphocarpus physocarpus which is its chief host plant. I have also seen it lay its eggs on and have seen caterpillars on two other species of plants within the family Apocynaceae being Stapelia gigantean growing on my roof garden as well as Xysmalobium undulatum 

African Monarch Butterfly Danaus chrysippus aegyptius

Xysmalobium undulatum on of the larval food plant for the african monarch butterfly
Stapilia gigantea another of the larval food plant for the african monarch butterfly
African Monarch Butterfly Danaus chrysippus aegyptius pupa with the butterfly just about ready to emerge
African Milkweed Gomphocarpus physocarpus larval food plant for the African Monarch Butterfly
The Dusky Acraea Acraea esebria esebria belonging to the family Nymphalidae 
The larvae of the Dusky Acraea Acraea esebria esebria 
Blue Pansy Butterfly Junonia oenone oenone
Brown Pansy Butterfly Junonia natalica natalica                    
Asystasia gangetica is the larval host plant for both the Blue and the Brown Pansy Butterfly

There are also some very beautiful moths both day flying as well as nocturnal as well as their caterpillars that can be attracted into your garden by supplying the right larval host plants such as the ones in the photos below.

Heady maiden Moth Amata cerbera is a day flying moth
Peach Moth Egybolis vaillantia caterpillar also a day flying specie
Wahlberg's Emperor Nudaurelia wahlbergi
Wahlberg's Emperor Nudaurelia wahlbergi catepillar feeding on Tree Fuschia Halleria lucida
My own garden is home and a stop over refuge to a huge variety and number of butterflies as a result of the plants that I have introduced.

From my own observations I believe that grasses play and important role on attracting a number of butterfly species into the garden. I have observed how butterflies are attracted in particular to the tall growing grasses in particular grasses of the genus Hyparrhenia (Thatching grasses) often spending hours just flying around them or perched on them. Therefore I recommend that some suitable grasses be incorporated into ever garden designed to attract butterflies.

For those who are interested in attracting butterflies to their gardens below are a few colourful plants that can be grown in a garden designed to attract butterflies I have added the colourful Red Hot Poker Kniphofia tysonii which adds such a dramatic splash of colour in the autumn. Many other bright colourful flowering plants can be added that are not necessarily attractive to butterflies but which will add interest colour and be an attraction for other species of wildlife.

For those who need a litle help in making their garden attactive to butterflies I can design and establish a garden for you that will attract butterflies and other wildlife.

Plumbago auriculata an attractive butterfly larval food plant used by the Common Blue Cyclyrius pirithous
Natal Red Grass Melinis nerviglumis, grasses play a signifivcant role in attracting butterflies to the garden
In particular this grass Hyparrhenia hirta plays a signifivcant role in attracting butterflies to the garden
The flowers of Vernonia natalensis are very attractive to butterflies
The flowers of Delospermun linearumattract butterflies and many other insects
This Red Hot Poker Kniphofia tysonii may not attract any butterflies but will atract bees and sunbirds and will certainly brighten up the Garden in the autumn
Ruellia cordata is one of the larval food plants used by the Yellow Pansy butterfly
The spectacular African Dog Rose Xylotheca kraussiana is the larval host plant of the bright red and black Acraea petraea
No garden is complete without a gardener. Here my gardener Mbuzi smelling the inflourescence of the grass Melica racemosa

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist

Tel: +27 82 061 2593


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Saturday, 2 April 2016

Brachiaria brizantha Common Signal Grass

Brachiaria brizantha
Common Signal Grass, Bread Grass, Palisade Grass

German:  Palisadengras

Urochloa brizantha
Panicum brizanthum

Common Signal Grass Brachiaria brizantha

Brachiaria brizantha is native to Africa being found growing naturally in Sub-Saharan Africa from S 25º to N 12º, from the coast–7000 feet above sea level. in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya,  Zaire, Zambia, Ghana, Guinea, Côte D'Ivoire, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cameroon , Ethiopia .
Brachiaria brizantha is widely naturalised throughout the humid and sub-humid tropics.

Morphological description
Brachiaria brizantha is a loosely tufted perennial with short rhizomes and erect or slightly decumbent stems 60–150 cm high (occasionally to 200 cm).  Leaves are flat, bright green up to 20 mm wide and up to 100 cm long. Brachiaria brizantha may be hairless or hairy.  Inflorescence is a racemose panicle consisting of 2–16 racemes, 4–20 cm long and elliptical spikelets 4–6 mm long, with no hairs or a few hairs at the tip.  Spikelets are normally a single row, with a purple, crescent-shaped rachis 1 mm wide.  Glumes and lower lemma are cartilaginous in texture.

Agricultural uses
Brachiaria brizantha has been planted as permanent pasture for grazing and cutting for fresh feed in many countries.  It is also planted as a pasture under plantation crops and as a ground cover for erosion control. An estimated 60 million hectares is under cultivation in Brazil for beef production.

Soil requirements
Brachiaria brizantha grows on a wide range of free-draining soils with pH 4–8, textures ranging from light to heavy and fertility from high to low, including acidic soils with high soluble Aluminium concentrations.  Tolerance to Magnesium varies among accessions.  Brachiaria brizantha shows a minor response to lime on acid soils. 
Brachiaria brizantha generally needs medium to high soil fertility to be productive. 

Brachiaria brizantha is best adapted to the humid and sub-humid tropics with 1,500–3,500 mm average annual rainfall, but will also grow in the more arid regions of the tropics with rainfall somewhat below 1,000 mm.  Brachiaria brizantha can withstand dry seasons of 3–6 months during which the leaf may remain green while other tropical species have browned off.  Brachiaria brizantha is not well adapted to wet poorly drained soils.

Brachiaria brizantha is a warm-season grass for the lowlands, altitudes to 2,000 m in the tropics but only to 1,000 m in higher latitudes.  Leaf is frost-sensitive, but the plant survives light frost.

Brachiaria brizantha is moderately shade tolerant compared with other tropical grasses.

Brachiaria brizantha can tolerate frequent heavy defoliation due to grazing or cutting. 

Brachiaria brizantha does recover after fire but annual burning is detrimental .

Establishment and management of sown pastures.
When establishing large areas with Brachiaria brizantha the only viable option is by means of seed.  Fresh seed of Brachiaria brizantha will not germinate due to physiological dormancy and must be stored for 6–9 months or acid-scarified before sowing.  Seed should be broadcast at 2–4 kg/ha onto a well-prepared seedbed and then lightly harrowed and rolled to incorporate.
In Brazil smallholders establish Brachiaria brizantha vegetatively from rooted tillers.

Brachiaria brizantha is very responsive to the application of nitrogen rich fertilisers.

Brachiaria brizantha shows a degree of allelopathy which helps prevent the invasion of weeds into planted pastures and often cause it to form pure stands in natural grassland. In trials shoots of Brachiaria brizantha which were incorporated into the soil were found to inhibit the growth of several plant species.

Environmental value
Brachiaria brizantha is favoured by grazing animals and the seed is sought after by birds, bees are attracted to the inflorescence for the pollen.

Landscape Value
Brachiaria brizantha is an attractive grass that could very well have use in landscape design

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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Sunday, 20 March 2016

Rottboellia cochinchinensis

Rottboellia cochinchinensis itchgrass, pricklegrass, guinea fowl grass

Here is a real nasty emerging weed which I have noticed popping up all along the KwaZulu-Natal north coast. Watch out for it eradicate as soon as it is discovered before it gets out of hand.

A quick search on the internet turned up the following information about Rottboellia cochinchinensis

Rottboellia cochinchinensis

A native of Indo-China, which has naturalised throughout the tropics of Asia, in north-eastern Australia and the savannah zones of Africa including South Africa.
Rottboellia cochinchinensis has been introduced throughout the Caribbean, Tropical America and the southeastern and central United States. Although it may occur under a variety of moisture, light and soil conditions, at a wide range of altitudes, Rottboellia cochinchinensis is most commonly found on sunny, disturbed sites with high rainfall or irrigation in subtropical and tropical climates.

Distinguishing Characteristics
Rottboellia cochinchinensis is an erect, annual grass that can grow to 3m high. Stilt roots often develop at the base of the stem. Plants produce abundant side shoots and grow into large clumps. The leaf sheath and the lower portion of the leaf blade are usually covered with stiff hairs that have a small swelling (tubercle) at the base. 

These hairs break off on contact, penetrating and irritating the skin. The leaf blades, which measure 150mm to 500mm inches long and up to 25mm wide, typically have broad white midribs and scabrous (rough to the touch) margins.

The ligule is a membranous, ciliate flap, to 3mm long. The slender, cylindrical, unbranched inflorescence is segmented. Each heteromorphic segment consists of two types of spikelets:  a sessile (stalkless), fertile spikelet that is embedded in the axis of the inflorescence and a pedicellate (stalked), often sterile spikelet with the pedicel fused to the internode of the inflorescence axis. The spikelets are awnless, narrowly ovate to triangular in shape, and somewhat flattened. 

At maturity, the seedhead breaks into segments, with the paired spikelets attached. A small, cylindrical gland-like projection, known as an elaiosome, is located at the base of each segment. Rich in lipids and proteins, the elaiosome attracts ants that help to disperse the seed.

Environmental  and Economic impact
Rottboellia cochinchinensis is an invasive aggressive weed under various ecological conditions, in at least 18 crops in 44 countries. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million ha of cropping lands are infested with Rottboellia cochinchinensis in Central America and the Caribbean
Rottboellia cochinchinensisis a serious weed of cotton in Zambia and Zimbabwe and a moderate weed of cotton in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Uganda and Venezuela; a serious weed which effects on crop yield,
It competes for soil nutrients, water and light, resulting in reduced crop yields, and also hosts insect pests and diseases that affect graminaceous crops.
Under optimal conditions, Rottboellia cochinchinensis plants may begin producing seed six to seven weeks from emergence and continue to produce seed throughout the growing season. A single plant can yield between 2,000 and 16,000 seeds.
Recent research (Meksawat and Pornprom 2010) has shown that Rottboellia cochinchinensis is allelopathic releasing contains chemicals that inhibit the germination and growth of nearby plants.
The irritating hairs on the leaf sheaths discourage foraging by livestock and wild herbivores.

Rottboellia cochinchinensisis a problem to labourers, as the needle-like hairs on the leaf sheaths break off in the skin and can cause painful infections.

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Vasey Grass Paspalum urvillei

Vasey grass Paspalum urvillei is a highly invasive grass which is a native of Argentina and Uruguay which is mostly found growing in damp and disturbed localities in our area.

 A monospecific stand of Paspalum urvillei

Paspalum urvillei is a large dominant grass which produces vast amounts of viable seed that displaces other grasses to form large monospecific stands largely by means of allelopathy and direct competition for resources such as sunlight, water and nutrients.

This photo gives one an idea of the average size of Paspalum urvillei

Allelopathy refers to the beneficial or harmful effects of one plant on another plant, due to the release of biochemicals, known as allelochemicals, from plant parts by leaching, root exudation, volatilization, residue decomposition, and other processes.

This photo give a clearly shows that Paspalum urvillei 
completely displaces all other species

What alarms me most about this invasive alien grass and why I see it as a huge threat in areas that are being rehabilitated is that it spreads very rapidly and colonizing vast areas and that there are no selective herbicides available that can be used to selectively eradicate it as in the case of broad leafed and other non-grassy weeds. The only options to remove this invasive grass are to dig it out or the use of non-selective herbicides such as Glyphosate which would destroy all other vegetation in the areas being dealt with therefore the sooner stands of this invasive grass are located and are eradicated the better before their seed bank increases and spreads.

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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Monday, 25 January 2016

The important role of the humble Dung Beetle in natural ecosystems

Dung beetles play a very important role in the health ant the fertility of natural grassland
Ancient Egyptians thought very highly of the dung beetle, believing that the dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a giant ball of dung, linking the insect to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun.
Dung beetles belong to the family Scarabaeoidea; with most of the species being placed in the subfamilies Scarabaeinae and Aphodiinae (scarab beetles). Most species of Scarabaeinae feed exclusively on feces and are known as true dung beetles. There are dung-feeding beetles which belong to other families, such as the Geotrupidae (the earth-boring dung beetle). The subfamily Scarabaeinae alone has more than 5,000 species.

The dung beetles known as rollers, roll dung into round balls, which are used as a food source for their larvae to develop on are rolled and buried in brooding chambers that are dug into the ground. Others, known as tunnelers, bury the dung wherever they find it. A third group, the dwellers, neither roll nor burrow, they simply live in manure.

Spider Dung Beetle Sisyphus specie with dung ball
Dung beetles live in many habitats, including desert, farmland, forest, and grasslands. They do not prefer extremely cold or dry weather. They are found on all continents except Antarctica. They eat the dung of herbivores and omnivores, and prefer that produced by the former. Many of them also feed on mushrooms and decaying leaves and fruits. Those that eat dung do not need to eat or drink anything else, because the dung provides all the necessary nutrients. Most dung beetles search for dung using their sensitive sense of smell. Some smaller species simply attach themselves to the dung-providers to wait for the dung. After capturing the dung, a dung beetle rolls it, following a straight line despite all obstacles. Sometimes, dung beetles try to steal the dung ball from another beetle, so the dung beetles have to move rapidly away from a dung pile once they have rolled their ball to prevent it from being stolen. Dung beetles can roll up to 10 times their weight.
Male Onthophagus taurus beetles can pull 1,141 times their own body weight: the equivalent of an average person pulling six double-decker buses full of people. No wonder the dung beetle is known as one of the strongest animals for its size.

Spider Dung Beetle Sisyphus specie showing very long  hind legs
In 2003, researchers found one species of dung beetle the African Scarabaeus zambesianus navigates by using polarization patterns in moonlight. The discovery is the first proof any animal can use polarized moonlight for orientation. In 2013, a study was published revealing that dung beetles can navigate when only the Milky Way or clusters of bright stars are visible the only insect known to orient itself by the galaxy.

The "rollers" roll and bury a dung ball either for food storage or for making a brooding ball. In the latter case, two beetles, one male and one female, stay around the dung ball during the rolling process. Usually it is the male that rolls the ball, while the female hitch-hikes or simply follows behind. In some cases, the male and the female roll together. When a spot with soft soil is found, they stop and bury the ball, then mate underground. After the mating, both or one of them prepares the brooding ball. When the ball is finished, the female lays eggs inside it. Some species do not leave after this stage, but remain to safeguard their offspring. The larvae live in brood balls made with dung prepared by their parents. During the larval stage, the beetle feeds on the dung surrounding it. The dung beetle goes through a complete metamorphosis.

Dung beetles play a highly important role in the environment by taking animal dung that could spread various diseases amongst grazing animals and burry it in the root zone where it can be useful to the veld grasses, herbs, bacteria and fungi not leaving out the fertility and general health and structure of the soil. By burying and consuming dung, dung beetles improve nutrient recycling and soil structure simultaneously protecting domestic livestock, such as cattle goats and sheep as well as indigenous game from disease by removing the dung which, if left, could provide habitat for pests and diseases.
Most dung beetles specialize on the dung of particular animals, or types of animals, and will not touch the dung of other species.
Spider Dung Beetle Sisyphus specie sitting on top of dung ball
Sisyphus species - spider dung beetles
Small to medium beetles 3-12 mm black dark grey or brown hind legs very long move very energetically

Adults congregate to feed on fresh dung in particular the dung of small animals. They also feed on the dung of tortoises, birds, toads and large carnivores. The Sisyphus species form dung balls which they roll away to be buried approximately 50 mm below the surface. A single egg is laid in each ball. Sisyphus species are particularly active on hot humid days following rain. Like magic dung that has been dropped on the ground disappears due to the efforts of these highly energetic little creatures. In my case they are particularly attracted to the dung of my sheep in preference to goat dung.

Spider Dung Beetles Sisyphus specie rolling a dung ball 

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Yellow Justicia

Justicia flava

Justicia flava is known as impela in Zulu

Justicia flava
Justicia flava is an erect or trailing, usually perennial herb growing up to 120cm tall which belongs to the family, Acanthaceae. The stem often becomes woody at the base
Justicia flava is a common species found in a number of different habitats especially in disturbed habitats, growing on a wide range of soil types, in full sun or semi-shady areas at elevations from sea-level to 2,300 metres, some forms of the plant can tolerate moderate frost. It has a widespread distribution from West Africa through Central extending into Southern Africa, also occurs on the Arabian Peninsula. Justicia flava is extremely drought resistant, in very dry regions the plant can grow as an annual with smaller flowers.
Justicia flava is pollinated by insects in particular honey bees it also attracts various species of butterflies in particular small blues of the family Lycaenidae.

Cultural uses

The plant is harvested from the wild for local use as a food and medicine. In some areas Justicia flava is not removed when found growing as a weed in cultivated fields, but is allowed to grow on in order to harvest its leaves for use as a vegetable which is cooked as a spinach of used in soups and stews. In some regions the leaves are burnt to ash to produce a vegetable salt. Although it is reported that Justicia flava makes good forage for domestic animals I have observed that it is not eaten by my sheep and goats.
Justicia is used traditionally to treat coughs in South Africa. The roots are traditionally rolled into beads which remain fragrant for years.

Growing Justicia flava

Justicia flava is best grown from seed although it grows easily from cuttings
The seed capsules of Justicia flava burst open when ripe, to prevent the seeds from being lost, they must be collected as soon as the seed capsules turn brown. The seeds can be planted into trays or pots but by far the easiest is to plant the seed which germinates readily directly in situ.
Justicia flava grows best in a sunny position, but also tolerates partial shade.

Environmental value and use in the garden

Bees visiting Justicia flava
Justicia flava makes a wonderful ornamental groundcover for use in sunny spots where it can be used as a ground cover to protect and bind the soil for instance in coastal dunes and sandy river banks. It is a very valuable source of both nectar and pollen for honey bees in particular because it flowers year round under favourable conditions. In my own garden Justicia flava attracts very large numbers of insects year round at times of the year being the main source of food for them.


Justicia flava reproduces readily from seed which is most useful if it is being used for the stabilization of sandy soil but it can become a “weed” in the more formal garden. In my own garden I periodically remove the old plants to keep them under control.

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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Saturday, 16 January 2016

Berkheya insignis

Introducing a magnificent grassland herb from South East Africa that is practically unknown to the nursery and horticultural industry that deserves a place in every garden with a suitable climate.

Berkheya insignis is a perennial grassland herb found growing mostly on rocky slopes which grows to 400-600 mm in height belonging to the family Asteraceae, the Sunflower family.

The flowers which are a bright yellow are large 80 mm and up to over 100mm in cultivation

Berkheya insignis flower

Berkheya insignis is hardy, drought resistant and easy to grow, growing well in heavy clay soils provided they are well drained.

Berkheya insignis can be propagated from division, cuttings and seed

Berkheya insignis flower with beetle

Berkheya insignis attracts insects especially small colourful beetles

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist



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