One leopard that we can guarantee a sighting of on Kaingo, is the Leopard orchid.
This plant, the largest epiphyte in Southern Africa, loves growing on tree branches high above the ground, out of reach of most hungry herbivores- hence the name!
Like other epiphytes (a fancy way of saying that grow above ground, roots and all), this plant has highly absorbent roots. Even the slightest bit of water and nutrients will be absorbed and used. The pin-like roots point skywards to catch leaf and other potential food sources from above.
Leopard orchids can grow to massive sizes, up to a ton in some cases. The seed pods, green capsules filled with up to 400 000 seeds, bursts open and spreads it in the hope that at least some of them will find a suitable spot to germinate.
This is where things get interesting: the seed, one of the smallest in the plant kingdom, have very little in the way of food or pulp to get it growing. Nature has developed an ingenious way of dealing with this.
The seed attaches itself to a fungus. Remember the microcilia we spoke about in the Tree Communication blog? Well, this little seed snuggles up to the microcilia and starts feeding off the fungus. The fungus gets its own back by the water and other metabolised nutrients the orchid collects. Call it a symbiotic patristic relationship if you’d like.
In the Kaingo Botanical Gardens, we have a few choice specimens of these plants. A few months ago, in a wind storm, the host tree of a real monster leopard orchid came crashing down. Our reserve policy is to leave nature be as far as possible, but we just could not let this one die.
Out came a chainsaw and a medical stretcher.
Our first order of business was to stabilise that patient. A few forked sticks later, and we were sure that it would at least keep right way up. Then, ever so gently, we cut the Red Ivory tree, the host tree, on both sides of the orchid.
This part of the rescue mission done, we loaded the orchid onto the stretcher for the long climb to the vehicle. I can only tell you that I had blistered hands after we got out of the Gardens…
Next, we decided to relocate the plant to the Elephant lodge garden. Specifically, just outside the new fitness area containing the treadmill and static bicycle. With everyone pushing and pulling, huffing and puffing, we managed to secure it to its new host.
Now we must wait…and we expect a long wait! Typically, a relocated leopard orchid will take about two years before it is well and truly settled enough to grow flowers.
We do however have more leopard orchids in other locations. Linda managed to get some very good shots of a smaller, flowering, plant higher up in the mountains. Just look at the resemblance to its namesake in these photographs!
Use it as a love potion or to ward off bad dreams. Or just appreciate the uniqueness of these plants; but do come for a visit to see the Leopard orchid.