In February 2012 I was extremely fortunate to travel to a very remote location in southern Africa. The Sehlabathebe National Park, high in the mountains of Lesotho, is home to a critically endangered tiny water lily Aponogeton ranunculiflorus. It is only found in the restricted area of the park and in a few locations in South Africa within 10 kilometres of the park. at an altitude of between 2,600 and 3,200 metres.
Journeying over two days from the capital Maseru to Sehlabathebe, the roads were gradually reduced to rugged gravel and rock roads up hairpin bends and across the ridges of mountains high above the tree line. Visiting this remote National Park, the diversity and abundance of species within the Park’s boundaries was impressive in comparison with the overgrazed land just metres away.
The tiny white flowers 12 – 25 mm across are found like puffs of popcorn floating on the surface of the small sandstone rock pools. A mauve glow can be seen around the developing seeds. The plant is only found in a 10 kilometre area within the dramatic backdrop of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains which all added to the magic of the remote area. The characteristic spiralled stems of the water lily revealed its ability to remain on the surface regardless of the changing level of the water in the pools.
Working at the National Herbarium of Lesotho, Roma on collected flowers, I made colour notes and enlarged dissection drawings. Unfortunately when I collected the plant I was given incorrect advice and came away with the wrong leaves as seen left.
The Herbarium did not have specimens of leaves or corms and I had to return to Lesotho in June 2013 to complete the puzzle.
Frozen rock pools in Sehlabathebe determined that I made the 1,235 kilometre return journey to Grahamstown in South Africa to meet Herbarium Curator Tony Dold at Rhodes University.
Viewing the 1972 Holotype when the plant was first described by A. Jacot Guillarmod, I was able to see the spherical 10mm corm and 70 long leaves, with the distinctive pale colour change towards the base.
Seeing the herbarium specimen and looking back at my photographs from the previous year, I realised that I had actually
collected the complete plant after all. To add to the interest of the trip
we passed elephant grazing, troupes of gibbons and baboons,
several types of antelope and stunning flocks of flamingos.
Measurements and drawings from the Holotype were combined
with the previous year’s colour notes to finish the colour illustration.
I had travelled from New Zealand to Lesotho twice, to the remote
Sehlabathebe National Park and into South Africa,
covering a total of 50,000 kilometres all for the sake of a 12mm flower
and a shrivelled up corm! Surely that is what Botanical illustration is all about!