The Cactus Patch
Volume 7       October 2004      Number 10

A Long Dry Spell
A Letter From Bruce
by Bruce Hargreaves

When we returned from South Africa we brought with us some cold weather. I have made good use of the down-filled jacket that I bought at the BCSS yard sale. We are now into a warm spring that looks to become hot until we get some rain (hopefully next month).

After our trip to Clanwilliam there has been little excitement. This will allow me to catch up on my reporting. The garden construction proceeds at a snail’s pace. We even had the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs visit to see what was happening (or not) on July 14. On the 18th we went to a talk on Antarctica at Mokolodi. This is the second we've heard. Both were boat trips. Our friend Ellen Drake flew there last year for an eclipse of the sun. Someday we might visit and complete our list of Continents visited.

On the 12th of August I attended a workshop on the protection of intellectual property. I expected to be bored but was pleasantly surprised by the presentation of Dr. Motlalepula Gilbert Matsabisa who was one of my students at the National University of Lesotho. Gilbert is now manager of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (Health) Unit of the Medical Research Council of South Africa. Presently they are testing traditional medicine said to be effective against AIDS. We now have a standing invitation to visit him in Cape Town. Another place on a growing list.

On the 13th we watched the opening of the Olympics on TV. It needed an encyclopedia of Greek Mythology to follow, but was great. We continued to watch when we could and watched the Botswana team come in eighth place in the men's relay. We also saw a runner from Botswana start in the marathon, but he was soon lost from sight. It was a great try for a small country.

On the 14th we went shopping in Mafikeng, South Africa. I noticed that none of the weight reducing drugs uses hoodia. (Unlike Bakersfield where I did see one that claimed to contain it.) We brought back a microwave and got stuck paying sales tax. It seems we would have had to stay 48 hours to be exempt.

On the 27th we went to the Botswana International Trade Fair. It was a bit disconcerting to be met by kids playing with BB guns made to look like semiautomatics. The fair was the first place I'd seen these. Then the neighborhood kids were out in front of our house with them the next day! They probably think I'm crazy, but I did get them to obey my rule of no guns at my house.

On the 30th and 31st of Aug. there was a workshop on monuments. I am more and more convinced that National Monuments are too big a job for the museum, but at present we are in charge. At least we managed to get more emphasis on Natural History. Monuments began as a part of Archaeology and are still heavily biased toward them.

On the 3rd I went with our geologist, Gabadirwe, to see a potential monument south of here at Ramotswa. We were horrified to find the hill of 2.5 billion-year old stromatolites (fossil blue-green algae) was being chipped away for stone walls! This is one monument that needs to be declared in a hurry.

On the 4th Raul Puente-Martinez arrived from the Arizona Botanic Garden to work with us for a month. His wife Gretchen and their two little kids arrived the next day. His friend Chad Davis arrived on the 15th to look for aloes. We have all the Botswana species in the Botanic Garden, but he wants to see wild ones. Nonofo Mosesane will be representing our botanic garden in Arizona next spring.

On the 6th James called to tell us he would be teaching math at New Cuyama. Better him than me. On the 10th the Chinese opened a fantastic exhibit on embroidery at the museum, and on the 11th we went to a concert to raise money for Music Camp at 4:30 and the annual Bird Club Dinner at 7:30. The music concert included "Because" by the Three Tswana Tenors (much younger and thinner than the Italians) and the Bird Club had a talk on Lions and Birds.

On the 17th our choir sang in Sesotho, Setswana, French, German, a 16th century dialect between Spanish and French and, of course, English. This was at a dinner sponsored by Rotary to raise money to help in the AIDS pandemic.

Hoodia is now proposed for listing on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). In the proposal (which reached me from two different sources for comment) it was mentioned that the Anikhwe of Botswana use Hoodia. Since this is a group of "River Bushmen" who live along the Okavango Panhandle, I was puzzled. No hoodia is known from anywhere near the Okavango. We finally phoned the "First People" at Shakawe at the North end of the panhandle and were told there is plenty of "hoodia" at the village of Godikwa.

This was not in the Place Names Commission Report nor on any map I have. Fortunately I found it in my notes from the trip around the Okavango January ‘03. It is near the Selinda reserve where the Heaths, a British couple collected the giant Orbea huillensis which I have in a pot. I then checked in Bruyns' book on Orbea and found he had collected the related species Orbea valida at Gudigua (which is undoubtedly the same as Godikwa)! At least an Orbea is closer to Hoodia than a cactus. A specimen which had been promised to confirm this turned out to be Stapelia gigantea, a plant which is very common. I even had one in my garden in Bakersfield when I was in High School. I have seem this and a large Orbea in cultivation at Gomare (north end of the Okavango), but no wild plants of the Stapelia have been reported from this area.

Among the many books I've consumed lately was "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath (1966, Faber & Faber, London). It is not a very memorable book, but it did include the following:

The first thing that baby did was pee in the doctor's face. I told Buddy later I didn't see how it was possible, but he said it was quite possible, though unusual, to see something like that happen.

I guess I'm unusual, because I'm told that's what I did.

Turning to more scientific matters, I read "Newton, the making of a Genius" by Patricia Fara (2003, Pan Macmillan, London). It concerns people's attitudes toward Newton rather than the man himself. For example, "Newton's Principia was not expected to be a best-seller. The Royal Society declined to back it, since their finances had just been exhausted by an expensive but unsuccessful History of Fishes, so Halley bore the publication costs himself." Now I don't feel so bad about my Succulent Spurges of Malawi being turned down by the Society of Malawi because of money lost on Moriarty's Wildflowers of Malawi.

Another quote from the same book is "Among Newton's attributes were a traditional lamp of truth, a mathematical muse, and leaves of aloe, the plant that -- like Newton's genius -- flowers only once in a hundred years." This is not the first time an aloe has been confused with an agave (although even the longest-lived agave lives only half that long).

A book which talks about real aloes is The Seed is Mine, the life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985 (Charles van Onselen, 1996, Hill & Wang, N.Y.). It says:

Kas combed the surrounding veld for the characteristically grey "Vaalbos" plants, added to them a few stubby leaves from the aloes strewn round the yard and then left them to the mercy of the Triangle [Bloemhof, Schweizer-Reneke, Wolmaransstad] sun. This dried vegetation was scraped together, ignited - reduced to a pile of acrid-smelling ash which he mixed with the maize until each individual seed was coated and almost looked burnt. This laborious procedure yielded an effective organic pesticide quite unlike the modern chemicals that some white farmers had used during the locust invasions and of which Kas strongly disapproved.

A footnote quotes Kas, "Later on they were sprayed with insecticide. That is when the world started to go wrong". Later the book says, "Kas could no more avert his eyes from gaining access to land than a sunbird could ignore an aloe in bloom,…"

Raul with Aloe leutescens x A. marlothii
and A. greatheadii x A. marlothii with Chad

Chad, Raul, Dario, Adriana & Gretchen

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