The Tale of the Kukumakranka

On a Sunday evening late in December I got a call from an excited Frank Woodvine. “Have you ever seen a kukumakranka?” he asked. Frank is the elder statesman of the Hermanus Botanical Society and a former curator of Fernkloof Nature Reserve.
I had recently read an article about it in Veld and Flora so I could at least appear fairly knowledgeable. But I had to admit that I had not actually seen any in flower. This is not surprising as the kukumakranka flowers extremely infrequently and then only for 3 – 4 days.
“There are some in flower on the site that’s being bulldozed for development.” Frank continued. “I haven’t seen them in 4 years. That is the only spot where they still remain in the entire Greater Hermanus.”
He had my interest piqued at this point. He suggested that a few concerned people meet at the site in the morning and decide what to do about these elusive flowers. So at the appointed time Dr Pat Miller (member of the Hermanus Botanical Society and Board Member of Whale Coast Conservation), Frank and I turned up to a spectacular show of at least 100 small white flowers with bright yellow stamens. The undersides of the white petals are further adorned with a natty ‘racing stripe’ in dark maroon.
The kukumakranka (Gethyllis species in the family Amaryllidaceae) has a scented, creamy-orange club-shaped fruit that emerges from the ground in autumn. Only after the fruit falls down and releases seeds do the leaves appear during the winter rains. These die down by spring and flowers may or may not appear in mid-summer. Flowering is totally dependent on weather conditions – a change in barometric pressure in mid-summer. When flowering does occur, the abundant pollen serves to attract pollinators, thought to be bees, within the 3-day window of opportunity.
A short caucus by the three botanical musketeers led to the decision not to try to relocate the flowers, but to work with the municipality, contractor and the owners of the site to protect the relatively small area in which they grow at present. In quick time John Simson and Liezl Bezuidenhout of the Overstrand Municipality responded enthusiastically to the idea of conserving these interesting plants.
The article by Chris Daniels in the December 2014 issue of Veld and Flora notes the traditional use of the plant for medicinal and health purposes. It was one of the early Cape-Dutch remedies for colic and indigestion and also was used for fatigue, boils and insect bites.
Ongoing research has confirmed that the flowers and fruits are especially rich in anti-oxidants which are thought to protect us against degenerative diseases of ageing such as Alzheimer’s, cancers and coronary heart disease.
In quick time Frank planted some stout sticks, Pat wound red-and-white ‘crime-scene’ tape around the flower scene and plans were made to contact the relevant role-players. A group of young aspirant botanists from Mt Pleasant Primary School were intrigued by the novelty of three seemingly sane people getting so excited over some tiny white flowers. But due to their exposure to Whale Coast Conservation’s environmental education programme in their school they soon appreciated the botanical, cultural and health significance of this shy little flower.
“It’s endemic to the Western Cape and grows on sandy low-lying areas,” Frank said. “These areas have now largely disappeared under human development and this little patch of occasional white is the last of its kind remaining in greater Hermanus. Unless we can protect them we may not see them again.”
Anina Lee
Whale Coast Conservation
January 2014

PS The story continues next week when the botanists and the municipality get together to ‘maak ‘n plan’.

Kukumakranka flowers by Pat Miller (Pat Picture 3)
Pat Miller and Frank Woodvine by Anina Lee
Pat Miller tying ‘crime scene’ tape by Anina Lee
Young Botanists by Anina Lee

Pat & Frank2 Pat picture 3 Pat tying tape Young botanists