The regular forest trail walkers of Simbithi all know the lovely epiphytic orchids that grow high on the branches of the older Umdoni (Syzygium cordatum) trees in our swamp forests, but our terrestrial or ground-growing orchids are equally, if not more, spectacular.

The most common of these on Simbithi is the Eulophia speciosa orchid. Unfortunately, their bulbs must be the equivalent of Lindt chocolate for porcupines as the ones I planted in my garden were gobbled up within days of planting. So, be warned – protect them when they are planted and they will reward you by having spectacular yellow flowers over an extended period of two months or longer. They are very rewarding garden plants but do need full sun and develop into a group within a few years. The leaves are rather stiff and thick, but the flowers live up to their name of “speciosa”, which means beautiful.

Another of our locally indigenous Eulophias is the Vlei orchid, E. angolensis. Robust, these occur in small groups or large colonies in marshy grasslands. The bright, lemon-yellow flowers are showy and sweetly-scented.

Look out for these in the exclusion zones that the environmental department will be erecting in grasslands next year. They are easy to grow but are dormant in Winter, re-appearing with the first rains in Spring.

Platylepis glandulosa is seen in deep shade of the seepage zones of coastal swamp forests and can be spotted from the forest boardwalk on the Mngeni trail. The plant superficially resembles a Commelina species with which it often grows, except that it produces short, erect flower inflorescences that are crowded with small, white to pink-brown flowers.

We even have locally indigenous, quite spectacular Disa orchids. Disa woodii occurs in damp grasslands and the bright yellow, orange-tinged flowers are densely crowded on each flower spike. They are described by Elsa Pooley in her Field Guide to Wildflowers of KZN and the Eastern region as resembling “glowing candles in damp marshy areas.” They occur on Simbithi near the Hornbill dam on the Nsimbi trail.

Another orchid of the Disa genus that is locally indigenous and that we hope to reintroduce to Simbithi is the Honey Disa, Disa polygonoides. This is very similar in growth habit to D.woodii, but the flowers are red or orange and it flowers after D. woodii. Interestingly, this plant is used in traditional medicine to restore voice loss after an illness.

The Purple vlei orchid, Eulophia horsfalii is one of the largest Southern African orchids and is beautifully coloured and showy. It is often grown as a container plant. It is tall and robust and can attain a height of up to three metres with pleated leaves of up to one and a half metres in length. The flowers are large and as many as 40 occur on a single flower stalk. The individual flowers last up to a fortnight and the flowering period is from September to March. The sepals vary from a reddish brown to purple in colour and the petals are generally pink. Although this orchid prefers dappled shade and protection from the wind, as it is generally found on the edge of swamp forest patches in the wild, it will grow in full sun.

Eulophia petersii is another lovely garden plant. It generally forms clumps in hot, drier thickets. The large, sweetly-scented flowers are well spaced on the tall inflorescence (flower spike) and notably both the green petals and dark purple sepals curl back. The large, showy lips of the flowers are white with pink crests. Unsurprisingly, this orchid has been used as a love charm.

Eulophia clavicornis should be widespread in our secondary grasslands. The flowers of this orchid vary hugely with the most common being deep purple sepals with petals being white, purple or yellow. The flowers are widely spaced on long stems that bend with the wind. In traditional medicine the tubers were used to treat infertility and to ward off evil.

Satyricum sphaerocarpum is a robust terrestrial orchid with underground tubers. It can grow up to half a metre in height and has large creamy or white flowers that generally have red, maroon or purple markings. They occur in moist grasslands from the coast to about 2000m above sea level and are not endemic to South Africa as they also occur in Mozambique. They flower from October to April and the upright flower spike may have up to 27 flowers, which are lightly scented.

Orchids are the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants and are very well represented in Southern Africa with 55 different genera consisting of nearly 500 different species. Of these almost 50% are endemic to Southern Africa with some species having a very small distribution range.

This and the fact that at least 50 species are collected for ethnic purposes means that many are under threat. It is a responsible and wise decision for Simbithi to protect as many locally indigenous species of these fascinating plants as possible.

In the next issue of the Simbithi Scene we will discover our locally indigenous epiphytic orchids.