Euphorbia euphoria among Ferdie’s aloes

Published Mar 22, 2011


It’s been many years since I visited Ferdie Du Preez’s garden in Brackenfell near Cape Town and it has changed considerably, lawn making way for more aloes, euphorbias and many other interesting and indigenous plants.

This is not a great time of the year for gardens, unless you have plentiful water, but Du Preez’s waterwise garden is looking great. It’s not even aloe flowering time yet, but he has so many different species of aloes and euphorbia, in their shades of green and grey, that the garden has a lot to hold your attention.

His “honey wine” plants really draw my attention. Du Preez has recently published a book, A History of Bees and Beekeeping in South Africa (The Office publishers), and in his extensive research came across the early references to the honey drink made by the Khoi and San people, called “karri” or “karrie”. Curious as to which plants were used to ferment the drink, he discovered a few of them and is growing them in his garden.

The San didn’t have yeast, he explains, so they used the bulb of an unassuming plant, with small upright growths, called Avonia ustulata.

Later, this was used by the Voortrekkers to make rusks and bread – the best-tasting rusks ever, says Du Preez.

But this plant doesn’t grow in the Eastern Cape, and in these regions the San would have used a kind of mesembryanthemum (the star mesem, or Karee moer) Trichodiadema stellatum, with a tuberous root. Another plant used to ferment the drink was Kambroo (Fockea edulis), found in the Tankwa Karoo and other dry areas of the Western and Eastern Cape. Among these plants, carefully tended in pots, are Bushman’s candle, which burns for a long time, as it name suggests, the mood-enhancing sceletium and hoodia.

Although beekeeping in metropolitan areas is a grey area, regulated primarily by health laws relating to pests, bees play an important role in the pollination in cities.

South Africa is blessed with two species of indigenous bees, one north of the belt that runs from Vanrhynsdorp to Grahamstown, and our local bee Apis mellifera capenises, both of which are productive workers.

Du Preez has collected about 40 different euphorbias. “I love them, they grow well with aloes, and there are more than 1 000 species.”

His aloe collection is interesting, and he has spent a lot of time researching the plants. He has an aloe from Angola that always hangs downwards; an Aloe barbarae, Africa’s tallest aloe, which is called the tree aloe; and an Aloe thraskii, which is the only aloe which grow with its roots near water, and is found in KwaZulu-Natal.

He has a strange-looking hybrid of Aloe striata and Aloe karasbergensis, with soft curved leaves, which in full sun become pinky orange. It hardly looks like an aloe.

He also has a variegated aloe, very scarce, which came from Holland. Aloe elgonica from Kenya, with a reddish colour, is flowering now – it flowers a few times a year. Aloe longistyla looks like a hedgehog.

But the Aloe ferox, “the bitter aloe”, is still his favourite. Over the years he has researched its medicinal and cosmetic properties and has written a book Die Bittersoet Geneser (The Office).

Euphorbia are his more recent passion, and he has built up an impressive collection.

There’s huge variety in the euphorbia family. Near the entrance to the garden, Du Preez has a Euphorbia grandicornis, a decorative upright plant with strong spines and sharp spikes. Contrast this with Euphorbia Obesa, a ball-shaped dwarf succulent that can have beautiful striations and stays close to the ground.

My favourite is the Euphorbia caput medusae, which is endemic to the Cape Peninsula, and really does look like Medusa’s (of Greek mythology) hair of snakes, twirling outwards.

The Euphorbia multiceps grows in a cone shape, and is an attractive small plant.

Du Preez gets his plants from succulent nurseries in Vanrhynsdorp and Robertson and wherever he hears about one.

“There is no need to destroy habitat for plants, there are many good places to buy them, and if you take them from the veld, they often die.”

He spends one or two hours every second day in the garden. “I scratch here, scratch there. I love soil on my hands and I admire my plants. I can’t get enough of them, every day is like the first time.” - Cape Argus

* You can get the books directly from Du Preez at 083 283 8159. - Cape Argus

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