Grass, beer & the Kalahari Christmas Tree

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If ever there appeared to be an unlikely combination of bushrelated topics, I would agree this might be it; but, as John Muir the Scottish-American naturalist (1838- 1914) is believed to have said, “When you tug at a single thing in nature, you will find it is attached to everything else”.

Southern Africa is home to some 1000 grass species, of which at least one third occurs nowhere else on earth. Although this rarely attracts attention, it is arguable that most animals are either directly or indirectly dependant on grass − and this includes humans. Research has shown that it is not only extant animals that rely on grass as a food source, but that nowextinct ones did, too. Fossilised Titanosaur dung from the Late Cretaceous period shows that 65-70 million years ago, these huge reptiles (which weighed more than 100 tons and were the heaviest creatures to ever walk the earth) favoured five species of grass that were related to modern species.

Today the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is the largest pure grazer alive. Adult males weigh in at 2000kg and consume 50-65kg of grass per day. Like the dinosaurs of the past, they too have preferences, preferring Red grass (Themeda triandra), White buffalo grass (Panicum maximum) and Small buffalo grass (Panicum coloratum) over other species.

Humans recognised the potential of grasses as a food source aeons ago, cultivating Barley (Hordeum vulgare) in the Middle East as far back as 10 000 B.C. Some while later, (estimated to be somewhere between 5000 and 3400 B.C.), it was discovered that fermented barley could make an intoxicating drink … and beer was born! Down the centuries, the brewing of beer has been refined substantially, but cereal grains – all grasses – remain an integral part of the process. In Africa, Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is the grain of choice in the making of traditional beers.

We owe the amazing diversity of wildlife that we are able to view on a safari to the dynamic equilibrium that exists between grasses and trees in the Bushveld/ Savanna. Grasses compete with trees to become pure Grassland, but are prevented from doing so by fire and grazing animals. Trees compete with grasses to become Forest, but various factors (including the action of browsing animals) ensure that this does not occur. One of the trees that play an integral part in this equation is… (you guessed it): the Kalahari Christmas tree (Dichrostachys cinerea). So-called because of the beautiful pink and yellow flowers that adorn it throughout the festive season, it is also known by several other names, including Gameviewer ruintyreis; the latter title evidence of the consummate ease with which its incredibly strong and sharp spines puncture tyres, irrespective of their brand or sidewall thickness! The clusters of curled pods it produces are high in protein, and the seeds they contain pass undigested through the gut of animals consuming them. Deposited in a handy pile of compost, with an uncanny ability to grow in almost any soil type, they have a competitive advantage over many other trees. Although there are positives to this growth vigour, there are also negatives, not least their propensity to invade areas disturbed by overgrazing. As is to be expected, however, Nature has a solution which is elegant in its simplicity: Kalahari Christmas trees grow in areas denuded by too many grazing animals, thus offering an element of protection to the soil. Elephants (Loxodonta africana) in search of the nutritious pods, push open the areas of encroaching trees to allow grasses once again to obtain the light and nutrients they need to grow. Grasses + Trees = Savanna (Q.E.D.)

So, as you raise your ice-cold beer to salute friends and family whilst on safari this festive season, feel how it connects to the grass used to brew it, and to the wildlife you are viewing on the mosaic of grasses and trees that form the African Bushveld. Cheers! Gesondheid! Oogy wawa!


THE WILD GUIDE

Lorraine Doyle

Lorraine Doyle

Lorraine Doyle is the owner of Africa Nature Training. This is the first article in a series on bush lore and the wonders of the African Bushveld.

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