A case for daisies and kwerekwere

THE FIFTH COLUMN

Colonisers. Aliens. Invasive. Cause damage. Threaten.

The language of xenophobia is applied by South Africa’s security cluster and United States President Donald Trump, but it is also applied to plants. The above words were also used of the yellow daisy bush in the eastern Lesotho Highlands. Efforts to eradicate the plant and people have dominated discussions by environmentalists and politicians.

The yellow daisy bush, Chrysocoma ciliata L (Asteraceae), is also known as sehalahala and bitterkaroobossie. The last name is a clue to where the botanists say it belongs naturally, where it is native or indigenous — to the dry, arid Karoo.

So why is it in the eastern Lesotho Highlands? It must be eradicated, evicted. It is seen as an indicator of veld deterioration and Karoo encroachment. It must be removed.

The recent words of Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi echo this sentiment: “How can a city in South Africa be 80% foreign national? That is dangerous.” He spoke of foreigners and economic sabotage, the threat to land and warned that they would spread throughout South Africa.

Trump’s “America first” sums up his attitude to “aliens”. Stronger borders to keep them out; they are a threat.

Then a few years ago, Clinton Carbutt of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife suggested the daisy species may not be an invasive plant: it thrives under harsh conditions, such as eroded cattle stations; the indigenous alpine wetland species in the eastern Lesotho Highlands struggle to survive in eroded land.

And in a case of accidental science, researchers recently announced they have found evidence that the daisy bush has been growing in the Lesotho Highlands for more than 4 000 years. Researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of geography, archaeology and environmental studies and the Evolutionary Studies Institute used fossil pollen records to solve the debate regarding the daisy bush in eastern Lesotho and whether it is invasive.

(Back to Mkongi for a second: Has he forgotten that humans evolved in Africa about 200 000 years ago and that all people today trace their ancestry to a population from Africa about 50 000 to 80 000 years ago?)

Jennifer Fitchett and her co-authors Marion Bamford, Stefan Grab and Anson Mackay (University College London) found the pollen of Chrysocoma ciliata at intermittent levels throughout the depth of the sediment profile they were studying.

Because the plant does well under drought conditions, it colonises degraded land, for example in abandoned cattle stations in the Lesotho Highlands, where overgrazing caused the loss of top soil and vegetation, causing economic harm.

The problem is not the bush but poor land use management. The same can be said about the policies and attitudes of politicians to people.

The scientists now have a new description for this daisy bush — it’s a “niche coloniser”, probably “native to the eastern Lesotho Highlands”.

And, like “foreign” people, we don’t need to deport it.

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