Wetlands are recognized as one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on earth. Associated with wetlands are a wide range of specially adapted plant species giving food and shelter to a variety of animal life. Earlier man also relied on food found in wetlands. In more modern times wetlands were regarded as useless and wetlands were extensively drained to produce arable land for crops. The drive now is to conserve and restore wetlands as far as possible.
A team of environmentalists under the leadership of Dr Carin van Ginkel of Cripsis Environment developed a field guide that will lead to easy identification of South African wetland plants. The study offers a plethora of plants that people can find in the country.
The initial drive behind conservation was the signing of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1971, to save wetlands on a global scale because of waterfowl, but more recently conservation spread into plants and animals that live in these areas, taking into consideration the bigger picture of biodiversity. South Africa signed the Wetland convention in 1975 and is bound by this.
This field guide is addressing the second attribute in the identification of wetlands, namely the identification of the wetland plants. According to Dr van Ginkel this guide is by no means complete, but is the first in addressing some of the grass-like plants that may be encountered in a wetland. This includes the grasses, reeds, restios, sedges, rushes, bulrushes, eriocaulons and yellow-eyed grasses.
The main focus is on selected obligate wetland plants. These are plants that need a high water table, as the whole life cycle is spent in water, either emergent or submerged. The soil is hydromorphic and the plants can withstand or have special adaptations to survive in anaerobic soil conditions.
There are also a selected number of plants that have been included at the back of the guide, and that are not per se obligate wetland plants. These plants vary from opportunistic to positive facultative plants, and may be found in, or in close proximity to, a wetland.
The guide is aimed at covering primarily the area of South Africa, but if the necessary information and photographs were found, the distribution within neighbouring countries is indicated on the distribution maps. Many of the plants are not restricted to South Africa as some occurs throughout Africa and some are cosmopolitan.
The field guide includes over 290 species of wetland plants. The plants within this guide are often overlooked by the nature lover, due to the inconspicuous small flowers that are characteristic of most of the plants within the guide, and also due to the habitat that includes fairly harsh conditions, including muddy, wet and soggy situations. There is, however, a beauty unlocked by these, often minute flowers, for those with a magnifying glass ‘in hand’ or looking closer.