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Plant story - finding Lobelia valida

Find out how the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership team found Lobelia valida under a washing line!

Lobelia valida flowers (Photo: C. Cowell)

Introducing Lobelia valida

Lobelia valida has deep blue flowers throughout summer and is a superb perennial for the garden. Although plants flower conspicuously on the coastal dunes and limestone hills from Bredasdorp to Riversdale in the Southern Cape, South Africa, they had not been seen in the wild since 1985. Here the locals maintain that the flowering time coincides with the galjoen fishing season (November to April), hence the common name, Galjoenblom. The major threats to this plant species are too-frequent fires which kill young seedlings, and coastal development in the form of housing and golf course estates.

Lobelia valida branches from the base, the long branches stand proud with their blue flowers densely packed at the top of the stems. The plants grow to about 40 to 60 cm. in height. The light green leaves, scattered along the branches, are flat and soft with coarsely toothed edges. The flowers are two-lipped and can be found crowded at the tops of the branches. The upper lip has two small petals split to the base at the back, and the lower lip has three larger petals. The lower petals are marked with white and a blotch of bright yellow at the centre, clearly guiding the nectar-feeding fly, which pollinates the flowers. These long-tongued flies are specially adapted with long sucking mouthparts to collect nectar hidden at the base of a deep tube.

Rediscovering Lobelia valida

During a collecting trip to De Hoop Nature Reserve in 2005, we had been told to keep an eye out for Lobelia valida, which Anthony Hitchcock and Adam Harrower (from SANBI) had been searching for, for some years. Whilst stopping at one of the newly built Whale Trail cottages along the coast for lunch, I noticed a rather pretty plant growing under the solar power panels and washing line. ‘What a pretty plant, looks like Lobelia vali… It is Lobelia valida!’ followed by many whoops of delight, I am now plagued by this quote. So yes we had rediscovered Lobelia valida under a washing line 20 years later and without looking for it.

Seven plants were found at the site and a recommendation was made to have the line and solar panels moved. This was done, but on a return visit in 2006 we found only four plants had survived. This time however, seed was ready for collecting and was promptly banked for the future of this plant. We continued searching for more plants along the coast but found none. A year later in January of 2007, whilst doing a pre-burn plant survey, we came across a recently mowed fire break and about 25 Lobelia valida plants. Once again there was much excitement and seed was collected. The next day along a different fire break we discovered the mother load of Lobelia valida, 150 plants! Now the excitement was waning a bit and this species looked to be quite common; however with new data and seed gathered we headed back to Cape Town.

The results of our re-discoveries of the Galjoenblom (Lobelia valida) are that it was previously listed at Data Deficient in the Red Data List. Our data now indicates that this species is abundant after fire or clearing, but is very short lived in the wild. A major concern now is that too many fires may deplete the soil. Seed banks and EIA assessments for developments will not pick this species up as the area has old bush on it. Lobelia valida is currently being re-assessed and it appears that it will be given the status of VU (Vulnerable). 

Story by Carly Cowell, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town, South Africa | More plant stories

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