Lofty Goals

Groot Winterhoek looms in the background on the trek to find Geissorhiza esterhuyseniae

By Evan Eifler

“One foot in front of the other… just one foot in front of the other” I whispered breathlessly to myself as I negotiated the loose rocks underfoot. I was approaching the summit of Groot Winterhoek, one of the tallest and most remote mountain peaks in the Western Cape of South Africa. As I slowly picked my way up the last sloping ledge, I tried not to think about how far we were from civilization at that moment, or the precipitous ravine that gaped next to me like the final, most devastating slide in Shoots and Ladders. At that moment the only thing to think was, “one foot in front of the other.” Soon enough, the rough grey sandstone I had been staring at for the last day and a half gave way to a remarkably calm, opalescent blue sky. We had made it to the peak and it was time to celebrate! I was joined by Eric and Riaan, a close friend from high school and a rugged South African naturalist. We would have cracked a beer in that moment if we could have spared the weight in our packs or if the thought of being anything but stone-cold sober for the treacherous hike down was at all appealing. Instead, we cracked a fresh bag of dried peaches. It had taken three years of research, planning, and failed attempts to bring me to this fleeting moment on top of one of the most inaccessible mountain peaks in the Western Cape and, although summiting was a once in a lifetime experience, it was secondary to the real goal of the trek. As we passed around the peaches, our conversation didn’t revolve around summiting, but having just rediscovered one of the rarest plants I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, Geissorhiza esterhuyseniae, or Esterhuysen’s Satin Flower, for only the second time in history.

Eric, Evan and Riaan at the summit of Groot Winterhoek

As we took photos and lounged lazily on the craggy summit, we reflected on what a strange and wonderful plant we had just found and how lucky we were to have found it. The only description of its location, written in 1981, read something like, “Groot Winterhoek, around 6,000’, cliffs and rock ledges, south aspect.” Now, this being a large mountain in the center of an even larger wilderness area lacking paths, I wasn’t sure we had much of a chance of rediscovering a single population of small flowers on a mountain made up almost solely of cliffs and rock ledges. Even if we were in exactly the right place, if the plant wasn’t in its roughly two week flowering period, we would almost certainly have walked right passed it as the leaves could be mistaken for any other grass or iris relative and for the other half the year the plant retreats back to its bulb underground leaving no trace whatsoever. The goal of this mission felt very similar to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack but if the haystack was a mountain and the needle invisible except for an unknown period of 2 weeks out of the year.

Luckily the mountain gods smiled on us that day and, as we scrambled up a boulder-filled ravine at almost exactly 6,000’, I spotted a few small white flowers reaching out from a steep, moss and lichen-covered ledge to our right. Upon closer inspection, there was no doubt in my mind that these were the flowers we were looking for and may even be the exact population that was discovered nearly 40 years ago. The plants were crammed into cracks in the rock and each of the 40 or so individuals consisted of a few drooping, sword-shaped leaves growing from the thin mossy soil. 1-3 bright white, tube-shaped flowers were held about a foot above the basal leaves, each frustratingly just a day or two from fully opening. The flowers of this species of Geissorhiza are almost unique among its 102 relatives except for one other high elevation species. While the stamens and style (male and female reproductive parts) of most species are held far in front of the tube or cup-shaped flowers to caress visiting pollinators, the stamens and style of G. esterhuyseniae are merely 1-3mm long and held entirely within the narrow tube of the flower. This suggests the reproduction of these extremely localized flowers relies on a pollinator that remains unknown.

Geissorhiza esterhuyseniae

Part of what fascinates me about the genus, Geissorhiza, and why I have chosen it as the muse for my PhD thesis, is that its multitudes of species have come to occupy, as famed systematist Peter Goldblatt once put it, “a greater variety of niches than most other genera of Iridaceae, here or elsewhere.” Whereas G. esterhuyseniae is only known to inhabit a single mossy ledge on the top of a mountain that is covered in snow for months of the year (Groot Winterhoek roughly translates to Great Winter-bend), its close relatives have carved out a life in nearly all other available habitats including some of the hottest and driest parts of the region where species have evolved corkscrew-shaped leaves to help capture rare morning dew and funnel it to the plant’s roots. Species occupy both major vegetation types in the region, deep sands in fynbos and dense clays of renosterveld, when most other plant groups are largely restricted to one or the other. Yet other species only grow from the standing water of ephemeral streams or are only found growing in the spray of a few local waterfalls. As such, the species of Geissorhiza have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell, one that can only be deciphered from their DNA. This is the reason for my far-flung travels, to collect leaf tissue from each of the 103 species of Geissorhiza. I will extract and compare their DNA, resolve their relationships, and reconstruct their evolutionary history through time as it relates to habitat preferences, pollination strategies, and physical form. At this point I’ve spent the better part of three South African springs searching for and collecting 85 of the 103 species from the wild and each species came with its own unique challenges, but G. esterhuyseniae was the most challenging.

View a gallery of Geissorhiza species here

As Riaan and I snacked on leathery peaches, Eric diligently explored the summit marked by a small and crude shelter made out of stacked rocks and three large concrete beacons that once stood marking the summit but had since been hit by lightning enough times to knock each over. From under one of the fallen beacons Eric pulled out a heavy metal box. Inside was a heavy plastic bag inside of another plastic bag and inside that was a journal. Inside was a fascinating history of all the people that had stood in the exact spot we were standing dating back to the 1940s. What had felt like such an individual struggle up this mountain suddenly felt like a communal experience.

Elsie Esterhuysen’s signature tops the right hand page of the summit journal, marking the climb when she discovered her namesake flower.

As we paged through the entries of many an intrepid man and woman that signed the summit journal, there was one more name I was looking for… the badass of note for whom the plant we had just found was named, Elsie Esterhuysen. A master botanist and capable mountaineer, Elsie has ascended to legendary status within the South African botanical community. Like me she was enamored with the flora of the Cape region and was compelled to study it. Unlike me, throughout her long life she systematically explored the high-altitude regions of the Cape and discovered an estimated 150 taxa of which 34 species and 2 genera are named after her. Sure enough, on October 4th, 1981 there was her name at the top of a page among the names of the crew she summited with the day she discovered one of the many plants that would come to be named after her, G. esterhuyseniae. She would have been 69 years old the day she signed the summit journal and she continued climbing until nearly the end of her life at age 93. And here we were, sitting on top of the mountain eating peaches having hiked up one mountain feeling so pleased with ourselves…

When we regained some strength and took our first few steps back the direction we had come was the first moment I felt a strong pang of trepidation – at that moment after two days of hiking we were only halfway home and still so far from civilization. The only way we were going to get home was on our own two feet so the only thing to do in that moment is to put one foot in front of the other, reduce an enormous mission to a small, manageable task. “One foot in front of the other” has since become the mantra for my graduate career. All it takes is placing one foot in front of the other.