Disa tenella is a South African endemic, found nowhere else in the world but the south-western Cape. Still found clinging on in a handful of isolated patches, this diminutive yet stunning orchid used to grow to merely 15 cm. tall in the “ fairest cape of them all.” Unfortunately, it seems to prefer a damp sand & clay habitat which is being increasingly taken away for cattle grazing, wheat growing, urban development and destruction by plants brought in from other parts of the world.
This “ worm’s eye view” was the only composition available to me to show all I hoped in this painting but in the end is one of my favourites. The cow’s hoof print is a device I used here to show the plant’s root system & it also conveys the main threat to this orchid’s survival in the wild, which is, yet again, the human taste for eating cows. Whilst living in South Africa, I didn’t own a car. There is of course public transport and a very versatile combi van network [ often decorated by strings of bullet holes along their sides as evidence of territory competition ] but getting to remote places would have been virtually impossible had I not been “adopted” by a gentle, elderly Africaans lady. Her adored pedigree and my enchanting rescued dog met on a beach and introduced us. Her kindness in driving me about to find this orchid was typical of the help I’ve received during all my travels – including all my combi van travels where I’ve met nothing but unfailing courtesy and help.
One of Disa tenella, subsp tenella’s common names is, fittingly, The Very Delicate-Leaved Disa. It only ever grew in the Western Cape but is now extinct on the Cape flats. It preferred damp clay or sandy soils from sea level to no higher than 600m. It only flowered for a couple of months in the southern hemisphere’s winter – from August to September. One of this Disa‘s several pollinators is the bee Apis mellifera, probably ssp. capensis, which I therefore painted here. The Drosera found in association with D.tenella is a carnivorous plant named after the Greek word drosos, meaning dew, and is one of several sundews endemic to S. Africa. The grass-like restios are found throughout the spectacularly species-rich, though smallest in area, Fynbos Floral Kingdom and together with the Droseras in this image, help to convey an atmosphere of wild places despite the cultivated landscape beyond.
Continuing loss of habitat to cattle grazing, house building, and the often destructive habit of bringing plants from elsewhere have overwhelmed this exquisite orchid’s chance of survival. The more I understand how little is known about this endangered orchid, the happier I am that I painted it. Complete extinction now seems inevitable – if it has not already occurred. © Frances Livingstone 2018