In 1885, an Englishman named Russell Hallack went botanising in the St Francis Bay area of S.Africa and collected what became the type species of Satyrium princeps. Satyrium’s twin-spurred flowers were used as inspiration for the sometimes taxing task of naming “newly discovered” plants. This genus’ scientific name was drawn, as is so often the case, from Greek. The name of the legendary twin-horned satyr was chosen for the over 80 species of Satyrium found throughout southern Africa, Asia, Madagascar and the Mascarenes of which thirty eight species occur in southern Africa. Satyrium princeps is endemic to South Africa’s eastern and western Cape, and used to grow abundantly along the Garden Route. It must have been breathtaking to see brilliant flashes of colour rising out of the surrounding fynbos.
I created this painting whilst living on S.Africa’s wild and stormy Cape, the painter in me entranced by this stately orchid with its strong, storm-resisting stems which offer such a sturdy claw-hold for sunbird pollinators. The birds painted here are female and male Lesser Double Collared Sunbirds, Nectarinia chalybea, whose Xhosa name is Ingcungou. These sunbirds are endemic to southern Africa, mainly the Cape, and usually perch though they can hover like the American hummingbirds to which they are distantly related. Unlike many other fynbos species, such as Proteas, S. princeps does not seem to be dependent on the naturally occurring, sporadic fires for continued survival.
The orchid’s pollinia can be clearly seen in this painting awaiting transportation on the sunbird’s beak to the next S. princeps, where the flower’s internal construction will ensure it is easily removed and put to good use. Other sunbird species are also part of this orchid’s survival. Sunbirds will often try to remove pollinia from their beaks, but so efficiently attached are they, thanks to a perfect piece of plant engineering which has created flat sticky viscidia, that this normally proves impossible. The pollinia can therefore hang on to a beak about 15mm from the mandible for long enough to also pollinate the closely related S. membranaceum, giving rise to naturally occurring varieties. Both male and female sunbirds carry this tiresome load but, surprisingly perhaps, it is most often seen on females. Pollination can be achieved by various sunbirds, drawn to the plant by its welcoming combination of reddish flowers and a lavish supply of liquid nectar – apparently a worldwide favourite of sunbirds and hummingbirds.
Satyrium princeps’ home is dangerously restricted to sunny, acidic sand dunes which occur in a tiny area of South Africa’s Western Cape Fynbos. Here, winter rains contribute enough moisture to the freely draining soil to enable Satyriums to lay claim to a modest patch of territory with their two large flat leaves spread over the ground at the base of the plant, thereby protecting vulnerable tubers from waterlogging and overcrowding by others. Before it became endangered, it could often be seen growing between strong bushes, sheltering from the frequent storms which occur during the orchid’s flowering season of late spring to early summer. Now, through coastal “development” – for example the golf course depicted here – this orchid and all inter-related life forms are frequently replaced by boring and demanding lawns. © Frances Livingstone 2018