I HAVE returned from my all too brief tropical sojourn. To be precise though, I was in a sub-tropical destination.

I was chasing big game in the rocky outcrops and arid scrubs in South Africa's Kruger game reserve. Every day was filled with a million adrenaline-packed adventures.

I learned to identify a myriad animals by their ghost-like tracks and unique dung piles scattered on the ground. I picked up and named the trilled notes of multi- coloured birds carried on the empty thermals of warm, still air. I was taught to calculate the best approach to get close to a dozen grazing rhinos, or find an unnoticed viewpoint to admire the raw power of a leopardess dragging a freshly sacrificed impala up a tree.

It isn't until you come up against the untamed, that you really get to appreciate how wild and powerful nature can be. It also reinforces just how secure, controlled and almost 'bland' we have become on our tame little island. Anything that has a will of its own, or poses a threat to our livelihood has been eliminated or confined to a zoo.

The change of scenery and chance to learn new skills really excited me. There was one aspect, though, that left me feeling a bit lost, frustrated and floundering. I can walk into any park, most gardens and just about any habitat in England and name the plants growing there. I can tell you what time of year they will flower, what uses they may have and how to look after and propagate them. The sub-tropical savannah posed me plenty of puzzles.

For a start, whereas we are now heading into autumn, they are just coming out of their winter. Winter for the Kruger means hot, dry conditions with very little rain. Many of the trees and shrubs were coming to life, but instead of new leaf growth, they begin with the floral coverage.

I have to admit that I rushed to the nearest book shop as soon as I arrived and invested in a large tome on South African tree identification. The only problem was that it was all based on leaf type, which was tricky when they hadn't yet emerged.

Over time though, I got to know some of the more prominent or interesting ones. To remember them, I tried to twin them with something similar that grows back here. The Mopane for instance, had a similar leaf colour and first impression to our copper beech. I learnt that it has a very high concentration of tannin in the leaves that turns it that russet colour. It is one of the plants that sustains the antelopes, giraffes, rhinos and other grazers throughout the winter as it hangs on to the leaves (just like the beech) after all the others have gone.

It is also full of a digestible protein, which makes it a vital food source. The emperor moth lays its eggs on the shrub. Its larvae are the big, fat Mopane worm, which apparently make a very tasty snack. The wood is used for aquarium decoration, and is the lovely knobbly stuff that turns the water that deep peaty colour.

Then there was the Marula tree. The fruit of this medium-sized tree is fermented and made into one of South Africa's most famous liqueurs, Amarula, a bit like Bailey's but not so sweet. This fruit is also very much loved by the elephants, which normally just bulldoze any tree down to get at the foodstuff. The Marula is clever, and survives by dropping its fruit while it is still underdeveloped. It ripens on the ground, where the elephants can collect it without damaging the tree.

By the end of the holiday, I had learned enough of the local flora to make me feel quite comfortable about identifying the trees, shrubs and plants around me. I didn't feel so much of a failed horticulturalist, but more of a willing and interested novice one in a foreign land.


Tidy up chrysanthemums and dahlias

Take out any small heads or ones that are still forming. This will encourage the larger ones to flower better and for longer.

Propagate rhododendrons

Existing rhododendrons and azaleas can be propagated by pegging down or laying a heavy stone on a low shoot. Make sure that it is in contact with the soil. Some gardeners will make a small nick in the underside of the branch. Leave in situ until next spring when you will notice a mass of roots emerging from the point that touches the soil.

Continue watering

Pots and tubs can get neglected at this time of year. Make sure that you carry on watering them, especially in the dry weather.


Mrs Greenhough from Acklam in Middlesbrough has written to me to ask how best she can tackle a rather large pampas grass that is growing in the centre of her lawn.

She doesn't want it any more, and would like to reinstate the lawn.

It definitely sounds as though you have had enough of the pampas (Cortederia selloana). It is a very tough one to control, let alone eliminate.

The leaves have sharp, serrated edges; so make sure that you are wearing tough gloves whenever you go near it. Cut away as much of the foliage as you can.

Once you have managed to get it down to a roughly ground level, light a fire on the crown.

Make sure that this is supervised, but left to burn until the whole plant is crisped.

Brigid is on hand to answer more horticultural questions on 'Ask about gardening' every Sunday from 12-2pm on 95FM BBC Radio Cleveland. Send your questions to be answered in The Northern Echo to Brigid at brigidpress67.freeserve.co.uk or write to her care of Nature's World, Ladgate Lane, Acklam, Middlesbrough.

Published: 20/09/2003