Saunders’ Field Guide to Gladioli

February 2020 Update

Work on the Saunders Guide to Gladioli of South Africa is steaming ahead! Text descriptions for all the species that occur in South Africa are complete, and we are now working through the 14 000+ images that had been stored in various places to try to compile an archive of photographs. This will form both the backbone of the book and an incredible scientific repository. It is amazing to see the collection in one place; the beauty of the plants, the diversity of forms and colours, and the stunning environs in which they grow are all reminders of the complexity and grace of the world we live in.

As I’ve worked through the images, it’s been fascinating to see how Rod and Rachel’s project gained momentum; from a few photos of any given species in the beginning to hundreds per species later in the project, often in multiple sites. The diversity of sites reveals the complexity of plant colour and form as adaptive processes shaped populations. It seems that initially Rod and Rachel took photos solely of flowers and then began to include growth habit, stems and leaves etc., to illustrate the characteristics used in botanical classification. This involved careful photography; light, time of day, heat, cloud cover and so on all shape the conditions for photography and may make it difficult to capture colour accurately. In some cases, iridescence makes it almost impossible to portray the intensity of colour. G. insolens is a case in point; its scarlet looks orange in some lights and the sheen on the tepals refracts light so that some flowers appear marked by white and orange. One can see from the collection of 57 images of insolens taken at different angles from a single site on a single day in 2012 how hard the photographer (we are not sure if it was Rod or Rachel) tried to capture the ‘correct’ shade – or perhaps more accurately, the range of shades. Although insolens is named for its radiance, it is tempting to see the plants as insolent too, laughing at modern technology’s ineffectual attempts to pin down their beauty.

We are continuing to find images as we work on the book. Photos were stored in multiple places and not all of the cataloguing was completed, so we’ll be collating and cross-checking both for the book and as a longer-term project once the book is finished. We hope to assemble as complete a version as possible as a digital archive of Gladiolus, spanning a decade. We’ll manage it carefully so that populations are not disturbed or sensitive data about whereabouts made too easily available.

The collection is testament to how much passion Rod and Rachel extended to the world during their travels. Every now and then there’s an image of one of them deep in concentration while trying to get the perfect angle for a photograph; Rachel with her knee in its external carapace or wrist braced bent low over a tiny gladiolus; Rod intently focused, beard vertical as he lines up his shot. Walking in the mountains with them was always an exploration of plants, environs, growing conditions, weather patterns; large and small features of the world and how they were woven together. And of course, the passion to search for sometimes tiny plants across huge geographic distances, frequently on the scantiest of information.

There’s a folder in the collection, full of handwritten notes and excerpts from emails. It’s strangely intimate wandering through this collection of material which was clearly a collection of memory jogs rather than a scientific log. Cryptic clues as to where to find a specific species; ‘Up X Nek and between there and the Saddle’ reads one. Another, sliced from an email so that there are no identifying features of the sender, reads; ‘there are two sites ... where we have found G acuminatus.... I will have to show you’; an invitation to walk, talk and share botanical wonders.

It’s this spirit that we hope to capture in the Introduction to the book – the way that strangers meet over a shared knowledge or enthusiasm, and sometimes become friends. Those friendships endure even after death. Rod and Rachel befriended Sachin Doarsamy, a young botanist, and showed him sites for his research on Wurmbea. He wrote recently to Ondine at Silverhill Seeds, attaching a photo of G. saundersii, which is named for the employer of Thomas Cooper who made the type collection.

Please see attached photo of Gladiolus saundersii .... This species means so much to me. The Saunders spoke about fields and fields of Wurmbea elatior growing in the wetlands around the pass and it was fitting to be my last field trip. After a freaken brilliant day of data collection, I decided to drive around the area to take in the beauty for the last time. I stopped at a south-facing hill to check out a colony of red flowers. I knew immediately when my feet touched the ground I was going to find Gladiolus saundersii. Indeed it was. It was a fitting and emotional end to my fieldwork and the memory of the Saunders. A magnificent flower thriving in the mountains that the Saunders loved so much and that shares their name. I will never forget.

As many of you know, Rod and Rachel had been working on a field guide to Southern African Gladioli before their deaths. Criss-crossing the region, they found and photographed gladioli at all stages of development. Several had not been seen in many years, some are tiny endemic populations, others only flower after fire. It was a magnificent project, and many of us were deeply invested in and touched by their search. They regaled us with stories of hikes through blackjacked mountainsides, traverses across ridiculous passes, searches in wide expanses of wildflowers. They shared dinners with us after trips when they had been too early or too late, and shared photos of rare finds. Their search involved archives and histories, hiking and driving through varied terrains with many misadventures en route.

They sought out botanists and keen hikers, wilderness people and local plant lovers to find some of the plants. They sometimes had to venture far from South Africa to find information about the whereabouts of the plants; e.g. they eventually found Symonsi, one of the last they photographed, by tracking down an elderly librarian in Scotland! Their passion drew them into wonderful conversations with unusual people, and often into enduring relationships, and our own, more sedentary lives were the richer for their wild adventures retold and shared.

They had found all but one of the Gladioli before their tragic deaths, and Rachel had begun to write the Guide. Family and friends have requested that the work continue, and the Guide be published without the final plant, in honour of their lives. So, we’ve formed a small working committee to take up this work and we’ll be keeping interested parties updated regularly.

We began by looking for and at Rachel’s extensive archive of notes and pictures and text. We’ve dug through and collated all of the hundreds of notes scribbled on random bits of paper, thousands of photos and maps from their home and office, and copious confusing backups. We now have a catalogue of the material and a master copy.

We knew that Rachel had been writing text for more than a year before she and Rod died but we’ve been surprised by how far she had gotten with the book. This makes the task of producing it considerably easier than we had initially imagined.

We are delighted that several highly respected botanists will help us with the finer details of fact-checking etc.; this is a thankless but critical task and we are really grateful for their support and enthusiasm.

A professional publisher is interested in producing the Guide as Rod and Rachel envisaged it, with full colour photographs and simple to understand text. We have begun fundraising for a publication subvention. The subvention will make it possible to produce a specialist book in a niche market. We are aiming at a print run of 2000 books, and hoping to raise at least R200 000 to make this possible. If you are interested in contributing, please find banking details below. We will acknowledge all those who have contributed to the project, so please remember to include your name as well as the reference details required for audit purposes. In the longer term, we hope to make an offline-friendly digital version, so surplus funds will be directed at that project.

It has been a horrific year without Rod and Rachel. Working on this book feels like a beautiful memorial to them and we are honoured to be involved in helping realise their vision.

— Ondine Schrick, Andy Hackland, Matthew Wolfe, Fiona Ross


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last updated: 16 March 2020