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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 14000+ 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.