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Africa Geographic Travel

I need to admit with a certain degree of embarrassment, that I once believed that water lilies were just part of the Delta’s ‘décor’. However, during a recent walking safari from Moremi Crossings I was fortunate enough to be lead by a trail guide that shared his knowledge on these precious plants.

Anyone who has been to the Okavango Delta is likely to have noticed that water lilies crop up and pop up everywhere. You may even have nearly toppled over your mekoro trying to take the quintessential picture of this gorgeous bloom. Few holiday settings are more evocative and relaxing than a water lily filled lagoon, and whilst slicing through this heavenly bloomscape with all the time in the world I began to ask a question. “Why are the lilies either purple or white, are they two different species?”

Witnessing all this beautiful diversity, my good guide, who had already sensed my new surge of curiosity, had pre-empted the situation and steadied the mekoro, as I wriggled and turned to face him in order to let rip another volley of queries regarding the more intimate details of sexual encounters of the water lily kind. Fascinated by my curiosity, he continued to dish out reels of stored up, most fascinating information, about pollination in water lilies… a rare, delightful and rather unique affair.

In the case of the water lily I was admiring, the pollen does not get released the day that the flower blooms. Instead, first a fluid gets secreted that covers the centre of the flower and its female parts. Insects, lured by the plants fragrance, land on the petals, which at this stage are very smooth and steeply angled, such that any landing attempt will cause any pollinator to slip ’n slide into the fluid below. If the visiting insect had already visited a mature plant and come bearing pollen from another water lily then the visiting pollen dissolves into the fluid and the water lily becomes fertilised. By the next morning, fluid production has ceased, been absorbed and is no longer even there. Pollen production now starts in earnest and with the fluid now gone the visiting insect can now emerge and leave the rather odd nightmare behind; carrying new pollen from this now fertlised water lily. It is during this transition that the colouration of the water lily changes from white to purple.

After pollination has taken place, the stem of the water lily starts recoiling slowly, bringing the flower underwater. Here, away from nibbling insects, the fruit starts developing into a spongy berry that contains masses of seeds; in fact up to 2 000 seeds may be stored in each fruit.

When the seeds are ripe and ready to disperse, the fruit opens and releases its contents into the water current. Seeds float away aided by an aril (a rather clever floating device that contains air pockets to keep them buoyant). They can travel for miles in the current or reach even further if they are eaten and digested by a pigmy goose. Either way, they eventually become waterlogged, find a muddy bank and germinate into a new plant.

© Donovan Drotsky

The leaves shade the water below keeping water temperatures cool and thus allowing for a more oxygenated water environment underneath them. This is an environment that many critters enjoy and exploit.

© Tertius Gous

Water lilies also grow and spread vegetatively by means of an ever growing creeping rhizome. These rhizome makes a delicious and flavorsome flour when dried and pounded. The flour when baked makes crispy delicious pancakes. The young leaves and flower buds, if well prepared, make a scrumptious vegetable side dish and the seeds may be eaten fried or raw.

As I sit under an ancient nyala berry tree, with carmine ambers staring at me, and a rich evocative smell unfurling itself around me like plump feather boa, I cannot help but to think about the magic and beauty of Africa. Those able to set off into the Delta in a mekoro, consciously leaving behind every or any trouble that plagues us, one pole stroke at a time, can find the time to listen, to observe, to appreciate and to think about it something as magnificent, omnipresent and unpretentious as a water lily.

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I left my native Spain, its great food, siestas and fiestas to become an ornithologist at the University of Cape Town and to start Tropical Birding, a company specialising in bird-watching tours worldwide. During that period of my life I travelled to over 60 countries in search of 5,000 plus bird species. Time passed, my daughter became convinced that I was some kind of pilot and my wife acquired a budgie for company – that’s when the penny dropped. I then joined the Africa Geographic team and run our safari business from England. Hardly contained in an office, I look forward to reporting on new and exciting travels, and continue to share the joy of safari, birding and exploration.

Africa Geographic Travel
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