Land of the Giant Groundsel

As a little girl I grew up with stories of princesses with golden crowns and long flowing locks of hair.  Images of little creatures and mystical far off lands danced off the pages portraying a wonderland in a magic kingdom. Little did I know growing up that I would one day get to walk around in magical kingdom just like this, with one of my knights?

In 2002 I ventured off on a journey that would ultimately change the course of my life and lead me into a career of adventure travel, but it is also what transported me back to my childhood story books. The place was Kilimanjaro, my Knight was my father and the mystical land was that of the Giant Groundsel.

Now you would be forgiven for thinking that the Groundsel is a troll of sorts as we all know that giants only exist in mythology, but they are in fact, plants. I am referring to none other than the giant scenecio or Dendrosenecio kilimanjari.

These unique plants live in a zone that incorporates such mountains as the Ruwenzories, Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Apart from the fact that Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro itself is pretty outstanding. With climate zones which change progressively the further you ascend, the mountain is a nursery for rare species plants species found few places elsewhere.

These plants have survived and evolved through evolution from their forest living herbaceous ancestors. They are slow growing at a rate of around 3-5cm per year with the largest giants reaching heights of 10m.  It takes a quick calculation to realize that these Brobdingnagian plants are about 250 years old.

Surviving in extreme variant and harsh climatic conditions, they can endure high winds, hot days to heavy snow fall and below freezing conditions. Yet, standing alone in their patch of wilderness they survive by shedding only one thing, their seeds.

At the apex of each plant is a rosette of large leaves, ranging in number from 30 to 120. As the night time temperatures plummet this giant becomes a sleeping beauty. Curling up towards the night skies like hands clasped in prayer, it closes its leaves reducing the surface area exposure of the plant and enters sleep in a movement known as nyctinasty, and in the early morning as the dew begins to form, little droplets of water run down the leaves and into its waking core.

There is something else that is oddly unusual about this plant. Most plants have thick stems or trunks which become narrower towards to the top of the plant, but not our giants. They sport thin little legs at the base and large overgrown shoulders. The reason for this is that unlike many plants that shed their leaves, this giant wears them proudly as a marcescent neck ruff. As the old leaves die they bend downward and flatten against the stem, providing ever increasing layers of insulation for the core beneath and not only that, progressive rotting of compacted material provides the plants with the nutrients it needs for its ongoing survival.

These giants are rare.  Their survival rate is less than 1%. What changes these plants have seen; the slow recession of the glaciers and the winters and summers that rolled out around them; the endless chatter of excited hikers, the sound of weary boots scuffling on rocky paths and the herds of buffalo grazing at their feet.

These plants are as old as the mountain itself and perfectly adapted to survive on the flanks of their rumbling host.

Debra Bouwer

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