One of the more subtle and beautiful produce of the farm is our many proteas, both wild and cultivated, indigenous and planted. We have many different varieties of proteas on our land, which bloom from March through September.
You have probably seen them gracing the tables of the restaurant or taking pride of place in our emblem, the Flora Capensis. I love them all, from the tiniest leucodendron to the king of them all, protea cynaroides with its thorny crown and dusty pink robes.
Picking proteas is not a simple matter of thrashing into the bush and breaking off as many of the precious blooms as you can reach without getting bitten by a puff adder or breaking your ankle in a dassie burrow. First and foremost, permission must be granted by the father and protector of many of our proteas, Andre Lambrecht, known to his colleagues as Oom Boer. Personally I think he should be named Captain Kirk in honour of his tireless battle against the alien species. Since clearing vast tracts of wattle from our mountainsides the fynbos has returned, the dams have filled and our proteas have thrived. Water that used to run away or quench the ever thirsty gums is now absorbed by the bush in winter and released slowly through the summer. A big thank you is due to all the men and women who earned blisters on their hands and tears in their clothes doing that never ending and exhausting work.
The people that he trusts to harvest his delicate crop are few, but Melody Williams, housekeeper at Rhodes cottage, is one such and so one morning we stepped out into the bush to gather the flowers for the tables at the Rhone Homestead.
Armed with secateurs, a large bucket and my trusty Hunter wellies (puff adder bites are rare in Britain and there may be a connection) we set off up the mountain.
The trick is to cut a long stem from about an inch above a node. Proteas do NOT like to be snapped and cutting too far from the node leads the branch to die back leaving an ugly blackened limb. Evidence of this was visible on many of the bushes we visited.
Not any bloom will do either, my first attempts were spurned by Melody. "No no, that one is too open, it will only last another day and then the whole arrangement will be spoiled. This one has a brown centre, see, the sugar birds got here before us. It is finished. That one is too closed, it won't open now and this one is full of ants" no one wants ants running all over the restaurant. I looked up in despair and watched two beady eyed and jewel feathered sun birds flitting from bush to bush, rummaging around in the stamens with their long hollow beaks sucking out the surgary nectar. Who could begrudge them?
We collected dozens of gorgeous flowers, pink, red, white and palest lime green. My favorite were the protea neriifolia, like French courtesans corsets, bright pink silk petals edged with black lace.
Along the way Melody called out the names and uses of many other plants that I would normally have trodden into a fragrant footprint without a thought. We collected minty buchu, springy hotnots kooigoed and spicy bloublommetjie to make ourselves a relaxing tea on our return and to pickle in vinegar for application to the many scrapes and bruises that accompany a farm childhood. Plecostachys I balled as instructed by Andre to use as a firelighter, more effective and soft smelling than blitz! We also pulled up seedlings to sow in our herb garden at Rhodes cottage so that guests can enjoy the benefits of my curiosity and Melody's wisdom!
After a couple of hours passed in this thoroughly pleasant manner, we decided it was time to get back to the cottage so we gathered up the bunches we had left along the path and climbed up into the bakkie and set off, with grandpa Ian at the helm.
Grandpa Ian's philosophy on navigation follows that of Robert Frost "two roads diverged in a wood , I took the one less travelled and that has made all the difference" .....
In this case the difference meant an hour and a half driving into the far reaches of the farm, with me walking in front of the bakkie removing boulders and logs that Grandpa Ian deemed impassable even for the sturdy constitution of the Amarok.
As the grass grew taller and taller, and we ploughed on further and further, Grandpa assuring us that "no no it'll come out just down here, you'll see" (farmer's instinct I guess as neither he, nor in fact any human soul had attempted this route in at least 25 years) Melody and I exchanged nervous glances and mentally rehearsed the call we might have to make to a) Andre, custodian of the pristine veldt we were currently crushing or b) Rob, owner of the pristine vehicle we were currently scratching.
Fortunately it didn't come to such a dire outcome as in fact the boulder strewn , overgrown path suddenly opened onto a freshly sown pasture of impossibly green grass shoots. Like velvet to drive over, I must admit, and the Amarok left impressive first tracks in the corduroy, but best not tell anyone eh?!