Start your day off with the Rubiaceae

Like any morning should, we start off with the Rubiaceae, also known as the coffee family. Globally, the family is the fourth largest family of flowering plants (after the Asteraceae, Orchidaceae, and Fabaceae), containing approximately 13 686 species. The species are identifiable by their opposite leaves that have entire margins, and interpetiolar stipules. The flowers are generally tubular with fused petals and have an inferior ovary (meaning that it sits below the point of connection with the petals). Although we are fortunate to have many wonderful, native species, one very important species has been imported from South America: coffee.

Our indigenous species are no less impressive. In southern Africa the Rubiaceae contains about 200 native species. Of these, the best known are contained in the genus Gardenia, since many species are grown as ornamental garden plants. One of the most familiar is the “wild gardenia” (also known as the “wildekatjiepiering” or “buffelsbol” in Afrikaans, and the “mutarara” in Shona). In 1974, Grobler (then of Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens) wrote the following (in Afrikaans) about the “Wildekatjiepiering” (Gardenia thunbergia):

This particular plant with its large white fragrant flowers and large hard fruits is one of our most beautiful tree shrubs. The natural home of the wild kitten saucer [I am not 100% convinced that this is the correct translation…but I will stick with it for now] is the forests and thickets found in the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal. The flowers are borne singly in late spring or early summer on the ends of the sturdy pale white twigs. The sweet scent that spreads from the flowers is especially noticeable at night. The large egg-shaped fruits that range from 50 mm to 80 mm but can grow up to 120 mm are gray, smooth and very hard. The fruit remains on the tree for years and it is not certain how the seed is distributed. It may be that large antelope or baboons eat the fruit and that the seed then passes intact through the digestive tract of the animals. The tree is fairly frost resistant and can be grown from seed or pole cuttings.

The drawing that accompanied the text quite nicely shows the showy flowers, the large, gray egg-shaped fruits, and general growth form of Gardenia thunbergia. Although it is not entirely clear who drew the piece, it could have been Emily Thwaits, the daughter of the art master at the Rev. James Beck’s school in Roeland Street in Cape Town in the late 19th century. Emily Thwaits was a fine artist; she won a medal for the best water colour painting at the South African Fine Arts Association Exhibition in 1880. Clearly artistic talent ran in the family: her sister Florence Thwaits was an art mistress at Wellington and painted some of the illustrations in Marloth’s Flora of South Africa (most of those not done by Ethel May Dixie).

Another interesting note is that the scientific name of Gardenia thunbergia honors two people. The genus is named after Alexander Garden (1730-1791), a medical practitioner in America who sent plants to the great Swedish botanist, Linnaeus. The species name honours Carl Thunberg, one of Linnaeus’s students who made several collecting trips in southern Africa in the seventeenth century.

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