THE DEVIL`S CLAW PROJECT
Water. The first thing you need is water. Water for a plant that needs almost no water. A plant that likes to grow on sandy desert ground. A plant that is used to handle burning heat, that survives yearlong drought periods, that also puts up with nightly temperatures below minus 10 degrees.
A plant that got its (not very flattering) name from the way to spread its seeds. A plant that produces ingredients so valuable that the species is sought after to the point of extinction. A species that produces healing ingredients for rheumatic and arthritic diseases, as has been scientifically proven. Hundreds of tons of roots, sliced and dried, harvested out of the dry sand of the Kalahari.
Listed as an endangered species not long ago.
And exactly this plant, the devil’s claw that we started a protection project for, needs water. In itself, this conclusion does not sound very spectacular. The average amount of the Kalahari region, 200 mm of rain, is more than enough for the devil’s claw. At least, that is what it says in botanical textbooks. On the farm that was bought for the protection project, devil’s claw is native. So I thought, ok, these are the best conditions for a plantation: Kalahari, sand, sufficient rain. We only need to set up a plantation with special stripe-beds, collect seeds from the native plants, sow them and bring in the first harvest after 3 years of waiting.
That´s it, that is how protection of an endangered species works.
Just do it.
At least, that is what I thought.
I contacted Prof. Dieter von Willert, the most renowned expert on devil’s claw. You could say: Mr. devil’s claw.
We made an appointment on the farm. He said a field session would be necessary to check up on my devil’s claws. The result was surprising. We found out that my devil’s claws were not happy at all. On the contrary, they were actually struggling to survive! Their tuber roots, the part of the plant that is meant to be harvested, were very small. In short: My devil’s claws were suffering. Something was going totally wrong.
Could it be that saving a species was not as easy as I thought? But giving up was no option. We had to find out what was wrong.
Water. A certain dose of water, falling as rain, causes the plants to sprout. They start growing, branch out, start flowering and then produce seeds. Only after the production of seeds, necessary for the survival of the species, the plant starts producing a special sugar in its tuber roots, the harpagoside. The tuber roots are meant to grow large and juicy like potatoes. But my devil’s claws did not behave like that. They did not build tuber roots due to a shortage of water. How come? We had had more than enough rain in the past couple of years.
But: it only rains in March! For the plant, that means: rain in March, sprouting, growing. Flowers and seeds in April and May. And then, in June, frost. That is it, end of growing season, everything above ground dies. No time for producing juicy tuber roots. just enough time for producing some seeds.
How could we solve that problem?
With water, but at a different time of year. If it was up to the devil’s claw, the year would be like this: rain from 1 October, 50 – 100mm would be great. That is enough for sprouting. In October, frost is over, the Kalahari spring starts, temperatures go up. After the first rain: growing, branching out, flowering, producing seeds. Until the end of December, when the seeds are ripe. Now, a little bit of rain would be welcome. 50 mm, for growing tuber roots and starting to produce the harpagoside. More rain in March for producing and storing even more harpagoside. All in all, after building the seeds, the plant needs more than 5 months for producing the tuber roots. Then frost in June, hibernation. Waiting for rain in October. That would be the yearly cycle a devil’s claw would enjoy.
So, we need water. Water in October. I have to make it rain on my devil’s claws. I refuse to use ground water, as that would be ecologically nonsense. There must be another option. We have natural rain in March, but we need the water in October. I decide to build a reservoir to store the rain water. Close by is a lake that is dry most of the year, a so-called Vlei. The deepest point of this 10km2 Vlei with its clay ground is located on my farm. This is where I want to build the reservoir. For two weeks, a caterpillar moves the clay to make a 2 m hole with a 2m dam around it.
A big dam for a lot of water. A pump will fill the reservoir above ground level when the water level in the reservoir is as high as the water level in the lake. Another pump will pump water to the plantation. So now, after it rains in March, we can store that water for some months. And in October, we pump the water up to the devil’s claw plantation.
However, in the plantation, the next troubles await. The problem is, there is nothing waiting. There are no devil’s claws there in the plantation.
They do not want to sprout. They do not sprout as we thought they would. Not like a pea that after some days in the sand and after being given water inevitably sprouts. Not so the devil’s claw!
They might sprout. Maybe. One of them. Or another one. Most of them will not. Those might sprout later. Or after that. Maybe after the third rain. Or after frost. Or whenever. Or rather: for whatever reason, they never will!
The reason for that behaviour is biocontrol. Every seed needs a different agent to start growing. This behaviour is necessary for surviving in a critical area like a desert. Parasites, droughts, bushfire, frost, too much rain: the species stands a better chance against these enemies if the individuals do not start life at the same time.
Thus, we have to trick the seeds. We have to find out what to do to bring all of them out at the same time.
We will build a nursery. A devil’s claws nursery. We will produce thousands of devil’s claw babies. And then, we will plant them in a plantation that is prepared for to be watered. Watered in October.