What’s all this buzz about the Sea Rose?

Outside & In sets off in discovery through the cape wild with renowned landscape designer, Leon Kluge, to find the unique and alluring Sea Rose in bloom.

In late summer luminous pink cushions of colour can be seen all along the coast of the south Western Cape. The blooms of the locally known Sea Rose, or Orphium frutescens, appear at the height of summer when the surrounding veld is dry. It seems to capitalise on the opportunity of being one of the very few plants offering nectar during the hottest time of year, ensuring countless visits from its preferred pollinators (popular one this is). This beautiful, evergreen, small shrub is remarkable in many ways; firstly, it has small leaves and bendable branches, which means it can handle the strongest of winds without any damage. The Sea Rose can grow in very damp, almost waterlogged wetland conditions during winter but at the same time they are adapted to withstand the hot dry months of summer when the seasonal pools have long dried up. If you live near the coast and salt spray damage is of big concern in your garden then, oh yes, we’ve found your plant. Orphium would be the perfect solution as it handles brackish water and heavy amounts of salt spray with absolute grace and ease.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Sea Rose is its very close relationship with its preferred pollinator, the carpenter bee. Carpenter bees are the Cape’s equivalent of a bumblebee, a black and bulky, hairy bee which is commonly encountered in the Fynbos. To appreciate the link between the carpenter bee and the Sea Rose one needs to look more carefully at the structure of its floral parts.

In the centre of its glossy flowers are unusual twisted anthers, swirled together like a delicious Milky Lane soft serve. These hold all of the good stuff… The pollen. Pollen is a precious commodity for any plant, and there are lots of pollen thieves around that would love to gorge on the nutritious yellow powdery substance. Ophium frutescens seems to be aware of this and has derived a plan in order to lock its precious pollen away from these thieves. The twisted anthers act as a vault, securely storing pollen, in anticipation of a visitor with the special key to unlock it. 

As it happens, the carpenter bee is able to land on a flower and beat its wings at such a precise frequency as to unfurl the anthers from their tightly twisted shape, opening them up to induce a shower of pollen, which covers the bee with the precious goods. Once the bee has left, the anthers return to their tightly twisted form in anticipation of the next bee who may bring along pollen from other plants to ensure proper cross-pollination to produce seed. This process of accessing pollen through the frequency of a bee’s wings is aptly known as “buzz pollination” and is wonderful to watch in the garden or in the wild. This fascinating adaptation also highlights just how dependant both the carpenter bee and the Sea Rose are in securing the survival of their respective species. 

The Sea Rose is a hardy and easy addition to any sunny garden, especially if you live on the coastline in the Cape.

Leon Kluge

International landscape designer, botanist and presenter of Leon Kluge Plant Safaris