The botanical name of  indigenous Melianthus major is a real mouthful but not nearly as bad as its Afrikaans common name: kruidjie-roer-my-nie. If you can’t get your tongue around either, just call it the giant honey flower.

The striking grey leaves with their giant serrations (below, paired with Perilla ‘Magilla’) provide an interesting contrast in the garden – but do have a rather unpleasant smell when crushed – hence the name!

perilla magilla

But what most gardeners grow it for are the long bronze-maroon flower-spikes which develop in spring  and act as magnets to any bird with a sweet beak: sunbirds, bulbuls, weavers, and white eyes all flock to them. The seed pods are also attractive, providing additional interest in an off-season garden border.

Left on the plant to dry, the seeds result in lots of baby plants. We saved some from our garden for the Open Gardens Constantia plant sale.

(The plant has toxic properties, so keep leaf-chewing pets and voracious toddlers away.)

Photos: Marianne Alexander, Marie Viljoen. Text: Marianne Alexander


Cape sugarbird

A sugarbird visiting Marianne Alexander’s indigenous garden in Betty’s Bay.

Local is lekker, in sugarbird terms; a good case for planting more fynbos species.

Photo: Marianne Alexander

Betty’s Bay bird update

From Marianne Alexander, a member of the Constantia Valley Garden Club (see her previous rock thrush post):

We had no sooner arrived at Betty’s Bay this weekend when the rock thrushes appeared at the windows. They seemed to know instinctively where to find us, even when we went upstairs!  We thought they only had one youngster, but at dusk – as the sun set and we were enjoying a beer on the upstairs patio – they appeared out of the gloom with two more!

Mum (it appears) keeps tabs on their whereabouts, uttering a deep, throaty chuckle to warn them of danger while Dad does all the hard work – rushing backwards and forwards, dropping the cheese we had on offer into their gaping mouth (see picture above). He is handsome isn’t he, feeding one as another sat chirping on the neighbour’s washing line.

Worried about their cheese intake we offered cook and raw chicken, which was rejected!

Mrs Robin is still about with her single chick but keeps to the undergrowth as  the thrushes are real bullies and chase her and other birds away from any food.


Photo: Marianne Alexander

Betty’s Bay Birds

Rather fraught looking mother robin feeds her baby with cheese

Marianne Alexander has a weekend home in Betty’s Bay (where she grows wonderful indigenous plants). She writes:

“Within minutes of arriving at Betty’s Bay a mother robin is at the window asking for cheese. On this visit she brought her baby right onto the stoep and fed it at our feet while we watched.”

cape rock thrush DSC_5766

“The larger Cape Rock thrushes, above, were not as bold and carefully collected as many pieces of cheese as they could manage in their long beaks and flew off to feed their baby on the near by wall.”

What do your garden birds eat?

Photo credit: Marianne Alexander

Black Sparrow Hawk Chick

black sparrow hawk rathfelder greenbelt

Sparrow Hawks are occasional visitors to our Constantia gardens, where they prey on birds, especially rock pigeons and doves.

Ever noticed the birds at your feeding station keeping their heads neurotically tilted, with a wary eye turned skywards? It’s because they don’t want to be lunch.

Recently, Saskia Taylor, a member of the Constantia Valley Garden Club, was lucky enough to be shown a Black Sparrow Hawk chick. Saskia writes:

“Last week a friend took my husband and me to see the black sparrow hawk’s nest on the Rathfelder Greenbelt. What a wonderful sight to see the adult sitting proudly on a bare branch watching over her chick in the nest.”

sparrow hawk chick

The birds are carefully monitored, weighed, ringed and measured, as part of a Black Sparrow Hawk research project in the Cape Peninsula, overseen by Ann Koeslag.

“Keep an eye out for the birds in the Constantia area. There are quite a few pairs about and when walking on the greenbelts, take a moment to look up. You never know what you might see.”

Saskia adds: “In a neighbouring pine tree there is also a pair of spotted eagle owls. They have a nest there and chicks have been spotted [pardon the pun]. One owl is easily recognizable, as he has an eye injury and the one eye is completely closed.”

To learn more about Ann Koeslag’s work with raptors visit these links:

African Raptors (interview)

Birding Africa

Cape Bird Club, 2008

Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, UCT

Photo credit: Mary Nicholson and Ann Koeslag.
Story: Saskia Taylor.

Mickey Mouse bushes at sale

Ochna serrulata – Mickey Mouse bush.

Mickey Mouse bushes will be available at our popular plant sale on our Open Gardens Constantia days: November 14th and 15th.

The names carnival bush or Mickey Mouse plant couldn’t be more apt: these are the most cheerful and almost frivolous of shrubs.  They are also an essential addition to ‘bird’ gardens.

Each season has something new to offer. Early spring sees the arrival of a profusion of delicately scented five-petalled flowers with bright yellow crinkled petals, often on bark branches. The new foliage, which starts emerging while the flowers are still on the plant, are an attractive bronze. Then the fruits begin to develop and turn from green to black while the calyx turns a vivid scarlet.

Although the fruits may be consumed by birds the colourful calyxes remain on the plants from late spring and persist well into summer. In cold winters these shrubs also have some appeal – when their attractive tan stems are bare of leaves their twiggy growth habit is revealed.

Photo credit: Marianne Alexander

How to attract sunbirds

Attracting sunbirds to a garden might seem as easy as installing a sugar feeder, with sugar or honey water, and red dye (read further down for a short rant*).

But nectar-rich flowers are prettier and contribute better to biodiversity in a garden. Agapanthus inapertus (if that darn Agapanthus borer has not drilled into them all, yet!) are one of several flowers attractive to sunbirds (see above).

Here is a list of plants that will lure the tiny, gorgeous creatures to your garden:

Aloes, Cotyledons (see below), Erica, Hibiscus, Cape honeysuckle, Proteas, pagoda bush (Mimetes), perennial Fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica),  pincushions, red hot pokers (Kniphofia), Watsonias, and wild dagga.


In addition to slurping nectar (pollinating as they brush up against flowers), sunbirds also feed on the juice of over ripe fruit, and on insects and arthropods, picking them off stems and leaves, and out of bark.

* If you absolutely cannot resist using a feeder, please do not use artificial red colouring (sunbirds are attracted to red) – instead, use grated beetroot for the red, and strain it out of the sweet solution before bottling. Once they are used to the feeder they will return even if the sugar solution is clear. Or tie something red to the outside of the feeder, or PAINT a part of it red. You get the picture. And remember to wash and sterilize the bottle often or bacteria will grow (this has proved to be a problem for hummingbirds, in the United States).  Avoid using honey: honey and water solutions can ferment quickly and create harmful bacteria. Sugar is safer.

Best of all, plant those flowers.

Have you seen sunbirds feeding on plants not listed above? Please let us know in the comments

Photo credit: Marie Viljoen