The plant hunter

An interview with Prof Neil Crouch


Text Paolo and Rob Candotti Images Neil Crouch, Tanza Crouch, Gillian Condy, Geoff Nichols

Why you should fawn over your flora

Most people think about plants as the mute, mindless muddle of our world. Useful to exploit, but only second, or third class citizens in the natural order of things.

It takes a forceful leap of the imagination, as well as a healthy dose of humility to recognize not only our utter dependence on them, but that they are in fact wily protagonists in the drama of their own lives…as well as ours.

Imagine for a moment that you are walking in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve and you notice a Rock Hyrax on a ledge above a near-vertical wet-rock face.

Your attention is instantly drawn to the cuddly creature and you immediately stop to observe its cute antics. But if you were lucky enough to have Professor Neil Crouch within earshot you might just hear him say: 

“Look below the creature at those tiny lead-coloured flowers under the ledge. They look harmless don’t they? That assumption would be dead wrong. They are in fact a carnivorous Urticularia which have one of the most sophisticated trapping mechanisms of all predatory plants and one of the most complex structures in the plant kingdom. Just under the soil they hide tiny bladders which snap open and shut in less than the blink of an eye to trap and digest minute prey such as protozoa and nematodes.”

“Humans tend to be attracted to warm-blooded, attractive mammals that seem to think and act as we do, but as I speak there are orchids tricking insects into pollinating their flowers, beautiful but insectivorous flowers eating insects, and hundreds of other plant species that provide the basic molecules that man includes in the life-saving drugs we use every day.”

“Now, I ask you, which would you say is the more fascinating species: the Hyrax or the tiny, innocent looking Urticularia?”

A colony of the diminutive carnivore Utricularia sandersonii carpets a near-vertical wet rock face in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. Unseen beneath the soil, tiny bladders trap and digest minute prey such as protozoa and nematodes. The flowers resemble tiny purple snapdragons, and often only when in full bloom do we even notice these carnivores.

Being in the company of Neil is always an education because he is an ethnobotanist whose intimate knowledge of plants has made him aware of them at several levels: their enormous diversity and fitness for survival in nature, their capacity to stimulate us through form, touch, scent and colour, and their need to survive in a rapidly changing world.

He knows both their traditional value and their potential for benefitting humans when developed as new commodities or components in products such as drugs, perfumes and foods.

He is, in other words, a plant hunter with a mission for man, but with a heart for respecting the rights of all species to share this planet with us.

A fresh look at a stale view

The impression that animals and insects are intrinsically more interesting than plants is probably universal. After all, plants are static and ‘boring’ while the rest of the natural world seems dynamic and enthralling.

“Think again,” urges Neil Crouch. “You may be under an illusion created by a condition known as ‘plant blindness’.”

The term ‘plant blindness’ was first introduced in 1998 by Wandersee and Schussler after years of discussion, literature searching, investigation and reportedly, ‘a fair amount of trepidation.’

They defined plant blindness broadly, including ‘the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs’.

Plant blindness also comprises an ‘inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features’ of plants and ‘the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration’. (Source: BioScience)

It is Neil’s awareness that the very opposite is true—that in fact man’s survival is utterly dependent on plants—which has driven Neil to study and re-discover a domain that may turn upside down our notion of that which is most fascinating in the natural world.

Neil was born in Bulawayo, in what was then Rhodesia, where his British born father served as a civil servant and his mother worked as a practicing pharmacist. He fondly recalls his formative days growing up amongst the vivid msasas of the miombo woodlands of Central Africa and the lasting impact that that special environment had on him.

He describes his mother as an ‘old school’ pharmacist who was trained in an era when the prevailing pharmacoepias still emphasised the relationship between plants and healing. She had a keen eye for plants and a good memory for their names, and was familiar with the common species of the English countryside.

This plant interest transplanted into Neil as his mother was also a keen gardener and so she soon had him growing plants at a very early age. This formative ‘dirty-hands-on activity’ was something which he recognises today as having germinated the initial seeds of what would eventually blossom into both his career and passion.

Shortly after Neil completed his O-levels at Victoria High School in Masvingo his parents emigrated to Bristol, England and it was there that he went on to complete his A-levels at the Bristol Cathedral School.

The call of the wild

Although culturally rather different to Zimbabwe, life in England was comfortable for Neil, but the call of Africa, once heard and connected to, is an internal rhythm that is not easily discarded.

Neil describes his time in Europe as “being out of sync with the heartbeat of Africa”. Accordingly, whilst still at school he started working long weekend hours in a local convenience store to earn enough to pay his way back to the southern part of this continent.

His elder brother Ian had earlier moved from Zimbabwe to study botany and zoology at the Pietermaritzburg campus of what was then the University of Natal. On competing his high schooling in the UK, Neil joined his brother on that campus, uncertain though of exactly what career he was to embark on.

However, given his early fascination for growing plants and the knowledge that he had greatly missed the African bush with all that goes with it, he decided to enrol for a BSc, studying the natural sciences.

For a brief period in his second year he studied horticulture, but soon realised that his life’s course would reside elsewhere and so changed to focus onto botany and biochemistry, in which he later majored, graduating Cum Laude. Although a somewhat unconventional subject combination, it was one which was to serve him exceptionally well in the years to come!

His postgraduate studies within botany were broad and somewhat dichotomous, with a project on pollination in Oxalis and another on plant hormone interactions at the level of cell chemistry. This latter project was developed into a PhD thesis and the degree was conferred in 1994.

Armed with his qualifications and a broad interest in plants including one of his favourite plant groups, the ferns, Neil took up a position at SANBI as an ethnobotanist. And so began a rewarding and fascinating journey dedicated to studies related to the identification, classification and sustainable exploitation of plant species.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”

Jonathan Swift

Neil believes firmly that identification and classification are the essential first steps in any process to protect a species.

“If you don’t know what you have, then you don’t know what to protect,” he insists.

With over 20,000 thousand different plants in South Africa, the pool of possibilities for discovering new species and the development of what is already known, is enormous. But it takes a finely tuned set of skills to be able to look at a plant species and recognise that you may have discovered something out of the ordinary.

Footwork in the field or ‘botanising’ is essential for honing the identification capacity needed to categorise the many novelties that remain to be discovered and named. The more time one spends outdoors amidst our fantastic flora, the easier it is to spot the specials.

Sometimes the re-discovery of a long-lost plant species is just as exciting as finding a new one, as was the case with Xerophyta longicaulis, the hanging black stick lily, which was re-discovered in its northern Drakensberg abode. Its moist and often shaded cliff-dwelling habitat is unusual for a member of this genus, which likely resulted in other botanists searching for it in the wrong places.

A debate between Neil’s in-laws over the identity of a plant that they had encountered in the Gudu Forest the day before resulted in a return trip to the site, and the surprise realisation that it was a Xerophyta! It is here beautifully illustrated by Gillian Condy.

Hanging Black Stick Lily (Xerophyta longicaulis) (Illustration: Gillian Condy)

With field experience comes a sense of giss (general impression of size and shape) for particular plant groups and it was along these lines that Neil knew he was on to something special when he first spotted an attractive-leaved plant “while walking in a scarp forest in southern Zululand.”

“I noted that although not flowering, its giss indicated it to be a gerbera and my first thought was that it may be the common Gerbera kraussii. But it almost immediately dawned on me that it was in completely the wrong habitat.”

“With very few exceptions gerberas live exposed to bright light in grasslands and this was growing luxuriantly well within a forest. A return trip and encounter with flowering plants confirmed that this was not a known species, and we subsequently named it Gerbera sylvicola with reference to its forest habitat.”

“Quite how this beautiful plant had not earlier been discovered and collected still amazes me!”

Gerbera sylvicola

A plant hunter takes root

Perhaps in the case of most discoveries there is a certain amount of luck as well as general knowledge. Being in the right place at the right time is crucial which was the case with Aloe neilcrouchii, a beautiful grassland aloe and the one species which has been named after him.

Neil recounts: “During early Spring one year I was walking in a recently burnt grassland in the Karkloof, experiencing looking at and photographing the blossoming heads of some of the very early- flowering species.”

“Then I noticed some long blackened and branched stems of a grass aloe which had just started to re-sprout its leaves. These leaves looked like those of Aloe boylei, but it struck me that the stems were extraordinarily long, and so during high summer when most grass aloes flower I returned to the site and was able to observe a field full of a new aloe species in full bloom. The surrounding grass had grown so tall that, had I not seen the long plant stems exposed in the aftermath of a fire, I almost certainly would have missed recognising it as an exciting find.”

“This discovery has been particularly important as the species is only known from a handful of localities, all of which are under severe threat of land use transformation by agriculture or commercial forestry.”

Aloe neilcrouchii (Illustration: Gillian Condy)

Neil notes that, at least for him, noticing very special plants is often something his subconscious does.

He finds that it is while he is seated eating his lunch, or otherwise day-dreaming that a ‘bell rings’ and the image of a particular plant comes into conscious focus. It may be a cryptic Ceropegia, or a dwarf succulent that he otherwise would have walked right past, or a tiny water fern wafting past in the current. Yet something in his sub-conscious, honed through many years of experience, inevitably alerts him.

The field identification, however, is only the first step in the process and what follows in order to confirm and describe a new species is rather technical because the terminology that is used must be unambiguous.

On a fun level can it can involve collaboration with several individuals, including those in other parts of the globe, who share an interest and a true expertise in a group. Such is the case with the family Hyacinthaceae (the family which contains the pineapple lilies and squills), where the world’s experts with whom he has the pleasure of collaborating, work in Spain and Austria.

Exhaustive research is essential before a new species can be recognised and named, for a convincing argument has to be prepared if others are to accept it as such.

This may mean many hours behind a microscope, taking measurements and observing tiny features invisible to the naked eye, but nonetheless useful when looking at plant relationships.

Plants can be viewed from many angles: their external form, their flowering and distribution patterns, the internal arrangement of their tissues, their DNA, which codes for involves their biological activity, for example, the effect that they have on the animals that eat them.

Neil’s training in biochemistry sometimes kicks in at this point, for in collaboration with chemists he can evaluate whether chemical distinctions provide valid clues to justifying the recognition of species.

Plant hunting goes the way of the Highway

The Upper Highway community owes a debt of gratitude to the plant hunting fraternity of which Neil has been a long time member.

In the late 1990s an extensive drive was undertaken to scour Krantzkloof Nature Reserve to identify and record plant species, particularly the trees.

The Krantzkloof Flora Trust under the chairmanship of Rod Edwards involved many enthusiasts including David Styles, Isabel Eybrerg, Pete Turner, Edna Van den Bergh, Geoff Nichols, Dave Raulston, then Krantzkloof Nature Reserve Conservation Manager, Ian Pattrick and of course Neil himself.

April 2000 Krantzkloof “plant nutters” From left: Front: Neil Crouch, Pete Turner, Richard Boon, Middle Bill Nortje , Isabel Eyberg , Rod Edwards, David Styles, Dave Bishop, Back: Ian Pattrick. (Photo: Geoff Nichols)

Neil explained that part of the drive had come from research work he and others had undertaken to “re-discover” some of the species originally identified by “the father of Natal Botany” pioneer botanist, John Medley Wood, and which had not been observed since their original identification.

Wood had used the locality description “Inanda” for many of his plant collections but Inanda farm of recent years is a highly transformed landscape relative to what Wood would have experienced in the 1870s.

So attempts have been made to look for these species in the few remnants of grassland and forest that remain within Upper Highway area.

Krantzkloof Nature Reserve is chief amongst these in terms of both extent and the quality of its preservation. It is a local treasure, which whilst aesthetically pleasing with its splendid views, has enormous importance for the conservation of biodiversity.

Barking up the right tree

With its grasslands and inaccessible nooks and crannies amongst sheer cliffs, the area provides an excellent refuge for interesting plants. The team suspected that this would be a good area to relocate many of Woods’ “lost species”.

Their instincts proved to be true and over the course of 10 years the team found and recorded many exciting plants and developed the lists that are currently still used as the definitive species list for Krantzkloof. The gorge system holds a variety of botanical treasures, several of which are recognised as threatened with extinction.

Amongst these Neil highlighted the following in an article he wrote some years ago with Richard Symmonds: “Gasteria croucheri, Senecio medley-woodii, Dahlgrenodendron natalense, Begonia dregei, Gerrardanthus tomentosa, Geranium ornithopodioides, Streptocarpus molweniensis, Encephalartos natalensis, E. villosus, Crinum moorei, Merwilla plumbea, Stangeria eriopus and Stenoglottis molweniensis.

Additionally, the seldom-encountered fern, Arthropteris monocarpa is locally abundant.

Arthropteris monocarpa

Plant hunting in the gorge is hard, physically demanding work and at times it can be risky due to the sheer drops. Yet it is highly rewarding. Readers who know Krantzkloof well will understand the difficulty of straying anywhere off the well beaten paths!

Risking life and limb for leaf and bough

Neil recalls one occasion when a search party decided that it would take a short cut out of the gorge upon what looked like a walkable ravine.

The team started the ascent, but soon realised that the ledge along which they found themselves narrowed dangerously. By then the option of turning and retracing their steps was even more difficult and treacherous.

They soldiered on and managed to make it to the top of the escarpment, but not without several sweaty and nerve-wracking moments which had them precariously clinging to tree roots. Neil suspects that it is doubtful whether this route has been retraced by a botanist since!

Other memorable expeditions by the group included an occasion when they needed to reach a ledge where they could see some interesting species. Ian Pattrick as the Conservation Officer offered to abseil to the ledge, but little did he realise that it would take him numerous exhausting attempts to get back up a particularly tricky section. He managed the climb, but being completely drained, he headed off home for some well-earned rest, only to be called out shortly thereafter to an accident in the gorge which necessitated rope rescue!

Plant medicine

Within the context of his work as an ethnobotanist at SANBI Neil has been part of a state-funded team that sought to produce new drugs to treat the neglected diseases of the developing world, including malaria and tuberculosis.

His role was to ensure that, based on traditional medicinal use, those South African plants most likely to yield new treatments would be worked on by the group. This exciting work brought him into contact with researchers of myriad backgrounds, interests and expertise.

In South Africa we are very familiar with the muthi trade which is extensive and often destructive to many species through over-collection. The conservation of these species has been close to his heart, as their unsustainable use brings about a lose-lose situation. The environment is the poorer for it and people have less access to the healing properties of these amazing natural medicines.

A local research team calling themselves ‘IPTRAD’ (Indigenous Plant Trade Research Associates Durban) which included Neil brought out a book on the plants traded in the traditional medicinal markets along South Africa’s East Coast. This volume allows for names to be put to the intriguing diversity of roots, stems, barks, bulbs and whole plants seen in the trade.

Whilst at times working directly with traditional healers, particularly in their home gardens, Neil has approached his discipline extremely broadly and worked with pharmacologists, horticulturists, ecologists, chemists, taxonomists, and even tissue culturists.

In particular, his work with chemists in the team of Prof. Dulcie Mulholland (UKZN and Surrey University) has made a significant contribution to the body of knowledge in this field.

Because the formal health sector has shown continued interest in the role of traditional medical practitioners and the efficacy of their herbal remedies, botanists and  scientists involved in drug discovery increasingly study the characteristics of ingredients of such medicines currently in used in South Africa.

This country has much to offer the world in terms of new health, food and cosmetic products: aloe, buchu and devil’s claw may immediately come to mind, but with over 20,000 plant species native to South Africa there is so much more we can explore and develop to boost local jobs and the South African economy.

Neil is currently involved in the complex regulatory processes needed to ensure that the commercialisation of components of these particular species benefit the holders of the traditional knowledge that informed the research and development process.

This work has provided him with the privilege of engaging with leaders in the traditional knowledge-holding community, and with industries in South Africa that manufacture products based on natural resources.

Ethnobotany (from ethnology, study of culture, and botany, study of plants) is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. Ethnobotanists aim to document, describe and explain complex relationships between cultures and (uses of) plants, focusing primarily on how plants are used, managed and perceived across human societies. This includes use for food, clothing, currency, ritual, medicine, dye, construction, cosmetics and a lot more.


Source: Acharya, Deepak and Shrivastava Anshu (2008): Indigenous Herbal Medicines: Tribal Formulations and Traditional Herbal Practices, Aavishkar Publishers Distributor, Jaipur, India

The hunt for plants

The hunt for interesting plants has taken Neil to many out-of-the-way places, from the lowland tropical forests of Cameroon to the rainforests of Madagascar, from the high altitude forests on Kilimanjaro to his two favourite places in Africa, the Chimanimani Mountains of Zimbabwe and the Mulanje Massif in Malawi.

Both ranges are incredible treasure troves of species and exceptionally high endemism because of their isolated location. One such restricted-range species is illustrated below, a cobalt blue Lobelia from ‘The Chims’.

In consequence of such trips, new species are occasionally found and one such find is a new fern from the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, discovered with a colleague Andreas Hemp, who is based in that country.

At every African mountain location visited Neil sets himself the challenge of finding and photographing plants in the genus Impatiens, especially those that are very localised.

Neil is quick to point out that: “One does not have to travel far and wide to find novelties – they sit right under our noses here in South Africa, even within the greater Durban area. Within the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve are freshly described species, including a cliff-hanging lily called Drimia flagellaris, which was first found by Rod Edwards”.

Impatiens kilimensis (Kilimanjaro)

Impatiens zombensis (Mt. Mulanje)

Impatiens salpinx (Chimanimani)

Impatiens zenkeri (Cameroon)

Impatiens bicaudata (Montagne D’Ambre, Madagascar)

Impatiens digitata

Neil in his element atop the Chimanimani Mountains, two days before his camera toppled over Digby’s Falls. (Photo: Tanza Crouch)

Sliding down a path in a forest clearing on the flank of Kilimanjaro after encountering the tallest known trees on the African continent, specimens of Entandrophragma excelsum at over 80m in height. (Photo: Tanza Crouch)

Neil fern hunting in the central Drakensberg, in the region of Organ Pipes Pass. (Photo: Tanza Crouch)

“Teachers who love teaching, inspire children to love learning.”


When asked about the influences on his career Neil readily acknowledged the role his mother played in the initial sparking that launched his life’s passion.

But he also recalls with amusement and respect Barry Stone, a high school teacher in Masvingo.

“He would stand at his desk with his hand on a Van der Graaf generator, making his hair stand-up on end and casually ignoring the phenomenon, while giving a biology lecture. It was certainly one way to get the attention of his pupils!”

“When we had to cover reproduction he would lecture from the back of the classroom so that he did not have to make eye contact with the class when explaining the ‘difficult bits’! He was somewhat eccentric and hardly used any notes, preferring to explain everything graphically through his exciting descriptions, often using analogies. He taught me a passion for the biological sciences that I have never lost”.

From his days at the Pietermaritzburg campus he recalls the strong influence of Prof. Charlie Stirton, an expert in bio-systematics who lectured with an infectious enthusiasm. Not only did Charlie have broad interests and stimulating ideas, he clearly had fun bucking the specialisation trend in natural science, and contributing rather as a knowledgeable generalist.

Neil also learned early on that to enjoy working in science one needs to find decent and effective team players with whom to collaborate. Working along a broad generalist front has also been his ambition, allowing him to contribute to some fascinating research projects.

From his early days with SANBI Neil recalled the significant impact that Ian Garland of TwinStreams fame in uMtunzini had on him, much as Ian impressed all who came into contact with him.

“What Ian achieved in the growing of a coastal forest from scratch was both fascinating and motivating to many an indigenous gardener who could see how much can be achieved in an unexpectedly short period of time, at least if one is living along the East Coast. Tree growth rates are actually ‘encouragingly’ high, allowing for forest gardens to develop quickly.”

Ian Garland at Twinstreams during November 1994, with his donated plant of Encephalartos woodii, a species long extinct in the wild. It is known only from male plants.

“Ian was a big inspiration for me.

He had an uncanny ability to link humans and plants and he was forever giving trees away as gifts! He taught me to value indigenous plants way beyond their scientific and curiosity value and to see them as part of a more holistic landscape that one can ‘grow’ into one’s life.

In consequence I have set about establishing a richly diverse forest garden at our home in Kloof. As my wife Tanza is an entomologist by training, she set as a goal the attraction of cicadas (Christmas beetles) to our forest and although they took about a decade to arrive, they now buzz us through high summer every year.

And what a wonderful sound they offer; as African as iconic flat-crown acacias!”

The margin of the indigenous forest established by Neil and Tanza at their home in Kloof.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Benjamin Franklin

Neil has written numerous scientific papers and popular science articles as well as six books (mostly with co-authors), all of which are “aimed at recording our knowledge and encouraging an engagement with our flora, as well as its continued existence, so that future generations can also experience it.

In this way, not only will humans can benefit, but the biodiversity can continue to experience itself within functional ecosystems.

One of the books he has produced is a comprehensive guide to the ferns of Southern Africa which allows people to explore and work with what many think of as a difficult-to-identify plant group of plants. As Neil notes “hopefully the guide has succeeded in opening this world to others.”

Another book soon to be published is a field guide to the succulents of Southern Africa which will be extensively illustrated with colour photographs. His hope is that by creating the awareness of beauty around us, society will better appreciate, understand, and react to environmental concerns.

In line with this, Neil is supporting an initiative that looks to ultimately have the entire Wild Coast declared a World Heritage Site, promoted through the Ufudu Wild Coast Adventure.

As part of this initiative, three runners, four mountain bikers and three paddle-skiers will travel in parallel over 10 days during June 2017, from the Kei River mouth in the Eastern Cape to the uMtamvuna River at Port Edward. The team aim to raise awareness of the special need to appropriately develop this amazing stretch of coastline.

Neil is proud to be one of the cyclists and is currently training furiously to be fit enough to go the distance. Two drone pilots will travel with the back-up team and will catalogue the entire adventure out at sea and on land, to compile a documentary to promote this worthwhile cause.

He is also keen to write a few more books “covering plant groups which I am not currently researching, but for which I am developing strong interests.”

Books that he has worked on over the years with various teams are:

  • The Ferns of Ferncliffe. A Rambler’s Guide (1994)
  • Growing and Knowing Muthi Plants (1995)
  • Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa (2009)
  • Medicinal and Magical Plants of Southern Africa: An Annotated Checklist (2002)
  • Medicinal Plants Traded on South Africa’s Eastern Seaboard (2003)
  • Ferns of Southern Africa. A Comprehensive Guide (2011)

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

Thomas Fuller

When asked about the future of our biodiversity (all other life on the planet, actually including man) he was somewhat cautious and not too optimistic.

“We are consuming the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate and the decline in biodiversity and the environment has been hugely noticeable in my lifetime.”

“There is just not enough political will to address issues such as unfettered population growth and the unfettered exploitation of resources.

Globally, there is an unrealistic expectation that the planet can infinitely regenerate. Yet what sane person thinks that one can constantly eat one’s capital and simultaneously generate the ever-increasing interest needed to fund growing expenditure?”

“If people think that scientists are going to successfully rescue most other life on this planet they are delusional. Unfortunately the richness and smartness of technology that surrounds us seems to have lulled many to mistakenly assume that biologists and technologists must surely have some smart trick up their sleeves to sort out these environmental problems.”

“Yet the faster and fancier smart phones get, the fewer rhinos and elephants and tigers we have left. If we take a large-scale view, we are already in a phase of mass extinction, one caused by man in the era of man, the ‘anthropocene’.”

“Previously, enormous meteorites caused mass extinctions of life forms on the planet. This time we are the exterminators.”

“We all need to try and influence our immediate environment through responsible choices and actions, so a real difference is made. This should lead to a ripple-like and positive catalytic effect.”

“I think that my somewhat negative view on where we are heading globally reflects a disappointment in humans as a self-serving collective, but in so doing inadequately acknowledges the many enlightened individuals who are trying to, and do make a significant difference.”

“One only has to recognise the positive difference that local yokels such as Ian Garland, Geoff Nichols, and Elsa Pooley have made, to understand that we should be acting as individuals and not twiddle our thumbs waiting for the ‘government’ or ‘NGOs’ to fix things. They simply do not have the capacity to do so.”

“Man has now acquired the power and means to destroy all other life around him, but also has the responsibility to ‘be kind to all kinds, not just mankind’.”

That said from someone who is himself making a noticeable difference, a true member of the Eco Impi!

“We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”

Terri Swearingen