The Sunday Mail
The Mlambo family runs a dairy project in the Paidamoyo area, roughly some 40 kilometres to the north of Chipinge.
This project has been the lifeline for the family for decades now and has seen generations go through school. In short, the dairy animals are their alpha and omega — they know not the inside of a factory, for the cows have dispensed with the need to look for work.
It has been a well-meaning family business.
For a rural setting, the family is content on the returns they are getting from their investment on the project, “for they are very modest profits”.
“But something has been worrying us for some time,” concedes Michael Mlambo, one of the three sons who helps his father run the dairy project, “There is this plant that is giving us sleepless nights.”
The locals in and around Chipinge do not know where or how the plant came to be their neighbour. That unwanted, unwelcome visitor, the visitor that won’t go away.
Because no-one knows the origins of the plant or its name, they have settled for two names. Some call it “mu2010” whilst others call it “muCyclone”.
But why the two names?
“That is the year people assume it came here, with the cyclone,” answers Michael, rather confidently.
But whilst the world will associate the year 2010 with the World Cup in South Africa, the residents of Chipinge somehow associate that year with a cyclone, which left them with the plant which has taken over their lives, literally.
However, a cross-check with history will show that the most famous cyclone to hit the country was in 2000, Cyclone Eline, which had devastating effects across the country, some of the effects which are still evident even today.
Or could it be, after being deposited by the cyclone in 2000, it took the plant some 10 years in incubation? Sprouting in 2010 to take over Chipinge, Chimanimani and environs?
“Not even,” explains Christopher Chapano, the acting head of the National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens, the custodians of all plant life in the country. The Herbarium falls under the Department of Research and Specialist Services in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement.
“The plant was introduced in Mozambique by the Portuguese, from Brazil, in and around the late 1990s as they were trying to boost honey production in that country. The plant, according to studies done in Brazil, helps in honey production.
“But because its seed is easily dispersed by wind, it soon found a new home in and around Chipinge. That must have been a decade ago, around 2008/9. What we have researched on and found is that it loves areas with a high rainfall pattern, and does well irrespective of altitudes. We have found it in low-lying areas as well as high ground.”
Writing a research paper in April 2017 for the respected Botany Letters, a peer review platform, Chapano and co-researchers Munyaradzi Davids Shekede and Alfred Maroyi noted that “vernonathura polyanthes is a shrub indigenous to Bolivia and Brazil. This new record of (the plant) in Zimbabwe is to date the only record of the species established outside of its native range”.
The research team went on to observe that although the plant has established and naturalised itself in the Chipinge and Chimanimani areas, it has also shown characteristics of being invasive, which forms part of their next stop of research.
Whatever the scientific explanation, the immediate concern for the Mlambo family and their neighbours is to find a lasting solution to the environmental challenges that the plant is causing.
“The problem with this plant is that in as much as it grows fast and is evergreen throughout the year, it does not have any qualities that make it desirable. Its stem is not strong, we cannot use it for thatching our huts, nor is it good as firewood. So its domestic use is limited, that is if it does have any such desirable qualities,” lamented Michael.
The research team went on to observe that the seed of the plant, which blooms from June to August, is wind dispersed and that the plant invades mainly areas that have been disturbed, along roadsides, in secondary vegetation, pine plantations, dry forests and riparian forests.
“This makes the plant very undesirable in that if a farmer leaves his land farrow, the plant soon takes over. Even those areas that have been disturbed, like burning for fire guards or by veld fires, the plant quickly takes over such areas,” added Chapano.
The invasive nature of the plant has left the Mlambo family and many other farmers around Paidamoyo and Rusitu at sixes and sevens over how to deal with it.
“We rotate growing our fodder grass on the pieces of land that we have and once we leave one piece of land for a year to regain fertility, the plant comes in and takes over the piece.”
Chapano and his research team have observed that while other plants fail to make it in the undergrowth of eucalyptus trees, because of the allelopathic traits of gumtrees, vernonanthura polyanthes actually thrives as an undergrowth in gumtree plantations.
“We have also noticed that in the Vumba area, the plant has invaded banana plantations. And considering the weedy status of the plant in its native range, its invasiveness in Zimbabwe (present investigation) and its easy dispersal by wind, the species is likely to become invasive in other African countries.”
But Caleb Tsododo, a teacher who is specialising in conservation agriculture at Mafumire Primary School, has done some experiments with the plant, with some encouraging results.
“We tried to use the plant for so many uses but we could not find much use for it. Then we thought of making compost out of it. We have also discovered that the plant’s leaves makes good mulching, so we have found a good use for it in our school garden. So besides making compost with it, we have used its leaves for mulching, with some encouraging results,” he said.
Given the manner with which the plant has taken over large swathes of land in and around Chipinge, Chimanimani and Vumba, the task of dealing with the plant is now left with the Ministry of Lands of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement.
But Chapano is cautious, “We are still researching on the plant and we will make our position clear once we have done all the necessary research.”
In the meantime, the Mlambo family has to find practical ways of dealing with the newly found menace.
“From time to time, we uproot the young plants but that comes at a cost to us, as we have to shelve some of our farm operations to work on uprooting the young plants.”