Six weeks of over-landing in Africa meant that I’ve seen many large game. When I came back, however, there were two encounters from South Africa that I had to identify. The first is a spider in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (Cape Town, S Africa), which was unusual (to me):
I didn’t find anything like it when I searched for “South Africa spiky spider”, and I was ready to ask for help from the bug-ID experts at the WhatsThisBug subreddit. Lo and behold, this gentle spider is a FAB (“Frequently Asked Bug”). It’s a spiny-backed orb-weaver called Gasteracantha cancriformis, and they seems to come in great number of colors, but all share that spiky shell (to deter predators from swallowing it) and creepy smiley face pattern (to creep humans out?). Wikipedia suggests that this is a New World spider, which is probably why my initial search went nowhere.
The other that caught my attention was a string of flowers near the Cape of Good Hope. While hiking up a hill, I caught a whiff of a faint but intoxicating smell, and followed my nose into the bush (a good 10m distance!) The smell emanated from clusters of small white flowers:
These were catnip for me. I just stood there sniffing and sniffing, and when finally torn away I couldn’t help but broke off a few of them (mea culpa). With this sample, I asked several guides about these “fragrant white flowers” to no avail. I noted that the flowers were not from the tree, but is instead a climbing vine. Wikipedia happened to have a helpful category of “South African Creepers“, and scanning through the list, the pictures and info matches one Asparagus falcatus perfectly.
The plant was used traditionally pounded as poultice for swellings, and recently an anti-angiogenic lactone was isolated from its leaves. Anti-angiogenic means that the compound restricts blood-vessel growth. Medically this can be a good thing (like in the cancer drug Avastin) or a bad thing (as present in the infamous thalidomide enantiomer that accompanies most lectures on optical isomers). Sadly the molecule(s) responsible for its sweet smell seems to remain unidentified; the good thing is that I could buy seeds to try growing it. I’ll have to check if this is an invasive species – if not, I think I might just have my personal supply of catnip for a season a year! (Plus, if I get to a GC-MS one day, I might just identify what the odorant is.)