Some "Kimberley" Lithops

by Keith Green (photographs also by the author unless otherwise stated).

When my wife Debra and I had the chance to return to South Africa for a few days in February 2019, our good friend and veteran of the veld Dr. Ronnie Ujis, kindly agreed to meet and lead us to some Lithops localities around the Kimberley area of the Northern Cape Province. Whilst it is unlikely any Lithops now grow naturally within the city limits of Kimberley, many colonies are endemic to the surrounding veld with some living cheek by jowl to humans. Ronnie’s native Afrikaans, extensive contacts and willingness to help smoothed our way, and coupled with some intense thunderstorms combined to make this an unforgettable experience.

Fig 1. L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii lives here.

Our first encounter was a substantial colony of L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii at what is almost certainly the C15 locality. These were on a private farm where Ronnie courageously gate crashed a family pool party to obtain permission for our search, which was duly granted. The red-brown soil, the Acacia bushes, the rocks, the rubble and the warmth all combined to make this a distinctly South African scene (Fig 1), and on closer inspection the Lithops soon came into focus. There had been a little recent rain, so the delicately patterned, two-toned brown Lithops were both turgid and numerous (figs 2-5), some having just emerged from the substrate and still being slightly covered by debris. The larger heads, many forming appreciable clumps, were to be found under Acacia bushes where just a little sun protection clearly makes growth easier. Other somewhat smaller adult plants were growing in rock fissures or in places exposed to the full sun, there were a few seedlings and many seed capsules. Geographically the ranges of L. aucampiae and L. lesliei meet and merge around this area, and in my opinion var. hornii is on the cusp of these two species. Whilst I do not question the status of var. hornii within the L. lesliei complex, this variety seems quite distinct from var. lesliei, whilst in colour and facial pattern shares some similarities with L. aucampiae. Clearly the result of eons of selective evolution at this very specific spot, the similarity between the Lithops, the substrate and the rocks was incredible, with even the dried husks of previous season’s growth assisting with the cryptic camouflage. It was at C15 the first ‘Greenhorn’ was found, but in habitat such aberrations are very rare.

Fig 2. L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii in partial shade under an Acacia.

Fig 3. L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii mimicking their surrounds.

Fig 4. L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii. Even the dried up old shells assist with camouflage.

Fig 5. L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii. Four heads pristine in a rock crevice.

That evening and the three that followed saw torrential downpours accompanied by copious thunder and lightning. It turned out the four days we spent in the general vicinity of Kimberley were the wettest the area had seen for around 30 years. Whilst undoubtedly this was welcomed by many farmers, we did well to avoid getting soaked. I am not sure how this much water affected the already turgid var. hornii we saw, but I did speculate as that first storm raged. Even though the Lithops were growing in an elevated so well drained position, I decided that besides washing the dirt from some grubby faces, the plant bodies would have swollen and in some cases even split. On the down side a potentially fatal fungus attack would then be possible, but on the up side many seed capsules would have opened, their contents have been splashed out and dispersed to begin the next generation. We can speculate all we like, but on balance there is no need to worry about natural events, as habitat Lithops look after themselves and the plants will have seen it all before.

I rarely if ever name the farms I visit to see Lithops in habitat, but as this one is so well known within Lithops circles it is an exception. Ronnie had arranged for us to visit Rudesheim Farm on our second day, which for me was almost a pilgrimage. The famous, now late Mrs Jossie Brandt had lived on and worked this farm for many years, successfully keeping a heard of Swiss Simmentaler cows and cultivating many cacti and succulent plants in her grow houses and garden along the way. Although not a Cole locality, this farm is well known for its natural population of L. aucampiae subsp. aucampiae var. aucampiae, and was from where the red cultivar ‘Rudesheim Ruby’ originated. Jossie’s eldest son and his wife now run the farm, and they could not have been more hospitable.

Fig 6. Termite hills neighbour L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae on Rudesheim Farm. (Photograph © Debra Green).

Unfortunately the heavy downpour of the previous evening had not extended this far west, and our host told us they only had 15mm of rain in the preceding two weeks. Given the prolonged drought prior to that, he was concerned the Lithops would be sunken down into the again reddish-brown substrate they shared with the termites (Fig 6), dust covered and concealed from sight. He need not have worried however, because that tiny amount of rain was plenty for the Lithops. We found them dotted all over the farm, and without exception they were all beautiful (Figs 7-10). Some were single headed, but most comprised modest clumps of reasonably chunky plant bodies. There was a considerable degree of variation in appearance from open windows to almost opaque faces, yet to varying degrees all were reddish-brown in colour, rounded in profile and adorned with irregular marginal indentations. We spent a long time wandering the low hills on the farm marvelling at the numerous Lithops we found. Again the biggest specimens were living under low shrubs where a little shade from the hot sun allowed for greater growth. This remote tranquil, yet harsh farm in the Northern Cape now harbours Jossie’s final resting place, and a more appropriate location would be impossible to find. I give sincere thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Brandt for allowing our visit and for their generous hospitality.

Fig 7. L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae breaking through the substrate after just 15mm of rain in 2 weeks.

Fig 8. L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae. A well-established clump resplendent with seed capsules.

Fig 9. L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae in harmony with the terrain.

Fig 10. L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae. A somewhat more open windowed form.

On route back toward the Kimberley area we diverted toward Douglas and a non-Cole population of L. lesliei subsp. burchellii. We witnessed dark clouds gathering over the horizon (Fig 9) with frequent lightning flashes and associated loud rumbles of thunder as we progressed through several farm gates.

Fig 11. Storm clouds gather over Douglas in the Northern Cape Province.

Once again Ronnie had paved the way with advanced phone calls to the relevant farmers, and eventually we were joined by one of them in our hired 4X4 and directed along a gravel road through some muddy puddles toward the locality. Clearly the rains of the previous evening had made it this far. Without that extensive local help we would never have found the plants, and so remote and well camouflaged were they I am left to ponder how they were ever discovered in the first place. I can only think they were given away by their flowers, because finding them, even when we were told where to look was very difficult. It was a challenging search on a typically low ridge with the sky becoming ever darker and the thunder ever louder, but one by one we discovered a few ornate and absolutely gorgeous Lithops (Figs 12-14). The delicate facial markings looked as if they had been exquisitely etched by a master artist, yet everything we saw was completely functional and honed through the eons by natural selection. None of the subsp. burchellii here were more than two-headed, and their somewhat diminutive size made them look all the more enchanting. They had a creamy-grey lustre, were very finely marked, mostly opaque and quite distinct. On the other hand we did find one untypical, more open-windowed specimen with fine marginal projections (Fig 15) that did somewhat remind me of L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis. A few Titanopsis and some small shrubs shared this locality, but as generally it was exposed to the elements the dainty looking plants around us must actually have been as “tough as old boots”!

Fig 12. A gorgeous double-headed L. lesliei subsp. burchellii in habitat.

Fig 13. L. lesliei subsp. burchellii. Two heads and two spent seed capsules.

Fig 14. L. lesliei subsp. burchellii. A more juvenile single head.

Fig 15. A habitat L. lesliei subsp. burchellii with more open windows.

In spite of the ever increasing volume of thunder, we thankfully remained dry throughout the encounter and did not run into the rain until we were back on a tar road heading for Kimberley. Once again that evening the heavens opened and we were treated to a tremendous thunderstorm and lightning show. Just how far this extended around the Kimberley area I do not know, but such a deluge would have been welcome back on Rudesheim Farm for sure.

The following morning the storm clouds had cleared and everything was tranquil as we drove through numerous puddles toward an historic Boer War battlefield that is now part of a working farm and home to a colony of L. hookeri var. dabneri. This place, the C13 locality, was very close to the boarder of the Northern Cape and Free State provinces and may even straddle the divide. The farm had recently changed hands, and new owners knew nothing of their inherited colony of Lithops until Ronnie had contacted them and obtained permission for our visit. After a brief meeting at the farmhouse we drove out to a relatively flat and unremarkable plain where we began our search. It took only a short while for Lithops to pop into view (Figs 16–19), and the first specimen I saw was most impressive. Under the partial shade of a low bush was a large, multi-headed L. hookeri var. dabneri. The large heads were of text book appearance with shadowy windows, multiple tiny grey islands and a surrounding network of impressed inky channels. Once again the largest multi-headed specimens were to be found in partial shade, with those more exposed to the sun usually double or triple-headed and appreciably smaller. Naturally variable, L. hookeri was subdivided into seven varieties (and three groups) by the Coles, so in the case of var. dabneri a degree of overlap of features with var. marginata and var. susannae was to be expected. However, although some plants were more brown than grey and there was a marked variation in channel width, most of the specimens we saw were unambiguous. In spite of the very recent rain, the preceding drought had taken its toll on the surrounding vegetation, yet here were many well established, multi-headed Lithops perfectly adapted to their locality. Here was a safe colony, growing as it is on unremarkable terrain behind electronic farm gates. After taking some time to appreciate the plants, the solitude and wide open space we continued on our way.

Fig 16. My first L. hookeri var. dabneri was an impressive find.

Fig 17. L. hookeri var. dabneri. A slightly browner specimen.

Fig 18. Narrow to wide channels on neighbouring L. hookeri var. dabneri.

Fig 19. A double-headed L. hookeri var. dabneri with typical “shadowy windows”.

That afternoon we drove north to Warrenton and then headed west where we tried unsuccessfully to re-locate a non-Cole population of L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. venteri Ronnie had previously seen. We drove through some heavy rain en-route, but thankfully it held off as we searched for the plants. As sometimes happens and in spite of considerable effort, we failed to find the correct spot, although subsequently it transpired we were very close. As the storm clouds were gathering above us we admitted defeat and were not surprised when the rain began to fall soon after we began our drive back toward Kimberley. The rain got worse and worse, and then became torrential whilst we were on the main tarred road. It was one of the heaviest downpours I have ever witnessed, and at one point as a lorry passed in the opposite direction it was actually impossible to see through the windscreen. Had I been in the UK I would have pulled over to the hard shoulder and stopped, but such a move would have been very dangerous in South Africa as it is common practice for cars to straddle that lane in order to let faster cars overtake. A stationary vehicle in such poor visibility on a major road would have been a serious hazard, so we just continued as slowly and as carefully as we could until mercifully the intensity of the rain reduced. We took a pit-stop in Kimberley, only to hear and feel the force of a thunderbolt discharging right outside the restaurant door. The things we endure to see Lithops!

After another night of thunderstorms we drove south towards Hopetown and the only known locality of L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis which was designated C54 by the Coles. Unlike many Lithops who inhabit remote desert landscapes, here they were unnervingly close to human development. Indeed, the growing area appeared to be no more than a patch of waste land festooned with rubble and litter. Once we looked beyond the obvious though, botanic marvels soon came into focus. Growing beneath and right up against the stems of some low growing, somewhat withered shrubs but in the open too, were many amazing var. fluminalis (Figs 20-23). Most plants had pleasant grey tones and all had characteristic fine marginal peninsulas. In other ways each was unique, some having almost open faces, some with faces more occluded and one or two almost opaque. Some subtle brown or red colour was also apparent in some specimens. This place gave rise to the lovely green aberration we now know as ‘Gariep Juweel’, but every plant here was a jewel in its own way. Many large multi-headed specimens complete with seed capsules were present, and given the recent rains I suspect many seeds were germinating all around us. Yet again the largest specimens were all under the bushes which demonstrated how beneficial a little shade can be to the health and wellbeing of Lithops, something we should remember in cultivation. The area was also home to some Aloe and Anacampserous species, so all in all is a botanical gem. Were this in the UK I suspect it would be a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (SSSI), but I do not know the South African equivalent. My fear is the march of human “progress” may soon destroy the whole area, so I suggested to Ronnie that conservation measures need to be put into place. Ronnie had expected this reaction from me, and in fact already had a plan in mind. I wish him well in his quest and I sincerely hope this colony can be protected and preserved in the not too distant future.

Fig 20. A large clump of L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis growing under low scrub.

Fig 21. Mature specimens of L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis with recently opened seed pods.

Fig 22. L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis. Simply beautiful.

Fig 23. L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis. Two double heads, side by side.

East of Hopetown with the storm clouds again developing on the horizon we next visited a non-Cole population of L. hookeri var. marginata. Again Ronnie had pre-arranged access to the farm, and the first thing to strike me was the seemingly baron, shale strewn, red-brown expanse of land before us. On top of a low ridge we stopped the car and began to hunt for Lithops. It was not easy to begin with, but Debbie found the first plant which was double headed and growing fully exposed to the hot sun. This was another text book specimen, ticking all the boxes for a classic var. marginata with a brown colour and darker wide channels between small facial islands. As we slowly discovered more plants we could again see how shade from the few small shrubs that were dotted around allows the Lithops to grow bigger. Gradually we found more and more specimens (Figs 24-27), and it turned out we had actually parked very close to several plants, only then to walk away from them and search elsewhere. There was much less overlap of features at this locality than at the var. dabneri site of the previous day, but there was some. We should remember however that when dealing with plant species subdivided at the rank of variety, some morphological overlap is inevitable. I sat down next to some Lithops for a while to take in the silence and wide open vista, but due to the jagged stones could not stay there for very long! The clouds were building as well, and it was raining hard before we made it back to our lodge in our trusted 4X4. Thunder and lightning soon followed along with another torrential downpour, but fortunately we were back indoors by then.

Fig 24. L. hookeri var. marginata in the veld.

Fig 25. L. hookeri var. marginata with slightly wider windows.

Fig 26. L. hookeri var. marginata appreciating just a little shelter.

Fig 27. L. hookeri var. marginata four heads under a withered shrub.

Ronnie told us that in all his years of Lithops field trips he had never experienced so much rainfall, yet it will have been very welcomed on the usually parched farms we visited. Once again I send grateful thanks to Ronnie for his friendship, knowledge and help, and to my wife Debra for her support and “eagle-eyed” spotting of Lithops. For the record I confirm that zero plants or seed were removed from habitat.

 

The following habitat photographs were taken during this trip but not submitted for publication elsewhere.

L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii (above & below).

 

L. lesliei subsp. lesliei var. hornii (above) & L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae (below).

 

L. aucampiae subsp./var. aucampiae (above & below).

 

L. lesliei subsp. burchellii (above & below).

 

L. lesliei subsp. burchellii (above) & L. hookeri var. dabneri (below).

 

L. hookeri var. dabneri (above & below).

 

L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis (above & below).

 

L. aucampiae subsp. euniceae var. fluminalis (above) & L. hookeri var. marginata (below).

 

L. hookeri var. marginata (above & below).