In And Around The "Valley Of Maria"

by Keith Green (photographs also by the author).

As explained on page 295 of LITHOPS-FLOWERING STONES 2005, the ”Valley of Maria” is an English translation of the farm name that was home to the first described specimens of Lithops vallis-mariae. However, I use the term in a broader sense here for the much greater area of distribution we now know of, an area not shared by any other currently known Lithops. Within this extended “Valley of Maria”, a rough ellipse that ranges from just North West of Mariental to just north of Aroab in the South East, the species are well represented but scantily placed. No surprise then that in spite of previous time-pressed drives through the region I had never been able to search out a wild locality, and that when I had the chance to travel back to Namibia in May of 2017, L. vallis-mariae was my number one photographic target. On this occasion I met with my “IT consultant” and fellow conservationist Eric Collins from South Australia at Johannesburg, and was able to show him his first habitat Lithops soon after landing in Windhoek the following day. The L. vallis-mariae were to be seen later in the week, and we began with L. pseudotruncatella.

Fig 1. L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella at C67.

In 2007 Professor Desmond Cole and his wife Naureen had shown me the C67 locality of L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella soon after my arrival into Hosea Kutako Airport, and I was now able to replicate the surprise for Eric. The locality however had changed drastically in the ensuing ten years. In 2007 the area was sparsely vegetated, and the Lithops numerous, if slightly on the small side. Now this same spot was overgrown by high grasses and thick bushy scrub. Partly this could have been due to good summer rains, but I suspect the change of land use has also played a part. Historically the area would have been grazed by wild animals, and in later years farm stock, all of whom would generally miss the camouflaged Lithops. Now however the area has been cordoned off, and it appears grazing has ceased. The result is the unchecked growth of grasses and scrub, all competing with the Lithops for light, water and nutrients. Although on this occasion we found three specimens that were double-headed, large and turgid, the situation was very different from ten years ago, and somewhat unsettling. I am not sure if the continued lack of grazing will affect the long term survival of Lithops at this locality, but for now at least I was able to introduce Eric to his first habitat specimens (Fig 1), and he seemed delighted.

Fig 2. Two C68 L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella that were spared the bulldozer.

The next day we met with Sonja Loots who is the Manager of the Threatened Plants Programme at the Windhoek Botanic Garden, and she accompanied us to another area I first visited in 2014. As reported in the "Fachgesellschaft andere Sukkulenten e.V." journal AVONIA vol. 33, pp. 112-119 (2015), and on this website (see the footnote accompanying "LITHOPS AROUND LÜDERITZ"), this C68 Cole collection locality was decimated by a farmer who ploughed up the bulk of the growing area after purchasing the land from the local government earlier in 2014. Thanks to a desperate phone call from Sonja, a few plants were left near the perimeter fence (Fig 2), but basically the colony was destroyed. Further exploration of the farm on the other side of the wire fence however, revealed a similar population of well-established Lithops pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella, and now Sonja had obtained permission for us to visit. The Lithops growing on this neighbouring farm were plentiful, varied and beautiful. The owner had been unaware of the Lithops on his land until Sonja had contacted him, but once informed was pleased and keen to support their conservation. The area appeared to have been grazed from time to time, and consequently bushes were sparse, and grasses cropped low to the ground. As often is the case, Avonia grew socially with the Lithops here but were more numerous. These var. pseudotruncatella were generally smaller with a more clustering habit than the C67 plants of the previous day, but there were exceptions and as always the camouflage was remarkable. We spent a considerable time wandering around observing and photographing the many varied and wonderful specimens (Figs 3–7), before looking back over the fence to the desolated C68 ground on the other side. Due to the extensive removal of top soil there, it seems unlikely Lithops will re-establish. In her conservation-based role with the Botanic Garden, Sonja is considering how best to protect the future of this special locality on both sides of the fence, and in due course may need to raise funds for a concerted conservation effort. At least for now this C68 neighbouring locality is a thriving one.

Fig 3. L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella. Seven heads, but how many plants?

Fig 4 . Four Avonia and two Lithops in frame.

Fig 5. L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella. A lovely bright form.

Fig 6. L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella. How’s that for camouflage?

Fig 7. L. pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella. Natural scarring that will do no harm.

The following day we headed south to the C167 population of L. vallis-mariae said to be near Berseba. As our local contacts were absolutely sure that we would not remove any plant material, we were entrusted with locality details and duly made the drive. We eventually alighted with the Brukkaros Mountains looming on the horizon, and began our search. We were confronted with an area strewn mainly with small calcrete stones, and we concentrated our focus between those as best we could, scouring the floor for plants as we slowly walked along. Unfortunately it was much easier to find broken glass than Lithops, but eventually after around half an hour, I stumbled upon our first specimen (Fig 8). Naturally we were elated, but it got even better as soon after we discovered some more. These truly are beautiful plants in habitat, ghostly white with velvet lustre and a few tiny dark flecks. The velvet lustre of course, is formed by the tiny facial wrinkles that characterise this species, but in habitat it appears to be a much enhanced feature. The L. vallis-mariae here were on the small side, but we found single, double and triple headed (Fig 9) specimens, most with old seed capsules and dried up old growth. No show bench could display these plants better. One plant (Fig 10) had clearly been double headed until very recently, the remaining head looking healthy but with nothing but a shell left of the other. The form title of *"margarethae" is sometimes attributed to this population, but on reflection I can see no justification for further taxonomic division. The air was warm, the sunlight bright and the only sounds were that of a light breeze and our elated voices. After taking time to simply sit and marvel at the plants, we continued to an overnight slumber in Keetmanshoop.

Fig 8. Our first habitat L. vallis-mariae.

Fig 9. A L. vallis-mariae with three heads.

Fig 10. L. vallis-mariae one head good, one head gone.

Our encounters with L. vallis-mariae now got better still. Whilst in Windhoek, Sonja had asked us to look in at a monitoring square she had set up some years ago for conservation purposes on a remote farm. She had not been able to get back there for a few years, and we were keen to help out, just so long as we could find it. Although I was not confident, we did eventually find the square, but not before taking a well-earned “pit-stop” following a fairly lengthy drive on gravel. That “pit-stop” delayed us for some considerable time, but for the best of reasons. We could not help ourselves, so having stopped the car, we independently both wandered over to a reasonably flat area strewn with rounded quartz pebbles, and started to gaze between the stones. Initially and as expected we found nothing, but suddenly a double-headed, plump specimen of L. vallis-mariae came into view (Fig 11)! I could hardly believe my eyes, but then there was another and another. Somehow we had stumbled upon what most likely is an entirely new locality; something confirmed when we later reported back to both Sonja Loots and Tok Schoeman in Windhoek. These plants were generally bigger than those of the previous day, but shared that wonderful fuzzy-felt quality and ghostly white colour. A few were scarred in one way or another (Figs 12-14), but in nature such blemishes seem to cause little long-term harm. Once again we spent some quality time studying the plants in this wonderfully remote locality, before continuing on to our target survey site on a nearby farm.

Fig 11. The first L. vallis-mariae seen at “Eric & Keith’s Pit-Stop” locality.

Fig 12. A L. vallis-mariae with a “crater-like” scar.

Fig 13. Side by side, two L. vallis-mariae manifesting four heads & a “broken biscuit”.

Fig 14. A closer view of the “broken biscuit”.

The locality we had come to survey was relatively close to an abandoned farmhouse, and nearby were some people who appeared to be just about scratching a living. We saw a Jackal hanging up that we assume would make a future meal, and for sure it was not purchased from a shop! These people could not speak English, but we managed (I think) to explain our reason for visiting, and we were allowed to continue unhindered. We found the square, but our first hour of searching revealed zero plants. Disappointed as we were, we then explored the open ground further outside of the square where some lovely specimens were quickly discovered growing among a mixture of quartzite and calcrete. Once again these were beautiful turgid plants, most being quite butch and multi-headed. There was a little variety in form at this locality, with some plants being quite pallid and others reasonably well flecked. Most however were quite similar to our previous finds (Figs 15 – 16), although one double-headed specimen in particular was a bit different, in that it manifested an especially attractive creamy complexion with orange flecks (Fig 17). A small blemish possibly caused by the sun or a nibbling insect only served to further enhance the appearance. Given this success we searched Sonja’s square again, this time actually crawling on hands and knees. It paid dividends because eventually we found two juvenile specimens where previously we had walked. One should never underestimate the ability of a habitat Lithops to hide.

Fig 15. Eric’s finger and a pallid L. vallis-mariae of typical size near the survey square.

Fig 16. A nearby L. vallis-mariae with more prominent facial flecks.

Fig 17. Eric’s finger and a small L. vallis-mariae with a creamy complexion and orange flecks.

We were not finished with L. vallis-mariae yet, as I had arranged to visit another farm before leaving home. We called into the farmhouse, and were duly granted permission to jump the barbed-wire fence to search the known growing area, something we managed with only a little spilt blood. It seems most likely this was the C166 locality, and after a short search around the gently undulating expanse of pebbles that lay around us, we found some more beautiful specimens. We noted that the individual plants were generally clustered together, with quite large expanses of Lithops free areas in between, something that could well be the results of the rain-splash mechanism of seed dispersal employed by Lithops. We cannot be certain about that, but we are sure that the plants were once again beautifully turgid with that lovely velvet lustre (Fig 18). They were growing in reddish earth (Fig 19) among a scattering of quartz and calcrete pebbles, a terrain that stretched out in front of us as far as we could see. It could have been a trick of the late afternoon light, but one single headed specimen looked almost pink as my shadow fell across it (Fig 20). Once again we were able to experience the solitude of the veld with Lithops at our feet, before jumping back across the barbed-wire and driving back to Keetmanshoop for the night.

Fig 18. A L. vallis-mariae showing a typical velvet-lustre.

Fig 19. A L. vallis-mariae from a slightly different perspective.

Fig 20. A L. vallis-mariae with a hint of pink.

Even with detailed information, locating Lithops in habitat is very often a difficult and time consuming process. Not so at our next encounter however, which was the C222 locality (the only known locality) of L. fulviceps var. lactinea. Arrangements had been made well in advance, so the farmer was expecting us when we arrived. He had lived on this farm for a long time, and remembered the Coles visiting many years previous. He was very casual about the special plants growing naturally on his land, but was aware of their importance and had allowed a monitoring square to be set up by the Windhoek Botanic Garden. After coffee, he took us over to see the plants, and pointed to several specimens one after another. These were mostly large, multi-headed specimens complete with seed pods, but now beginning their winter slumber. The milky hue of this variety was apparent in most of the heads, and it mimicked the surrounding calcrete very well indeed (Figs 21-23). A few of the heads sported some of the brown colour usually associated with var. fulviceps, but even this appeared to play a role, as to some degree it mimicked the substrate between the rocks. The overall effect was one of cryptic camouflage, and had we not been led by the hand to this spot I am sure we would have struggled to find the plants. As it was Lithops hunting here was almost easy, and we noted that 96% of the plants we counted were within the monitoring square, including a couple of single headed juveniles (Fig 24). We had missed flowering by a few weeks, but even so the many wilted heads displayed a functional beauty all their own. As this wilting continues, some heads may even disappear completely under the dust, making L. fulviceps an especially hard species to detect in times of drought. This I experienced to my cost in 2013 when my wife and I searched and failed to find any specimens at a quite well known locality of var. fulviceps. Here however there were no such issues, and after thanking our host we left fully content with our find.

Fig 21. L. fulviceps var. lactinea entering winter mode.

Fig 22. L. fulviceps var. lactinea showing excellent mimicry with the surrounding rocks.

Fig 23. L. fulviceps var. lactinea with a distinctive milky hue.

Fig 24. A juvenile L. fulviceps var. lactinea.

One more encounter with habitat Lithops remained, and again thanks to local sensitive information, I was able to show Eric a locality of L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana relatively close to the “town” of Grünau. Following the directions we alighted at the spot which seemed far from favourable. There was much in the way of scattered small and sharp stones of varying types, but my first impression was of a recent visit by road graders who had scraped away much of the top surface. There was no wind, it was beautifully warm and we were in total silence as we began to search. It took a long time, but eventually I managed to focus on a beautiful L. karasmontana. So well camouflaged was it that initially I thought I was looking at two heads, whereas in fact there were three (Fig 25). On closer inspection it revealed itself to be a true beauty, with an orange brown colour and intricately grooved facial markings. As often happens we soon found another specimen where previously we saw nothing, and eventually some others (Figs 26-27). There was quite a variety in colour, but all had a most attractive lumpy texture and all blended extremely well into the surrounding stones. We also found seed capsules (Fig 28), but of course we left them all well alone to germinate where nature intended. Yet again we had been successful in finding our quarry, and yet again we could spend some time simply marvelling at these beautiful plants in their natural surroundings.

Fig 25. L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana; three heads not two.

Fig 26. Two double headed specimens of L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana.

Fig 27. L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana; a habitat beauty.

Fig 28. L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana with seed capsule held aloft.

Close by were some flowering Avonia (Fig 29), and we later found some much larger Aloe variegata (Fig 30). It may have been another trick of the light, but somehow even the Aloe managed to blend into the background. Over the years I have often observed Avonia or Anacampseros growing socially with Lithops, but at all four of the L. vallis-mariae localities we visited on this trip they were absent.

Fig 29. A flowering Avonia growing socially with L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana.

Fig 30. Aloe variegata also growing socially with L. karasmontana subsp./var. karasmontana.

This was unfortunately the last Lithops locality we explored, and although we could begin our return trip with a sense of contentment, there was one disappointment. We had locality details for L. karasmontana subsp. karasmontana var. tischeri, but when I telephoned the farm owner, he told me he had previously had plants removed and then sold by people posing as photographers, so understandably refused us permission to visit. Although our trip was entirely observational and we had absolutely no intention of touching any habitat plants or seed, he could not be certain. The actions of poachers who had gone before denied us access to a beautiful plant.

I send sincere thanks once again to the old friends I was able to introduce Eric to during this trip, namely Will du Toit and Naureen and Desmond Cole in Johannesburg, and later Sonja Loots and Denise and Tok Schoeman in Windhoek. As always they all helped us with invaluable information for which I am eternally grateful. I send sincere thanks also to the farmers who did allow us onto their land, and to Eric for his help, friendship and continuing guidance with all matters IT.

* = excluded name

Typical terrain within "The Valley Of Maria".

References:-

Cole, D.T. & Cole, N.A. (2005) Lithops Flowering Stones. Milano: Cactus & Co.

Green, K.G. (2014) ‘Lithops Around Lüderitz’, Avonia, 33 (3), pp. 112-119 & XXV11-XXV111.