Four Days In Pofadder.

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

As part of a two week vacation to South Africa, my wife Debra and I spent four full days in the Northern Cape provincial town of Pofadder. Our aim was to seek out and photograph some Lithops taxa we had not previously seen in the veld, and to meet with some old friends along the way. Dr. Ronnie Uijs from Cape Town joined us for two of those four days, and together we even found a couple of localities new to him. As Afrikaans is the language of choice among the vast majority of farmers in this region, it was Ronnie who opened many doors for us. The journey from South London to Pofadder involved an overnight flight to Johannesburg where we met with Professor Desmond Cole and his wife Naureen for lunch. Their wisdom in the field of Lithops habitats remains priceless, and we once again enjoyed their company. The following day we flew to Upington, picked up a 4X4 and drove west to Pofadder where we met with Ronnie.

After being feasted upon by night time mosquitoes, we began our mission with a difficult search for L. dinteri subsp. frederici to the north of Pella. Given the tiny size of subsp. frederici, its limited range and the severe heat of the summer just passed, I was not surprised when we failed at our first search area. Most likely this was the Cole C180 locality (Fig 1), but any plants that were around were just too cryptic or too dry to be seen. Ronnie then came up trumps, and after several conversations with some local folk back in Pella, instructed me to drive off the tar and follow the “tracks”. Although I struggled to see anything that resembled tyre tracks, I followed instructions as best I could. After several diversions, some off road driving and another fingertip search, we were rewarded with blissful success at another (most likely non-Cole) locality. The delicate looking plants, which were clearly subsp. frederici, were perfectly turgid in their dry, rubble strewn home. Somewhere I have heard subsp. frederici described as “little plovers eggs”, and this seems quite apt for what is arguably the smallest of all Lithops (Fig 2). Here we had fundamentally brown plants growing among variable, but principally brown rock, which made for excellent camouflage. The speckled, partly occluded plant faces combined with the dried seed capsules and husks of old growth to deceive the eye very well, even on close inspection (Fig 3). Granted we only actually found two specimens, both double headed, but as we did not want to move any habitat stones, we were quite happy with that. We took our photographs, spent a little time admiring the plants, enjoyed the blissful silence and then headed further west.

Fig 1. Our first unsuccessful search area.

Fig 2. L. dinteri subsp. frederici; second search lucky.

Fig 3. L. dinteri subsp. frederici easily overlooked in the veld.

Our second colony was that of L. olivacea var. nebrownii at the type locality (as confirmed with Naureen Cole) of C162B. This was on a private farm where apparently, var. nebrownii shares its home with L. julii subsp./var. fulleri. However, we did not find the latter. Had it not been for Ronnie and his skills of negotiation in Afrikaans, we would never have been granted the conditional access we were. That condition was that on no account were we to remove any plant material, something none of us had any notion of doing anyway. It is just unfortunate that for various reasons the removal of habitat Lithops still continues. The farm is close to some large scale mines that have destroyed much of the veld around Aggeneys, so I was very pleased to find the var. nebrownii unaffected, at least here. Debbie found the plants relatively easily on gently sloping and open low ground, although I struggled in the first instance to see anything more than Avonia, a genus that very often grows with Lithops. Among a scattering of quartzite, the var. nebrownii were in a reddish brown, sand come grit substrate that partially covered some of their multi-headed faces (Fig 4). Indeed it was initially the seed capsules and old husks that stood out at first area scan. The slightly more divergent leaves and the beautiful brown faces that distinguish var. nebrownii (named in honour of N. E. Brown, creator of the genus) from var. olivacea, were best appreciated on close inspection, and made for very attractive plants. A few specimens were a lighter brown, even grey in tone (Fig 5), but almost all sported the charming white facial flecks so distinctive in this species. Due to recent (and commonplace) drought, the active heads were sunken within the old husks, and these clearly play an important role in habitat sun protection (Fig 6). Close by on a hillside we also found the tiny heads of Conophytum lydiae in full flower (Fig 7). Although barren at first glance, this starkly beautiful habitat is populated by vegetative gems.

Fig 4. L. olivacea var. nebrownii; reddish brown faces in reddish brown substrate.

Fig 5. L. olivacea var. nebrownii; an untypical grey specimen

Fig 6. L. olivacea var. nebrownii; the protective dried parts are the most visible in times of drought.

Fig 7. Fig 7. Conophytum lydiae in full bloom.

We next searched unsuccessfully for L. olivacea var. olivacea on another private farm, but did find some beautiful ghostly white Dinteranthus vanzylii (Fig 8). This place was situated in a kind of natural amphitheatre amid surrounding hills, which dampened down the wind and amplified the heat. The wrinkles and scorch were testament to the ongoing drought.

Fig 8. Dinteranthus vanzylii as found in habitat (photograph © Debra Green).

Success with var. olivacea followed when we found some beautiful clumps of small heads to the north of Pofadder. These grew on high ground where rock type and colour were quite variable, although dominated by quartz, some of which appeared to be tinged with a light green hue (Fig 9). There were many plants, most of which were a lovely shade of pale, or yes, olive green. A few had yellow or light brown tones, but the vast majority had white facial flecks just like the previously seen var. nebrownii. I suspect this may have been the C109 locality, which often manifests the small multi-headed clumping habit we witnessed here, although I cannot be sure (fig 10). I thought these plants were so lovely as to be almost edible, although of course we left them completely untouched. It was just a great experience to wander among the plants, take photographs and take in the location. In a similar way to some of the var. olivacea (Fig 11), Conophytum fulleri (Fig 12) also grew here seemingly wedged between rock striations. The fully open, beautiful purple flowers, for once made Conophytum spotting an easy task.

Fig 9. L. olivacea var. olivacea near Pofadder

Fig 10. A multi-headed L. olivacea var. olivacea.

Fig 11. L. olivacea var. olivacea in a rock crevice.

Fig 12. Conophytun fulleri flowering close to L. olivacea var. olivacea.

Later in the day, Ronnie led us to L. julii subsp./var. fulleri growing in large numbers within the eastern Pofadder town boundary. This appeared to be a well established colony as many plants were multi-headed, and some were quite chunky. Generally they were a pale colour (Fig 13), although some were darker and others had tiny brown flecks around the margins (Fig 14). This may have been C161, although I cannot be sure. In the distance I saw the town sports field, and I recalled being told by Naureen Cole that once var. fulleri grew at the base of the goal posts there. I can confirm that is no longer the case, although in and around town these plants do frequently occur, along with the often accompanying Avonia, wherever calcrete rubble is left undisturbed (Fig 15). A farmer I met in town told me that locally Avonia was referred to in Africaans as “skilpad kos”, which translates to “tortoise food” in English. On subsequent occasions we found var. fulleri at various places both in the semi-urban areas to the south and east of town, and in the immediate townlands. Although we did not have the time to explore other parts of Pofadder, I am left with the impression that this town really was built upon a large colony of L. julii subsp./var. fulleri that continues to survive wherever it can settle a seed. Although the number of suitable places has reduced due to human expansion, there remains something about the conditions in this part of the world that is perfect for L. julii subsp./var. fulleri. This tenacious and lovely little plant therefore flourishes here in a semi-urban setting.

Fig 13. L. julii subsp./var. fulleri at Pofadder.

Fig 14. A darker form of L. julii subsp./var. fulleri with flecks in the margins.

Fig 15. L. julii subsp./var. fulleri with “skilpad kos”.

The following day we found L. julii subsp. fulleri var. brunnea to the east of town, which may have been C179. Shoeprints in the sand alerted the eagle-eyed Ronnie to where previous visitors had stopped and looked at Lithops. He was correct and upon more careful inspection, we found many beautiful specimens withdrawn into their husks. Conditions were unsurprisingly very dry, and once again the benefit of dried husks as sun protection was clearly evident (Fig 16). How very easy it would have been, even for a keen Lithops enthusiast to have walked over these plants without ever knowing they were there (Fig 17). The brown colours of this population, which matched the substrate perfectly, were uniformly different to the subsp. fulleri we saw in town. On the other hand, they once again grew with Avonia, and had similar facial patterns (Fig 18). A deceased but very knowledgeable farmer had once made special provision to access, and I suspect protect this locality. In spite of his passing this population appeared strong, although various human constructs do now share the ground.

Fig 16. L. julii subsp. fulleri var. brunnea. Dry, withdrawn and protected.

Fig 17. Very well camouflaged L. julii subsp. fulleri var. brunnea. At least 8 heads here.

Fig 18. L. julii subsp. fulleri var. brunnea typically situated with seed capsules.

We then made a special effort to find L. fulviceps var. laevigata. I had failed to find L. fulviceps var. fulviceps back in 2013 when I searched at a locality in Southern Namibia, so accordingly was less than confident as we began the drive. Again it was our local host, who through several phone calls and the calling in of favours made it all possible. I would never have found the locality in a month of Sundays had we not had Ronnie’s help, and permission from the farmer to drive over his land and make the climb to the top of the hill so far from the gravel access road. For once it was I who found the first specimen at this stunningly beautiful location that was C412 (Fig 19). The L. fulviceps here were markedly smaller than I had previously imagined, and mirrored the dark brown and black of the surrounding rocks very well. Some of the dusky dots that characterise this species were merged together in several of this population (Fig 20), yet in neighbouring plants the dots were clearly spaced apart (Fig 21). The preceding extraordinarily hot summer had clearly taken its toll, as no seed capsules or evidence of recent flowers could be found. Fundamentally though the plants were healthy enough, survival of drought being part of their everyday life. A large Aloe seemed to stand guard at the summit of this koppie, which as far as we could see, supported the restricted population of var. laevigata on one half only. I understand this population was first noticed many years back by a farm worker, although quite how that person actually spotted the plants I will never know. It was a true privilege to be at this most precious locality, and as always we took a little time in the company of the Lithops to appreciate where we were. We climbed down the koppie, retraced our tyre tracks as best we could back to a farm gate, and re-joined the gravel road.

Fig 19. A double (left) and a single (right) headed L. fulviceps var. laevigata in habitat.

Fig 20. Dusky dots merging together on this 3 headed L. fulviceps var. laevigata.

Fig 21. Dusky dots more defined in this double headed L. fulviceps var. laevigata.

Debbie and I were then able to take Ronnie to meet a farmer we first met in 2011, and to a locality of L. julii subsp./var. fulleri we saw then. It was great to meet our farmer friend again, and just as before we were treated to coffee and cake before heading out to the locality. The farmer, very much on his own turf, drove off in his “bakkie” with his little farm dog happily bouncing along in the back, whilst I struggled to follow in our hired 4X4, mindful to keep it scratch free. At the spot the var. fulleri were just as I remembered, ornately marked with tinges of brown, orange and blue. I even found one particular specimen I recall from 2011 (Fig 22) due to its open face and lovely margins that were almost but not quite var. rouxii (see Mesemb. Study Group Bulletin vol. 26, p. 53, Fig 26.52, or fig. 8. of “Some Northern Cape Colonies” on this website). It had not rained here for three months, yet the plants were fully turgid. We were then shown another var. fulleri locality on a neighbouring plot that were only recently discovered when the farmer came across some people on his land photographing them. Just how these people ever knew of the locality remains a mystery, but they did no harm other than irk the farmer for not asking permission first. Here again among Avonia was a very pale form of var. fulleri, as resplendent as ever (Fig 23). Prior to leaving this farm we were also shown a locality of Dinteranthus microspermus subsp. puberulus, one specimen of which (Fig 24) the farmer had taken the trouble to water the previous day so we could take nice photos!

Fig 22. L. julii subsp./var. fulleri; a distinctive old friend that is not quite var. rouxii.

Fig 23. A lovely pale form of L. julii subsp./var. fulleri.

Fig 24. An irrigated Dinteranthus microspermus subsp. puberulus.

Fig 25. Rock formations like this hide L. dorotheae.

During our time with Ronnie we had searched unsuccessfully for L. dorotheae, but Debbie and I tried twice more after he had returned home. In total we must have spent around six hours searching, but eventually on a very hot and sweaty afternoon, we stumbled upon a single specimen, and on this occasion it was I who discovered it. The role that the old husks, the dry seed capsules and even natural scars play in habitat camouflage is remarkable. Our L. dorotheae grew between the striations of gneiss rock (Fig 25), and among the dried and seemingly dead remains of other vegetation (Fig 26). Most likely this was a non Cole locality, and although we only found this one somewhat scorched specimen, it was a moment of elation. It was double headed, had seed capsules and a generous wrapping of old leaf husks. In spite of the scorch, that in habitat seems not to be fatal, the beautiful colours, markings and rubrications were clearly visible on one head (Fig 27). This delicate little beauty was perfectly happy in the heat of its rocky desert home, and long may it remain undisturbed. It is remarkable that such beauty can evolve from the need to hide and survive. Rather like the search for subsp. frederici, the lack of quartz or other pale rocks made this a far from obvious area of search, at least when we began. More specimens will undoubtedly have been around, but time, heat and thirst made us content with our single find.

Fig 26. Scars and husks help to hide this double headed L. dorotheae.

Fig 27. L. dorotheae in habitat; a two headed specimen.

Our four days in Pofadder therefore finished on a high, and this article is testament to the experience. To me the discovery and study of Lithops in habitat is a joy, and sometimes my good fortune at having met the correct people at the correct time is hard to believe. Without the help of numerous others, many of whom are local to and protective of the plants, I would have seen very little, both on this and my previous trips. I am compelled therefore to honour my pledge to these generous folk, and not pass on certain habitat details. As previously mentioned the plundering of wild plants does still continue, and for that reason I hope fellow students of this genus will understand my lack of locality detail.

I send sincere thanks once again to Ronnie Uijs, and to Des and Naureen Cole for their continued friendship and help. Thanks also to Terry Smale for identifying the photographed Conophytums, and to the several others whose names I have omitted for various reasons, but whose friendly help is equally valued

For the record I once again state that all localities were left undisturbed, and that no seed, plants or plant material was removed.