COLES TO COLEORUM AND OTHER COLONIES

by Keith Green (photographs also by the author).

 

 

 

I returned to South Africa in November 2010 and within 24 hours of leaving my home in New Malden, Surrey, found myself in the South African veld photographing specimens of L. Lesliei subsp. lesliei var. minor. I had taken the new rail service from O. R. Tambo Airport (the Gautrain) and had been met at Sandton Station by Naureen and Professor Desmond Cole who wasted little time in driving me north of the Magaliesberg Mountains to a meeting with Will du Toit, who is a mutual friend. Will is a Lithops grower and resident of this area who I had “nagged” from the U.K. into searching out the C006 locality which I thought grew near to his home. At least it did not look far on the map, but I was soon to learn that the reality was quite different. After driving over 100km we turned off the tarred road and drove for some time more on gravel until we reached a farm entrance where the farmer was waiting to greet us. Will had indeed searched out this locality the previous March and made a date with the farmer to show this “Mad Englishman” the Lithops on his land. When Will had visited in March 2010 there had been good rain and plant bodies were numerous, but a prolonged drought had followed and had it not been for rain a few days prior to my arrival it is unlikely any plants would have been visible. However, visible some were and after a cross-country drive Will pointed me in the right direction and sent me searching for Lithops. Fig 01 shows a view of the locality with Professor Cole standing top right. I failed to find any Lithops, but with his experience in the veld Will spotted the tell-tale sign of a buried specimen and brushed away some dirt to reveal two pale heads of Lithops lesliei subsp. lesliei var. minor (fig 02). The heads were quite turgid but had not yet reached up enough to find daylight; hence the coloration was unlike the subsequent specimens we found who had reached the light and were a more pinkish, dark-grey hue. All of the heads we found, be they single or multi-headed, looked deceptively dainty as can be seen in fig 03 where we used Will’s index finger as a size comparison. We found several specimens and figs 04 and 05 show another two examples of 3-headed and 2-headed plants beautifully adapted to their habitat. This locality is not exactly the spot the Coles first collected var. minor C006 (perhaps forty years previously), but is an extension of that locality growing on the neighbouring farm. The colony is quite remote so probably will remain safe from humans for the foreseeable future. I am very grateful to Will and his family for their extensive efforts in leading us to these plants.

Naureen, Desmond and myself next visited Limpopo province (the old Northern Transvaal) and the only confirmed locality of L. coleorum (named for my two companions) which is C396. This is a most unlikely place to find Lithops, located as it is among continuing bush-veld. The temperature was 43 degrees C. when we met our contact and were led to see our first specimens of the day. I was expecting an isolated koppie, but we were led down a slope to a second site where L. coleorum has also been found. The spot is close enough to the initial find site to be considered an extension of the same colony, but none the less represents a significant increase in the habitat range. It also increases the chances of this species being more widespread than was first thought. The little plants were quite charming and almost identical to specimens I have seen in cultivation, although more compact in size as can be seen in fig 06 where my index finger can be seen as a comparison. We were then shown to the initial find site (fig 07) where we found several more specimens. Fig 08 shows a lovely multi-headed plant which almost exactly matches the colouration of the habitat pebbles, and figs 09 and 10 show two more pristine habitat plants of 2 and 1 head respectively which match the soil colours as well. The rocks surrounding the plants were too hot to hold, and there had been little rain in the area preceding our visit. I was surprised at how exposed the plant bodies were given the fierce heat of the day, yet showed no sign of stress and sported many seed capsules. In habitat these incredible little plants grow for the most part unnoticed by the local human population.

With the threat of rain in the air we next visited the locality of L. lesliei subsp./var lesliei in the Gauteng grass-veld at Koppieskraal. The Coles have never collected here so it does not have a C-number, but this is the locality discussed by George Fritz in the M.S.G. Bulletin V25(2) 2010 pp.29-32, which had been plundered by poachers for the Zulu “love charm” trade. We met with George and he first led us to his friend’s farm at one end of the ridge where the plants are protected. Accordingly Lithops grow here in profusion and large beautifully patterned plants were everywhere. It is the most Lithops I have ever seen at one locality and the natural var. lesliei variability was quite apparent. All were clearly larger than the var. minor I had seen some days earlier; quite chunky in fact and again my index finger can be seen as a size comparison in fig 11. George then led us to the main ridge (fig 12) where the Lithops had been poached before he visited in June 2008 with Lorraine Mills of the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Education. We did not really expect to find Lithops here, but to our surprise I can report (with George’s blessing) that the plants have made a remarkable comeback. We were delighted to find seedlings and adult specimens growing well, having been left alone by the local township poachers who we assume think they have removed everything. Fig 13 shows my right leg next to a poacher’s hole and a var. lesliei in the top left quarter that somehow evaded detection. The plants in figs 14 and 15 show two more charming examples of var. lesliei which hopefully will continue to thrive here undetected, or better still unwanted by the local township residents. As George mentioned in his article, this whole ridge is a botanist’s paradise as many other species also grow here. In particular I found some striking clumps of Eurphorbia clavaroides var. truncate looking as though they had been planted out by a gardener.

The last species of Lithops we found on this trip was also my first habitat “white”. Naureen undertook a 1200 km round drive down into the Free State where we found two localities of L. salicola. On arrival in Luckhoff we took the first (? only) guest house we found and later that evening met the owner who turned out to be a local farmer. He did not know anything of “beeskloutjies” but made some phone calls to his neighbouring farmers who did know of them. Not only that but he made arrangements for us to meet with one of them the following morning who would take us to two localities, one of which was actually an extension of the L. salicola type locality, C34. The only slight problem from my personal perspective was that our contact would only speak Afrikaans, but with the Coles at my side this was only a minor issue. The first locality we were led to was a non C-numbered site to the south of C34. There had been no rain in this area since before the winter (at least six months, probably more) and the brackish clay pan where the plants live was baked solid. L. salicola was visible though and our young farmer soon pointed out some withdrawn specimens that were seemingly cemented into the clay (fig 16). Come the rains however this area would soften, the plants swell, flower and fruit before retreating back into the safety of the clay as the area again dried out; perfect adaptation. In keeping with the finger theme of this article fig 17 shows my index finger next to the most conspicuous specimen we found. The terrain of the type locality C34 was slightly different, the clay being covered with a layer of pebbles (fig 18). With permission from the farmer we climbed through a barbed wire fence to search and to my surprise quickly found Titanopsis calcarea (fig 19 shows a particularly butch example). We also found L. salicola but these were much harder to locate deeply embedded as they were in the dry mud (fig 20). This was the last locality of our trip and the long return journey began.

I send sincere thanks to Naureen and Desmond Cole for the help, hospitality and friendship they have extended to me once again.

Fig 01. The C006 locality with Professor Cole top right.

Fig 02. Heads of var. minor revealed.

Fig 03. Wills index finger & var. minor.

Fig 04. A beautiful 3-headed var. minor.

Fig 05. A 2-headed habitat var. minor.

Fig 06. My index finger and a habitat L. coleorum.

Fig 07. Part of the C396 locality.

Fig 08. A beautiful clump of L. coleorum.

Fig 09. A double headed L. coleorum at C396.

Fig 10. A typically situated L. coleorum.

Fig 11. A chunky var. lesliei at Koppieskraal.

Fig 12. George Frtiz on the Koppieskraal ridge.

Fig. 13. A poacher’s hole and a var. lesliei that escaped (top left quarter).

Fig 14. A charming 3-headed var. lesliei.

Fig 15. A beautifully simple Koppieskraal var. lesliei.

Fig 16. There are 2 L. salicola plants in this pan.

Fig 17. 4 L. salicola heads and an index finger.

Fig 18. Part of the L. salicola C34 type locality.

Fig 19. Titanopsis calcarea at the C34 type locality.

Fig. 20. Embedded heads of L. salicola.

References

Fritz, G. (2010) ‘LITHOPS LESLIEI, THE DOOMED SPECIES IN SOUTHERN GAUTENG’, Mesemb. Study Group Bulletin, 25 (2), pp. 29-32.