LITHOPS AND A LONDONER

Keith Green reports on an encounter with Lithops in the veld.

 

 

 

In October 2006 my wife Debra and I had the privilege of a short stay with Professor Desmond Cole and his wife Naureen in the Johannesburg suburbs of South Africa. They truly are a most delightful couple, and one of the many treats they arranged for us was a trip to see a wild Lithops locality. Through their many contacts arrangements were made for us to visit a farm to the South West of Randfontein where an un C-numbered colony grew. I am pleased to report that the farmer here was very protective of his Lithops, and that he insisted on accompanying us to view them. However, as this visit was organised for a Sunday we would have to wait until the afternoon as the farmer wanted to attend church in the morning.

One of the Coles’ old friends is Willie van der Westhuizen, and he had been involved in arranging our visit to the locality. In light of the farmer’s spiritual needs it was a sunny Sunday afternoon that Naureen found herself driving Des, Debra and I towards the locality, but first to a meeting with Willie. En route Naureen had commented on the rain clouds in the distance, but I thought little of it. After all we were in a “desert country”, and Des had already advised me that should I ever fall into a South African river I would need to dust myself off!

Willie greeted us warmly and commented that overseas visitors usually brought bad weather, but today the sun shone as brightly as ever. After showing us his own extensive Lithops collection we were just about to depart for the locality when from out of a seemingly blue sky came a tremendous crack of thunder. So loud was it that I think we all instinctively cowered down. Still, the sun continued to shine as we drove toward the farm, pausing only to pick up Frik du Plooy who had been another intermediary. In convoy we continued to the farm and on arrival were greeted warmly by the farmer and several of his dogs. There followed some banter in Afrikaans which I could not follow, but I was struck by just how much trouble all these people had taken on my behalf.

The Lithops lived in grass veld next to the farmer’s house. The farmer, Willie and Frik walked on ahead into the veld, and I followed a short distance behind with Naureen, Des and Debra. I was aware of cloud where there had been sunshine, and now thunder echoed around. Quite quickly the advance party stopped walking and began looking at the ground and gesturing me over. I quickly joined them and there it was, the first wild growing Lithops I had ever seen (Fig. 1). The grass around was long but dry, and the area was littered here and there with large mammalian droppings. However, at this particular patch was a slight thinning of grass and here were Lithops! A second (Fig. 2) and then a third Lithops came into focus, all of which were quickly identified by Des as Lithops lesliei subsp. lesliei var. rubrobrunnea. The plants were in excellent condition having just finished their renewal process, and some were complete with seed capsules. They were growing with their faces more or less flush with the ground, and looked quite similar to the many greenhouse examples I have seen over the years, if perhaps slightly larger. The colour similarity between the facial islands and the surrounding scattered stones was also quite apparent.

The farmer’s dogs were running around and over the Lithops as I carefully knelt down and prepared to take photographs. I did not want to squash any of the plants I had come all the way from England to see, but it was obvious that sometimes yet seemingly to no ill effect, these individual Lithops survived being trodden on by either paws, feet or even hooves.

As I started taking photographs it began to rain and then it began to pour down. More Lithops were pointed out a little further on so I made my way to photograph those also, now in a torrential downpour (Fig. 3). It was raining so hard that the cold water hitting my back through my saturated shirt actually made me gasp for breath. Even so it was amazing to watch the seed capsules open before my very eyes, just as nature intended.

Now completely soaked I admitted defeat and returned to the car with Naureen and Des, only to see my wife deep in conversation with the farmer. I could see rain dripping from the farmer’s nose, yet dressed only in shirt and trousers (as was Debra) he seemed oblivious to the weather as they chatted away. I am not sure Debra was quite so comfortable in the driving rain, but she made no complaint.

A life ambition of mine had now been fulfilled, yet in circumstances I never imagined. Even Naureen and Des said they had never before in all their years of field research studied a Lithops locality in such torrential rain. I am left with a heightened appreciation of how important the preservation of wild localities really is. During this trip I learnt from Des that the type locality of Lithops hallii var. ochracea was devastated by a road building project many years ago. Indeed it is currently unknown if any C59 survive at the original locality. Lithops are actually wild plants and that is where they should be left to grow, undisturbed by the commercial wants of a materialistic society. If only!

Fig. 1: Lithops lesliei subsp. lesliei var. rubrobrunnea, my first wild Lithops. Photographed by the author.

Fig. 2: Lithops lesliei subsp. lesliei var. rubrobrunnea. A close neighbour to Fig. 1 with an open seed capsule. Photographed by the author.

Fig. 3: Lithops lesliei subsp. lesliei var. rubrobrunnea in the pouring rain. Photographed by the author.