The Diaz Cross near Lűderitz.

Lithops around Lűderitz

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

In August 2014 together with my wife Debbie, we visited Lűderitz on the south west coast of Namibia, which, according to the local tee-shirt, is a “small drinking town with a fishing problem”! Although there is an excellent tarred road all of the 816km between Lűderitz and Windhoek (and a further 45km to the International Airport), time limitations necessitated an internal flight which needed to be booked many months in advance.

Prior to that internal flight, a few days in Windhoek enabled a visit to a colony of Lithops pseudotruncatella subsp./var. pseudotruncatella I had driven past several times in recent years. On those occasions time had again been against me, but this time I had pre-arranged a visit in the company of Sonja Loots of the National Botanical Research Institute of Namibia. Sonja has been monitoring this locality for several years, and has tagged around 400 of the plants (Fig. 1.). The colony is almost certainly the C068 Cole collection locality, and is unofficially regarded by some as the alpina form, the plants tending to the small end of the var. pseudotruncatella size range. At first glance the growing area was unremarkable bush-cum scrub-veld, but closer examination soon revealed hidden treasures. The area had previously been part of a private farm, but had now become incorporated within the townlands of a Rheoboth “suburb” and in effect is now public ground. Anyone can now graze their cows or goats on the land, and this increase in livestock has seen the loss of natural grasses and the encroachment of the surrounding bush. Sonja explained that the presence of many seedling Acacia mellifera was indicative of bush encroachment and cause for concern. Further concerns were raised by the presence of a newly scraped nearby gravel road, and the obvious driving of a tracked bulldozer very close to the perimeter of the growing area. The plants themselves however remained plentiful and healthy, even if very difficult to find due to the dry conditions and consequent dust covering. On blowing away the dust, pristine markings on the plant faces could be clearly seen (Fig. 2.), just peeking out from within the protective old shells which clearly displayed the hymen feature (Fig. 3.) so indicative of this species. These plants were ready for a drink and would then burst through their old skins to present themselves to the sunshine. Naturally we replaced the protective dust after taking our photographs and we left the plants wondering when they would get their long awaited drink (Fig. 4.). In fact the rain came just a couple of days later, and Debbie and I were acutely aware of it pounding on the airport roof as we checked in for our flight to Lűderitz. This is an established and healthy colony and although bush encroachment may become an issue, Sonja’s monitoring of the area is most helpful. Also, her status with the Botanical Institute gives her some political clout, and she is going to investigate further the recent human activities we identified to try and protect this important natural area. I wish her well with her efforts, and thank her sincerely for allowing us onto the locality.

Fig. 1. Tagged L. pseudotruncatella "007 James Bond".

Fig. 2. Beautiful patterns waiting to burst forth.

Fig. 3. The distinctive hymen feature of L. pseudotruncatella.

Fig. 4. Waiting for rain.

We arrived in Lűderitz before noon, and after collecting our 4X4, had time enough to drive toward the famous Diaz Cross which forms part of a much larger nature conservation peninsular. At first sight the whole area looks like a barren moonscape completely devoid of vegetation, but closer inspection of the ground reveals a stunning array of succulent plants and lichen, many of which I could not identify. I knew Lithops optica must be around the area somewhere, but as Lithops are never easy to see in habitat I was not surprised when our initial search drew a blank. However, it did not take very long for Debbie to discover our first L. optica, growing on a small raised quartz rockery along with a myriad of other easier to see plants. I later learnt (courtesy of Russell Wagner) the names of some of the other plants, and they included Conophytum saxetanum, Brownanthus, Crassula and even a stumpy Pelargonium. The L. optica was single headed, quite turgid and sported at least 3 seed capsules. We made a mental note of the whereabouts of this one specimen and were delighted the next day to turn the tables, and for once show Tok and Denise Schoeman a habitat Lithops. In fact we met the Schoemans’ in Aus the following day and as usual they delighted us with their local knowledge and led us to some other localities, prior to us collectively returning to our L. optica and her siblings the following day.

It soon transpired that L. optica was quite widespread throughout this nature conservation area, and although much harder to spot than many other plants were well worth the effort. In all Debbie and I visited this peninsular on four occasions, and every time we found L. optica at a different place. Although some spots must have been Cole collection localities, I feel certain others were not. At one point in particular L. optica grew very close to the sea, if not an actual stone’s throw, certainly a javelin throw away (Fig. 5.) . Many specimens were multi-headed (Fig. 6.), some embedded in great wads of old growth (Fig. 7.) indicative of considerable age. Clearly this is not an issue in habitat, whereas in UK cultivation such features would readily become a hot bed of fungal or insect infestation. Most specimens sported pleasant grey shades (Fig. 8.), and we did not find any specimens of ‘Rubra’. Rather, the GPS co-ordinates we had, revealed plants that could only be described as pink tinged at best (Fig. 9.).

Undoubtedly these could be selectively bred to produce true ‘Rubra’ cultivars, but from the evidence I have seen any notion of ‘Rubra’ being considered a botanical variety should be dismissed. The area was beautifully stark, the air dry, the sunshine brilliant and the wind bitingly cold. At times it felt more like Tundra than Veld, although springbok and flamingos provided an instant reminder that this was still Africa. Subsequently we visited another L. optica locality to the north of Lűderitz, and found very similar open windowed plants (Fig. 10.) growing on a rocky hillside overlooking a place where the Namib Sands meet the Atlantic Ocean. It was all quite stunning, and I made sure I took the time to simply sit and enjoy all that surrounded me.

Fig. 5. The author on location; right hand on Conophytum saxetanum, left hand on L. optica (photograph © Debra Green).

Fig. 6. A multi-headed L. optica.

Fig. 7. Wads of old growth providing evidence of great age.

Fig. 8. L. optica showing typical colouration.

Fig. 9. The pinkest specimen we found. Definitely more rosé than ‘Rubra’.

Fig. 10. L. optica north of Lűderitz.

On our second Lűderitz day we drove east and met with Windhoek residents Denise and Tok Schoeman in Aus. Quite by chance Russell Wagner of the USA had been exploring to the south in order to photograph Cheiridopsis, and he also joined us for a short while. Tok is most knowledgeable about habitat Lithops in Namibia, and it was a very short drive indeed to the first locality of the day which was L. karasmontana subsp. bella. Most likely this constitutes the Cole collection locality of C285, or at least part of it. Desmond and Naureen Cole wrote of a subsp. bella locality in Aus that had become a rubbish dump in a 2010 article published in the Mesemb Study Group Bulletin, but this locality had been spared. Tok quickly pointed out beautiful large clumps of subsp. bella growing among calcrete like rocks, surprisingly close to the road.

All of the specimens I saw were quite distinctive with neatly defined windowed areas and islands (Figs. 11 & 12). Most were relatively turgid, although one clump that grew in a slightly more exposed position was accordingly slightly more dishevelled (Fig. 13.), and slightly better camouflaged. Clearly this was a well established colony that had survived and thrived through many years of nearby human habitation. If ever the “town” were to be expanded the area could become a building site, although at this point in time I feel it unlikely. It could even be that some of the good people of Aus know of these plants and are protective of them. We can but hope.

Fig. 11. A double headed L. karasmontana subsp. bella.

Fig. 12. L. karasmontana subsp. bella; a clump of senior years.

Fig. 13. L. karasmontana subsp. bella; more exposed than most.

We drove on to a farm gate to which Tok had been handed they key, as L. karasmontana subsp. bella were known to grow some distance behind it. Unfortunately the lock had seized and try as we did, we could not open it. We failed also to locate a colony of Titanopsis and another of L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii, probably due to prolonged dryness in the area. We headed back toward Lűderitz and struck “gold” in the Halenberg Hills. Tok led us to a beautiful locality of L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii that may constitute Cole C370. The plants were growing on top of a rocky hill which I scrambled up as best I could. In my usual way I blundered around looking for my first specimen, only to be surprised by the sight of Denise quietly looking down at some lovely clumps ahead of me. She had taken the easy way up, having walked along an old military foot path that I later learned from Naureen Cole, had been constructed around the time of the First World War.

Since then the Lithops had moved in and many beautiful and old specimens could be seen all around. One multi-headed plant even grew in the middle of the old path (Fig. 14.), clear evidence that humans rarely pass by on foot any more. Unfortunately human activity of the digger and bulldozer type was evident at the foot of the hill, but hopefully the steep and rugged terrain occupied by the Lithops will keep the locality safe. The plants I saw were clearly different from the subsp. bella I had seen earlier, having distinctly narrow windows reduced to fine lines in many instances (Fig. 15.). Once again the wads of old growth (Fig. 16.) were fascinating to see, and clearly they perform a protective role to the younger “photosynthetic growth” in habitat.

Fig. 14. L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii growing in the middle of an old path.

Fig. 15. L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii; fine lines and camouflage.

Fig. 16. L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii; wads of protective old growth.

Just a short drive further and still in the Halenberg Hills, we came to L. francisci, a locality that is quite likely C371. Evidence of grit extraction was quite stark very close by, and a large loading bay dominated the landscape as we looked down from the hillside. The plants themselves though were wonderful to see in habitat, their grey faces dotted with multiple dusky dots that actually look quite cryptic against some of the rocks (Fig. 17.). Some L. francisci were growing wedged in rock fissures, while others grew in grit and enjoyed (or endured) a more open aspect (Fig. 18.). Clearly there had been recent drought, although undoubtedly the plants could and probably would survive even more. In such a shrivelled condition, I can easily imagine this yellow flowering species being mistaken for its white flowering neighbour, L. karasmontana subsp. eberlanzii, and just possibly this may help explain the mystical “L. halenbergensis”. As pointed out by Tok and Russell, other plants close by included Namibia ponderosa and Crassula ausensis, although for me L. francisci was the star of the show (Fig. 19.).

Fig. 17. L. francisci in a rock crevice.

Fig. 18. L. francisci in grit.

Fig. 19. L. francisci; a beautiful habitat clump.

Fig. 20. A type of horned viper (photograph © Debra Green).

We drove back to Lűderitz through a raging sand storm which I understand is quite common in the area. We said goodbye to Tok, Denise and Russell the following day and as previously mentioned explored the general area some more. Subsequently we happened upon a great whale carcass inhabited by a beautiful, although somewhat dangerous, horned viper (Fig. 20.). Once again I send sincere thanks to Tok and Denise Schoeman for their kindness and hospitality during our visit. I always leave Southern Africa wanting to return, and this trip was no exception.

References:- Cole, D.T. & N.A. (2010) ‘Lithoparian Recollections - Part 20, Mesemb Study Group Bulletin, 25 (3), pp. 61-66.

Footnote:- Reproduced here is part of an e-mail I received from Sonja Loots on 22-09-2014 (a month after our visit) concerning the C068 Cole locality mentioned in the second paragraph above. It is tragic and self-explanatory.

Dear Keith, It is with great sadness and hesitation that I write this message to you. The majority of… [C068]… has been irrevocably destroyed… Apparently a farmer has purchased a piece of land which included the Lithops population. He sent the bulldozer in there weeks ago already to collect the gravel to fill up elsewhere. I don't know the farmer and I have not been able to get a hold of him yet. We only found a few remaining plants close to the fence and the tree where we left our bags when we were there in August… I never expected such a tragedy. Sure, people steal plants, but for the entire population to disappear in blink of an eye... my worst nightmare. Hartseer groete Regards Sonja .