SOME NORTHERN CAPE COLONIES

by Keith Green (photographs also by the author).

 

 

Together with my wife Debra I returned to the “Rainbow Nation” in May 2011 for a holiday that encompassed some observation and photography of Lithops in habitat. Although our respective employers only allowed us two weeks, some forward planning led to some fascinating encounters.

We based ourselves in Upington and met with local resident and plant enthusiast Christiaan van Schalkwyk soon after our arrival. Upington is a town situated on the banks of the Orange River (the Gariep) within the “Green Kalahari” area of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province. The area is clean and crime levels are low, but the sight of children openly begging on the streets is disconcerting to say the least. There has been recent urban expansion but most noticeable were the extensive irrigated vineyards that line both sides of the river and which most likely will have led to the demise of many succulent plants. On arrival, the cluster of Lithops localities shown around Upington on the distribution maps in Flowering Stones soon become tiny and sparse niches. Therefore, without the prior information supplied by Professor Desmond Cole and his wife Naureen, together with Christiaan’s local knowledge, we would not have found Lithops. However, over two days together with Christiaan we found three varieties of Lithops bromfieldii thriving at four localities and on a separate trip set up in part by the Coles, Debra and I visited the locality of C416, L. julii subsp./var. fulleri on a farm west of Kakamas.

The first locality we visited was that of L. bromfieldii var. mennellii. I cannot be sure if we found C044 or C283 (or both) but after initially searching unsuccessfully we were led to the plants by a local lady (apparently dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown!) who Christiaan fortunately knew. Without Christiaan’s fluent Afrikaans and familiarity I suspect we would have been ushered away. None the less it turned out this lady was a succulent grower herself and was therefore doing her bit for conservation, which I entirely applaud. Once we recommenced our search we quickly found the plants growing on what appeared to be waste ground, and we crossed a trampled down and rusty wire fence to access them. The Lithops were abundant, beautiful and fully turgid from recent heavy summer rains. They were growing on sloping rocky ground among grass which had grown quite high likewise due to the rain. Given that these were wild plants I was astonished to see how pristine they appeared as can be seen in figs. 1 & 2. Agriculture and general commercial activities were apparent nearby, but there currently appears to be little demand for this land. Therefore with the exception of the odd goat, var. mennellii appears safe in habitat at least for the time being.

Our second locality was L. bromfieldii var. insularis at either C042 or C043 (or both). I cannot be exactly sure where the Coles collected and given that the Lithops here grow along an extended undulating ridge, it may well be we wandered from one C-locality into the next. The growing area was very steep and we were all stabbed and scratched by acacia thorns as we climbed. Many of the rocks were distributed in a linear fashion and we found many Lithops growing within the furrows (fig. 3). Clearly and uniformly var. insularis in appearance, this proved to be another very healthy population growing where it seems to be safe from any human threat. I found my first ever habitat flowering Lithops here (fig. 4) on a date I will never forget; May 10, my mother’s birthday.

Locality number three of the day was also L. bromfieldii var. insularis but this time around the C057 colony. Here the farm has been developed into a new small community with improved and tarred road access (although I saw no home with a car) and improved (although extremely basic) housing. There had also been some prospecting for the mineral feldspar, but fortunately for the local flora it had proved to be of poor quality and mining had been stopped. I saw Lithops growing right on the edge of an excavation, so most likely many went away with the spoil. None the less this remains another thriving population. Indeed, I have never before seen habitat Lithops growing so densely packed together (fig. 5), and in places it really was impossible to walk without treading on them. There was quite a variety in size and colour which did not always appear to be directly related to the individual growing position of a given plant. Mostly though, the larger and duller plants grew with more shelter from the sun by way of rocks and other vegetation than the smaller and brighter ones. Fig. 6 is one of many photographs I took at this locality, but rest assured I also made time to stand and take in my surroundings. From the top of the ridge we had lovely views back toward the distant hills and the localities of C042 and C043. As the local residents understandably appear to be indifferent to their local flora, my assumption is that this is another relatively safe Lithops population.

Later that day we looked but failed to find L. hallii var. ochracea. We were unable to make the drive to the C372 locality due to the condition of the dirt road (and lack of a 4X4), so then headed for C059 only to find that reports of this colonies demise may well be true. The C059 locality has been extensively developed with industrial units (named Updustria), roads, quarrying and a squatter camp all apparent. Although the soil colour and stones around the area looked completely correct, we failed to find Lithops. True, we could have searched for longer but our efforts were hampered by having to keep an eye on our hire car which was attracting attention from people heading to the squatter camp. At one point I had to make a swift return to chase away a boy who was trying to force open the driver door!

Later that week Debra and I travelled west of Kakamas to meet with a farmer who is custodian to the C416 locality of L. julii subsp./var. fulleri. The dirt road to his farm was in a terrible state and I was a little concerned on a few occasions that our saloon car would make the distance. However, to the relief of everyone, it did. The farmer greeted us and drove us in his 4X4 over his land of 13,000 hectares (just about economically viable in South Africa) to a beautiful quartzite strewn spot where we found var. fulleri in flower. The flowers were not completely open but were none the less a beautiful white, some with a tinge of pink in the petal tips (fig. 7). Again the plant bodies were pristine, firm to the touch and very well camouflaged. The facial patterns were variable and one particularly beautiful specimen sported an open pale blue face framed within reddish-ochre (fig. 8). The farmer’s ancestors have worked this farm over many generations and he personally had been aware of this locality ever since he was a young boy.

Our host also drove us on his land to see two other localities of flowering succulents. The first was of Dinteranthus pole-evansii and fig. 9 shows a particularly large specimen growing under a shrub. The second was of Conophytum friedrichiae (fig. 10), the plant-bodies of which were soft to the touch and almost obscured by the flowers. On returning to the farm house the farmer’s wife treated us to tea, cakes and generous hospitality. This family seldom speak English but were very much better at doing so than my pitiful efforts with Afrikaans. Our hosts were delightful company and we are both most grateful for their time and help. From their farm we travelled up to the Augrabies Falls National Park, where the destruction of some of the waterfall viewing platforms was testament to the recent heavy rains.

On our return to Upington a few days later we again met with Christiaan and this time drove to find L. bromfieldii var. bromfieldii. Again I cannot be sure if we found C040 or C041 (or both or neither), but we did find two well populated koppies on the same large farm (fig. 11). Debra spotted the first Lithops growing within one of many delightful natural rockeries that also contained plants of the genus Anacampseros, which appear to be common “bedfellows” with Lithops (fig. 12). Many Lithops were typical var. bromfieldii in appearance but others showed somewhat var. insularis tendencies as well (hence varietal status). The second koppie we climbed on the same farm was 3km away from the first, but was almost identical in terrain. It therefore seems likely that var. bromfieldii occupies many of the koppies on this farm and even beyond, but time dictated we could not explore further. The sun was now setting and we had to head back to town. That was the end of our Lithops observations and we spent the remainder of our holiday watching a wealth of other South African wildlife coupled with a drive to see the historic diamond town of Kimberley.

Since the Coles first explored this area there has been change which has not been particularly good for Lithops. However, I am pleased to report that healthy populations do remain and will hopefully continue to do so through future generations. The more I encounter Lithops in the veld the more I admire the fundamental field research undertaken by the Coles in classifying this genus. Their knowledge has been painstakingly accumulated over many years of studying the plants in the habitats they have evolved to fill, and will most likely never be equalled.

My thanks go to Naureen and Des once again for their invaluable help, especially in relation to C416. We send sincere thanks also to Christiaan for his company and for giving up his time to lead us to the various localities around Upington.

Fig. 1. A pristine double headed var. mennellii.

Fig. 2. A multi-headed habitat var. mennellii.

Fig. 3. Var. insularis within rock furrows and with developing seed capsule.

Fig. 4. Var. insularis; my first habitat flower.

Fig. 5. Dense clumps of var. insularis at C057.

Fig. 6. Habitat var. insularis at C057.

Fig. 7. C416 var. fulleri in bud.

Fig. 8. Var. fulleri with open windows.

Fig. 9. Dinteranthus pole-evansii.

Fig. 10. Conophytum friedrichiae.

Fig. 11. L. bromfieldii var. bromfieldii 15km ENE Upington.

Fig. 12. Var. bromfieldii growing with Anacampseros.

References

Cole, D.T. (1988) Lithops Flowering Stones. Randburg: Acorn Books.

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