Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones
The recent publication of Secrets of Namaqualand Succulents by Florent Grenier is an important addition to South African botanical literature. No other book exists which deals specifically with the succulents and geophytes of Namaqualand, and which shows such enthusiasm for and meticulous observation of the life of this entire plant community.
Florent’s wish is to communicate his enthusiasm for the Namaqualand flora to a wider audience than those already under its spell – and this he most definitely achieves. ‘…The reader is led to reflect on the stresses of life under arid conditions and to wonder at the ingenuity of the solutions Namaqualand plants have up their sleeves.’!
Over the years we have visited Namaqualand many times to marvel at the Spring flowers, but in August 2019 we did things differently and discovered a new treasure – the Knersvlakte. North of the Olifants River between the towns of Vanrhynsdorp and Vredendal there is what looks like a particularly bleak and uninteresting stretch of countryside. It is a vast stony plain covered mainly by small white coarse quartz stones and little scrubby bushes. The name, which means Grinding or Gnashing Plain, is believed to refer to the sound made by ox wagons’ wheels as the early settlers travelled north from the Cape over the quartzite gravel. If you turn off the main tarred road to the north and are able to walk through the veld, an amazing collection of dwarf succulents can be seen. These tiny plants show an indomitable instinct for survival, and are actually assisted by the fact that the white quartzite reflects the sunlight and is therefore not as hot as darker rocks and soil.
We had joined a 7-day Eco-Tour walking group and were lucky to be taken to a protected area not generally accessible to the public. The Knersvlakte is one of the richest and most diverse succulent regions in the world and contains a large concentration of endangered plant species. We were introduced to plants with curious but very descriptive names, such as Baba-boudgies (babies’ bums –Argyroderma delaetii), Krapogies (Crabs’eyes – Oophytum nanum), Duim en vinger (Thumb and finger – Mesembryanthemum digitata), Bushman’s candle (Monsonia crassicaulis) and Sent- kannetjie (Scent bottle – Crassula columnaris) to mention a few.
Of course we took numerous photos and while trying to identify and find out more about these curious plants via the internet I came across a reference to Florent Grenier’s forthcoming book. I also discovered that he was to give a lecture at the Calitzdorp Succulent Society’s Vetplantfees in September. After listening to this young Frenchman who spoke for an hour without a single note and showed fascinating photos and told wonderful stories of how these plants are managing to survive against all odds – we were hooked! We had to have a copy of his book, which he was in the process of self-publishing. Eventually it arrived in Knysna from France at the end of December.
As well as species information, this book contains all sorts of additional information regarding habitat, survival techniques and pollinators. Florent’s discovery of the tiny long-tongued bee-fly (Bombylius eurhinatus) with a body of 9mm and a tongue of 32mm which pollinates white flowers being a case in point.
The main threat to semi-arid regions like Namaqualand throughout the world is desertification caused by overgrazing as well as climate change. Locals explained some of the changes they have observed during the past nine years. Because of the lengthy drought, each year the plants have been getting smaller, some have been flowering earlier, before their pollinators have arrived, which affects reproduction. Overgrazing by sheep, goats and cattle results in the decrease of the shrubby plant cover, possible extinction of fragile plant species and of course soil erosion.
We were shocked to discover that poachers are digging out these tiny plants to sell to collectors mainly in the Far East, but also in Western countries. The more endangered the succulents become, the more desirable they are to collectors who are prepared to pay huge sums to acquire these tiny plants. In 2014 an area of 855 square kilometres was proclaimed a nature reserve. CapeNature does have a Biodiversity Crime Unit which works with the local community to ensure that indigenous plants are not collected illegally – a daunting task in such a vast and remote area. It was good to discover that in 2015 a Spanish couple found in possession of a large number of rare and endemic plants received a heavy sentence – 12 years in prison, suspended for 5 years and a fine of R2 million.
If you would like to learn more about these fascinating plants, the book can be ordered via the Facebook page of ‘Secrets of Namaqualand Succulents’.