The Cactus Patch
Volume 2       October 1999      Number 10

Autumn In My Part of South Africa
by Stephen Cooley

There is a patch of dirt in my backyard which I have devoted to South African succulents. It's not very big, but then neither are the plants in it. In this area I have a wide assortment of South African succulents including Aloes, Euphorbias and geophytes (bulbs). However, the predominate plants belong to the Aizoaceae (the Ice-Plant or Carpet Weed family, the succulent members of which are often placed in their own family, the Mesembryanthemaceae, and collectively called the "mesembs"). Other members of these South African groups sit around in pots in various parts of the yard. Some of them are waiting until they are large enough to be planted out in the ground with their compatriots. Others may have to stay in pots - I haven't yet built up enough courage to put them out into the cruel world of frost, rain, sun, heat, snails, slugs, birds, cats, and stray baseballs. I like to think of these plants as my part of South Africa.

Among my favorites of these succulents are the ones that come from a particular area of South Africa called Namaqualand. Part of the attraction of these plants is that Namaqualand has a similar climate to Bakersfield. Yes, once again, we're talking about the good old Mediterranean climate. This is the climate noted for its wet, mild winters and warm dry summers. Only a few places in the world share this climate: South Africa, Western Australia, Chile, California, and of course, the area around the Mediterranean Sea. Bakersfield tends to stretch the definition a bit, having fairly cold winters that aren't quite wet enough, and very hot, completely dry summers. These Namaqualand succulents are what make Autumn a special event in my part of South Africa.

Many of these plants have been dormant all summer. Cheiridopsis and Conophytum leave no doubt that they are going to sleep during the dryness and heat. The old leaves of these gradually dry up at the end of spring. These leaves form a paper-like covering over the growing buds beneath. In Conophytum what you are left with are small wrinkled marbles, completely encased in their paper wrappings. Cheiridopsis also wraps its leaves in a sheath of dried tissue, as do Argyroderma, Mitrophyllum, and Antimima. Some may leave parts exposed, or shrivel in size, or wrinkle and wither and in general look pretty miserable or dead. This is definitely not the time for showing off your winter-growing mesembs collection. On the other hand, it is a pretty good time to sit back and marvel at these tiny plants. They look dead, but touch one and you can feel it hiding under the layer of dead skin. Though these dormant plants look as if they will flake away and blow off in the next breeze they are waiting patiently for the days to grow shorter and the temperatures to decline.

As I write this in early September, things are changing. My winter-growing succulents are beginning to show a little life. A crack appears in the covering of a Conophytum. A Cheiridopsis looks a little fatter. Aloes look greener. I begin to watch them everyday, waiting for them to begin the growing season and hoping that there will be flowers I haven't seen and plants that flourish greater than my expectations. Most of my plants are young, many of them are still seedlings. I have yet to see most of them flower or reach a mature cluster. Each new growing season there is something new to see.

Here is what's happening in my garden:

Conophytum minimum went to sleep late last spring a single headed plant about the size of a dime. Now it is bursting from under its covers, revealing not two, but three heads. Likewise, two of my baby Conophytum marginatum have split into two heads. Conophytum seedlings as small as a grain of sand and less than a year old have made it through the dry, hot summer - protected only by their thin paper covering. Now tiny green eyes peer from between cracks in the paper covering.

Cheiridopsis schlecteri and Cheiridopsis herrei, planted from seed last fall, have burst their paper sheaths and are already as large, or larger than, when they went dormant. Cheiridopsis peculiaris has spent all summer in what appears to be a small papier-mache urn. It has begun to swell and soon will split open the paper and reveal two large flat leaves. These leaves will look nothing like the upright "clamshell" leaves that were on the plant when it went dormant. That's why it is named peculiaris.

Diplosoma retroversum is supposed to go dormant over the summer, but it never did. It looks great, but as I compare it to the picture in Mesembs of the World I begin to wonder if it really is Diplosoma after all. My plant resembles more a cross between Lithops and Argyroderma and nothing like the picture of Diplosoma. Perhaps it is an entirely new and accidental hybrid from the greenhouses of Mesa Garden that made it into my seed order.

Mitrophyllum dissitum still slumbers, but beneath the papery sheath the plant is still firm, a good sign that it will emerge eventually.

My seedlings of Monilaria pisiformis appear to be so fond of dormancy that they have decided to make the condition permanent.

All summer Antimima has looked more like a clump of dead and dried twigs than the miniature shrub that it is. Today I see new leaves pushing out from the branch tips. Soon it will be a small bush again, covering itself with purple blossoms.

Sceletium has an unusual dormant state. The leaves dry up and parts flake away, leaving only the skeleton of the leaf behind. A bundle of these skeletons encase the buds, protecting them. Mine has now started to enlarge the leaves, but it never really did go dormant and form those skeletons.

Aloe variegata and I play the same game every summer. As the heat and dryness progress over the course of the season, its leaves gradually desiccate. They wither and shrink, the lower leaves drying into lifeless cardboard at the base of the plant. All the while the plant appears to be screaming "Water me." The object of this game is not to water it no matter how much it asks. Okay, maybe I water it a little - I'm weak. The problem is, if it gets too much water during its dormancy it will rot and die. This year it appears that I have won the game, the new leaves in the middle are plump and green and preparing to emerge (A confession: I cheat, I admit it. When I am losing the game and the Aloe starts to rot, it usually falls over. At this point I clean off the base, remove any mushy parts and allow it to dry out. I then repot it, keeping it fairly dry until fall. New roots will form and the plant can be put into the garden again).

Pelargonium incrassatum is a tuberous 'Geranium' hiding under the ground all summer. The slightest hint of green has just shown itself in the crown of the plant. I had to look hard to see it. Actually, I dug down a bit. Okay, I dug till I found the tuber and spread out the old leaf stems so that I could see it.

My Dudleya has started to expand from beneath its dried rosette of leaves. Though Dudleya does not come from South Africa (mine is a California native) it still behaves much the same way - slowly dying all summer until miraculously, sometime in early fall, it reverses its course and begins growing - much to my relief (even though the Dudleya and I have been through this for several years, I can't help but wonder each summer if I will ever see it growing again) .

Soon the South African succulents will look as if they never went dormant at all. When the rains come they will grow rapidly. The cool rains will germinate last year's seeds of Dorotheanthus, an annual mesemb with spectacular flowers. Deep winter water will bring the South African bulbs up among the other succulents. By March my little part of South Africa will look like a meadow and not a desert. That should be exciting, too.

Seeds & Plants:
Mesa Garden
PO Box 72
Belen, NM 87002
seed catalog & plant catalog free (no pictures)
Living Stones Nursery
2936 N. Stone Ave
Tucson, Arizona 85705
plant catalog $2 (redeemable with first order)
Good Books:
Mesembs of the World by Gideon F, Smith and others.
Succulent Flora of Southern Africa by Doreen Court
Check the Club Library for these:
Growing the Mesembs by Ed Storms
Succulents: Illustrated Dictionary by M. Saieva & M. Costanzo
Succulent Riches of South Africa & Namibia Aloe (Journal of the Succulent Society of South Africa)

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