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PLANTS

The area south of Laingsburg is a very interesting one in terms of Haworthia distribution. Only a few km south of the town one can find three different species on a single hill. Haworthia pehlemaniae, H. arachnoidea var. scabrispina and H. lockwoodii grow here within a few hundred metres from each other.

The mountain slopes flanking the Rooinek Pass south of here is known to hide the rare H. wittebergensis and close to it one finds a H. arachnoidea-related plant with very dark almost black leaves covered with white teeth and which has flowers that appear the same time and also look the same as those of H. marumiana var. dimorpha.

Hikers are likely to find the Haworthia – keep an eye out for them.

The hidden mystery Haworthia of the Rooinek Pass revealed

By Gerhard Marx

The area south of Laingsburg is very interesting one in terms of Haworthia distribution. Only a few kilometres south of the town one can find three different species on a single hill. Haworthia pehlemaniae, H. arachnoidea var. scabrispina and H. lockwoodii grow here within a few hundred metres from each other. The mountain slopes flanking the Rooinek Pass south of here is known to hide the rare H. wittebergensis and close to it one finds a Arachnoidea-related plant with very dark almost black leaves covered with white teeth and which has flowers that appear at the same time and also look the same as those of H. marumiana var. dimorpha. On the flats and low foothills to the south of the mountains one again finds typical H. arachnoidea var scabrispina var. nigricans and a very beautiful form of H. pumila.

For many years there have been rumours of a retusoid Haworthia occurring somewhere on the slopes near the Rooinek Pass. Kobus Venter followed up on the rumours and visited the area during 1992. Kobus managed to see only a single plant during his visit and concluded that it was a form of H. bayeri. Somehow thereafter this “H.bayeri from the Rooinek Pass faded from the general attention and never appeared in cultivation. In 1999 M.B. Bayer mentioned it very briefly in Haworthia Revisited as part of the discussion of the distribution of H. bayeri. The known distribution for H. bayeri centres on De Rust in the Little Karoo and extends as far as Willowmore in the east and Oudtshoorn in the west. Most of the latter localities are small isolated spots on the slopes of low hills covered with quartzite and quartzite conglomerate pebbles. The average altitude of these localities is between 500 and 800m.

Ever since I first heard the reports of a H. bayeri-like plant growing so far removed from the latter area I felt that it would be extremely interesting and very unusual to find the same species reappearing again after a gap of more than 150km and in the rather high mountain slopes of the Rooinek Pass which lies at 1100m altitude. This was something that simply had to be followed up and properly investigated.

After a few fruitless searches in the area, there was no alternative but to try and get some information from the local people who were involved with the original discovery of the plant. I was very lucky to have met Martin Scott, ex-Nature Conservation office and owner of the farm Keurfontein south-west of Laingsburg. Martin also has a keen interest in succulents and owns a succulent nursery in Oudtshoorn. He helped to trace Mrs A W van der Vyver, daughter of the late succulent enthusiast Mrs Gesie du Plessis who had the original collected specimen of this species in her collection. During a visit to Mrs van de Vyver, she told Martin and me that it was Mr Piet Sas, a farm labourer, who accidentally came across these plants way back in the late 1980’s during a lynx hunt in the mountains. She knew more or less where Piet had found the plant and explained to us that it would involve about a three kilometre walk from the nearest road on very steep and rugged slopes. We calculated that there was enough daylight left to try it and went immediately on a search. It was a tiring but exciting walk and every now and then we encountered interesting succulents such as Huernia barata, Haworthia wittebergensis, and Haworthia aff. Arachnoidea/dimorpha, a beautiful short-leaved Glottiphyllum and a form of Senecio articulates with neat rounded and attractively mottled stem segments. But unfortunately, no H. bayeri-like plants despite thorough searching. We returned to the vehicle with bruised feet and the knowledge that the only solution would be to try and locate the original discoverer Piet Sas.

Martin Scott did some enquiries and managed to contact Piet Sas and arranged a meeting with him. A few weeks later in early October we met up with Piet and described to him the “flat grey rosette-shaped plant with triangular leaves” that we were looking for. Piet then said that the plant we want to see does not grow in the mountains, but on the low foothills south of the mountains! I immediately though that it sounds more like a possible habitat for H. bayeri and maybe this is going to be H. bayeri after all! Piet took us to low quartzite slopes to the south-west of the Rooinek Pass and we stopped along a shale hill slope covered with loose quartzite pebbles. The first succulent we noticed was the rare Lithops-like Tanquana hilmari. While we were still looking at the Tanquanas Piet suddenly shouted “Here it is!” We ran over to where the pointing Piet stood and below his finger in the ground were a few specimens of Deilanthe peersii. Poor Piet was so disappointed to see our disappointment!

We explained how the plant that we are looking for differs from the Deilanthe but no light appeared in Piet’s eyes. Martin remembered then that he had a plant of H. bayeri in a pot at his house on Keurfontein from which is only a few kilometres to the west. We drove to Martin’s farmhouse and the moment we showed the H. bayeri plant to Piet, his memory came back and he said that more than sixteen years ago he did indeed collect a similar plant high up on the mountain slopes.

With renewed enthusiasm we returned to the slopes near the Rooinek Pass and started climbing. We followed over rocks and boulders in the swift footsteps of Piet who must be over sixty but still as comfortable as a young mountain goat on these slopes. As we climbed he told us one story after another about the numerous lynx hunts he did as a younger man in these mountains.

About three-quarters to the top Piet slowed down along a steep southern slope covered with large sandstone rock slabs and Renoster bush shrubs. This was the area where he had found it, he said I prepared for yet another disappointment because this was not the type of terrain where one would normally find a recuse-leaved Haworthia. We started looking in crevices and below the Renoster bushes and as I searched a bit to the west I found the dark-leaved H. arachnoidea-dimorphia thing again. That reduced my hopes even more because I wondered whether yet another Haworthia would really be growing so closely alongside it. But then Piet shouted that he had found a plant and Martin and I moved as quickly as humanly possible over the rock slabs towards a yet again pointing Piet. This time I could not believe my eyes when I looked down at a beautiful purple-black ”Ariocarpus retusus”hiding in the leaf debris in front of Piet. Truly unbelievable, one of the most surprising and impressive sights I have seen in my life!

An intensified search followed in the immediate area and after an hour or so we found another dozen plants. Strange how it is that we now found the plants in spots where we had searched before but having the correct search image in mind helps tremendously. Still, it was clear that this must be one of the most well hidden Haworthias in the wild. None were as large and clean and growing as visible as that first plant Piet found. Plants growing in flat soil pockets in the shade near the bases of Renoster bushes were not only covered by the leaf debris of the Renoster bushes, but also covered the soil that seem to stick to the leaves. Just like several Ariocarpus cactus species, the younger leaves seem to have a stickiness that allows soil particles to cling to the surface and which camouflage these plants incredibly well. Only when we applied some of our drinking water to the leaves could we see the windowed upper surfaces with facial lines that do indeed remind a lot of H. bayeri. Most of the plants have the same silvery white longitudinal lines, sometimes curving and branching sideways to form reticulated patterns near the base of the leaf windows, just like in H bayeri. However, several plants displayed white flecks in the windows and some even have opaque black islands inside the longitudinal lines, as in the case of H. emelyae. H, bayeri never has white flecking in between the lines and is one of the characters that distinguish it from H. emelyae. The thought that came to mind at that moment was that his really looks like an intermediate from between H. bayeri and H emelyae.

But I realised another interesting fact: this was early October and all populations of H bayeri and H emelyae would be either in flower or in fruit at this time. None of these plants showed any sign of young flower buds or even old remaining flower peduncles. Which means that these plants flower at an entirely different time than both abovementioned species.

Permission was obtained from the landowner to do regular follow-up visits which eventually revealed that the flowering time of these plants is during February. The flowering time is therefore the same as the H. magnifica and H mirabilis as well as more distantly related H wittebergensis and H. marumiana var. dimorphia, including the H. arachnoidea look-alike with dimorphia flowers that grows alongside the H. bayeri-like species in the Rooinek Pass! Which raised another question: with H. wittebergensis growing, a few hundred metres away and the H. arachnoidea-dimorpha plants growing literally alongside it, what would prevent hybridization between these three species in the wild then? A closer look at the flowers revealed what I believe could partly be the answer: The colours of the inner perianth lobes of the three species differ drastically.

The mouths of the perianths in the H bayeri-like plants are a deep bright green, while it is lime yellow in the H.wittebergensis and a dull brown-green in the H. arachnoidea look-alike. This means that each probably attracts a different pollinator. However, I have never studied the pollinators of Haworthia flowers and the latter assumption is simply the result of superficial guesswork and observations. The biggest question of all remained and that is what to call these dark retuse plants!

After thorough investigation it become increasingly clear that the similarities to both H. bayeri and H. emelyae are all superficial and that we have to do with a very rare and distinct species.

In ALOE Vol 44:1, p 4 Sean Gildenhuys published it as a new species and decided to name it H. marxii. Although I felt honoured to be associated with such an interesting and attractive new species, it is perhaps not quite fully deserved and felt that I had to write this full account of the history of this species and give credit to all the people who played a part in the discovery and rediscovery of it.

I should also immediately add that one can’t fault Kobus Venter for his initial H. bayeri identification, since these plants are indeed quite similar in appearance to H. bayeri due to the dark grey colour of the leaves, the white longitudinal facial lines and the rough leaf texture. But they differ from H bayeri in the more pointed (acuminate) leaves that also spread much more shallowly outwards and once the surface encrustation is removed. H marxii also displays white flecks between the facial lines. The leaves of H. marxii also do not have a distinct keel and are much flatter with only a short keeled area near the tips. Another interesting observation was that these Rooinek Pass plants almost never turn green. Even specimens growing in deep shade and completely covered with dense leaf debris were either dark blue-grey or purple-grey. Compared to H. emelyae there are similarities in the more pointed leaf-shape and the white flecks in the leaf faces, but several differences: the scabrid surfaces, the very dark purplish-black colour and the lack of a well-developed keeled edge on the outside of the leaves. And, as so clearly indicated by the Sean Gildenhuys, the rosettes of Ho. Marxii are much shallower than those of H. emelyae.

But the most important distinctions of the new species are in the structure of the flowers and the flowering time that is completely removed from those of H. emelyae and H bayeri. Looking at the flowering time alone, one automatically thinks of the H. magnifica group that also flowers in mid-summer. Even the dark colour and scabridity cause one to look at H. magnifica var. atrofusca. But the flat disc-shaped rosette and somewhat enkeeled leaves of H. marxii differ from the deeper rosettes and thicker keeled leaves of H. magnifica and it is also geographically quite isolated from the latter group. More importantly, the size and shape of the flowers of the Rooinek species are not typical of those found in H. magnifica. In H magnifica both the lower and upper perianth lobes are almost straight or only very slightly curved upwards. The lower lobes are also much less dramatically recurved as in all above-mentioned allies. Fact remains, the similarities of H. marxii and the H. Magnifica group are enough that it stands just as close to the latter group as to H. emelyae and H. bayeri.

The shape of the perianth of H. marxii calls another group into the picture: H. marumiana, in particular those members that were previously known as varieties of H. archeri. Both H. marumiana var. archeri and H. marumiana var. dimorpha have the same stiff upper perianth lobrs. Furthermore, both are geographically close and there is a dark grey-green form of H. archeri which scabrid but toothless leaves growing only a few kilometres west of the Rooinek Pass near Baviaan Station. So, it may even be genetically closer to H. marxii than one would generally expect at first glance.

An inflorescence feature of H. marxii that should perhaps also be mentioned is the rather long pedicels below the perianths. These can be as long as 8mm. However, this feature is somewhat variable and in some specimens the pedicels were as short as 4mm.

A yet-unmentioned feature that separates the Rooinek plants from all the above returse-leaved species is its very weakly developed root system. Particularly H. bayeri can have quite thick and numerous roots, while in H. marxii the roots are few and remarkably tin for a retusoid Haworthia species. All these factors lead to Sean Gildenhuys’ decision to publish it as a separate species as it was not possible to link it convincingly to any known existing species. Even if one would approach the picture with such a wide and integrating view that species like H. bayeri and H. springbokvlakensis would be included into H. emelyae, then H. marxii would still stand isolated as a result of its floral differences.

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend sincerest gratitude to the following people:

Without the help and shared enthusiasm of Mr Martin Scott the rediscovery of this interesting plant would not have been possible. Neither would it have been possible without the kindness and trust of the landowners of the area: Mr Lou van der Westhuizen, Dr van der Spuy and Ms A. W. van der Vyer.

Lots of appreciation and grateful recognition must also go to the good eyes, good memory and physical fitness of Mr. Piet Sas. Also to Sean Gildenhuys for his honour, enthusiasm, delightful insight and common sense.