A constant source of Wonder
Article and photographs supplied by Tom Kinniburg
The dry mountains and valleys of the Karoo may look dull and lifeless to some, but they are teeming with life. From tiny Lithops or “Living Stones” of the Knersvlakte to the giant Kokerbome/Quiver Trees of the Richtersveld, these plants have managed to adapt to a harsh, unforgiving climate where rainfall is minimal and temperatures are extreme.
The exotic nature of these unusual plants includes their vivid, often extraordinary, flowers – one of their coveted features. Then there is the appeal of the strangely beautiful forms, from the numerous gem like beauties to the intriguingly grotesque.
For those who travel, it is fascinating and educational to visit the areas where cacti and succulents grow naturally. A new depth of understanding is to be gained from seeing the plants in their native habitats. Many people travel from all over the world to experience our rich natural heritage. Our spring flower season is one of nature’s most spectacular gifts. Many of the plants that flower over this time, particularly in Namaqualand, are small succulents that remain dormant for most of the year, appearing almost dead, and then suddenly they spring to life and treat us to a sensory experience.
Several people now offer guided succulent tours in parts of the Karoo to share their vast knowledge of the flora indigenous to those areas. Many are community-based initiatives and I hope they are well supported into the future. One of South Africa’s natural gems is undoubtedly the Karoo Botanical Garden in Worcester; it contains Africa’s biggest collection of succulents from all over Southern Africa.
The collection was first started in Matjiesfontein and then most of the plants were moved to Worcester in the 1930s. Some of the plants remain in Matjiesfontein and the larger specimens that were planted there can still be seen growing next to the Lord Milner Hotel today.
WHY CHOOSE TO GROW CACTI & SUCCULENTS?
There is a fascination in watching any plant grow, as it matures into a well-grown specimen and an object of beauty. When it comes to cacti and succulents there is a particular appeal on several levels. Their exotic nature, often unusual colors and forms and very beautiful flowers can be a constant source of wonder and enjoyment. Your curiosity is stimulated as a plant grows and changes in your care, and you begin to understand how and why it responds in a certain way, the way that is natural for it.
Our climate here in the Western Cape is ideally suited for most cacti and succulents and many people are changing their mind-set with regards to including these plants in their gardens.
Modern architectural styles and improved design principles have made using large Aloes and cacti as form plants more appealing to Western Cape home owners. Our strong south-easter and long dry periods in the summer months present challenges when establishing a garden and more people are opting to make use of cacti and succulents in container gardens or landscaped beds and rock gardens. At Namib Garden we specialise in rock and pebble gardens, incorporating indigenous Aloes and succulents that flower at different times of the year, and exotic cacti from South America that complement the style of gardens we offer.
It is a myth that cacti and succulents don’t need water. Just like any other living thing, they do. By establishing themselves in semi-desert areas of the world and adapting over millennia to their environment, these plants have the ability to store water more effectively than most other plants and can endure long periods of drought.
Some in their natural habitat get very little or no rain through the course of each year and rely solely on mist coming from the oceans or dew drops that they somehow manage to filter down to their roots. They can, however, be over-watered and to ensure the good health of these plants they need well-drained soil which should dry out between watering times and, as I tell all my customers , “The only way to kill these plants is with too much kindness!” Some species such as Pachypodium namaquanum (Halfmens) require water very seldom, I usually tell people to only water them when Bafana Bafana actually win a game!
Practical considerations make cacti and succulents especially suitable plants for cultivation in modern homes. You can leave cacti and succulents for a few weeks while you go on holiday without making arrangements for them to be watered. On your return, they will not be wilting or dead, like most other plants. Also, space may be limited in today’s homes, and it is quite possible to grow cacti and succulents in a small space. All that is needed is careful selection of miniature species and forms. You will be spoiled for choice.
RESPONSIBLE WATER USE
Other than the practical and aesthetic value of these plants, there is also a strong social responsibility side to having more water-wise plants in our gardens. Our fresh water resources are dwindling at an alarming rate. Whether it is tap water or ground water which is being
wasted, it is not a readily-renewable resource and should be used as sparingly as possible. Much of the ground water which is being tapped through boreholes and wells has taken hundreds, perhaps thousand of years to accumulate and it is being used or polluted faster than it is being replenished. At the rate we are going, before we know it, we will be short of clean drinking water, never mind water to irrigate lush gardens and golf courses. Recently the state government of Arizona , USA, began to offer home-owners a tax rebate of $28 per square metre of lawn they remove from their property. The large cities and towns like Phoenix and Tucson are located in a similar climatic zone to places like Beaufort West and Laingsburg, but despite the arid climate there, suburban gardens have sprawling lawns, huge swimming pools and water-guzzling gardens, but that is all about to change.