Mediterranean Garden Society
A Botanical Tour of Namaqualand
by Andrew Sloan
photographs by Andrew Sloan
Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 111, January 2023
The photo at the top of this page shows a Quiver tree forest (Aloe dichotoma) in Namaqualand (Photo Andrew Sloan)
Andrew Sloan, who gardens in southern Spain, has a magnificent collection of aloes which he has photographed for us as a resource for all those interested in growing and identifying this eye-catching genus. He writes:
I would like to share my wonderful experience of a 12-day round trip from Cape Town to the Namibian border of the Richtersveld, through the provinces of the Western and Northern Capes of South Africa. The trip was planned for the last two weeks of August 2022 to coincide with the incredible mass flowering event of the Namaqualand daisies in the desert, as well as to see growing in their natural habitat numerous other species that are seen in collections such as conophytums, lithops, aloes, pachypodiums and mesembryanthemums. The tour was organised by Guillermo Rivera (plantexpeditions.com) who runs botanical trips to several countries in Africa, South America and Asia. This was his fifth trip to South Africa.
Namaqualand is a semi-arid to arid region, located in west South Africa to the north of Cape Town. It is bordered by the Cederberg mountains in the south, Bushmanland to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Namibian border, marked by the Orange River, to the north. It is a place of extremes, barren and dry in the summer and a wonderland of colour after winter rains, which fall from May to July, although flowering is dependent on a good winter rainfall (150mm average per annum). Flowering is triggered by the change in temperature and rainfall and now occurs earlier in the year due to global warming. We were lucky that there had been sufficient rains for the plants to put on a spectacular floral display during our visit. The area has been protected as the Namaqua National Park, a biodiversity hotspot with the largest concentration of succulent plants in the world. Ranger patrols are in place to combat plant poaching and it is illegal to take parts of plants, including seeds, from their habitat.
The first day of our tour began with a visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden originally established in 1913. It is a stunning location with five square kilometres of gardens stretching out from the base of the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. We were among the first visitors of the day so were able to wander around almost on our own for a couple of hours, highlights being a rainbow followed by a quick rainstorm and the outstanding flowers of the proteas, particularly Protea cynaroides (king protea) and Leucospermum cordifolium (syn. Leucadendron cordifolium) (orange pin cushion). We then headed south to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve where we saw some nice Euphorbia caput-medusae, Cotyledon orbiculata and Felicia amelloides as well as lovely coastline views before heading back to our Cape Town hotel.
The second day of our tour took us north to Vanrhysdorp half way up to Springbok, 560km away, which was to be our base for several days. We struck gold after a couple of hours when we found huge fields of yellow and white Osteospermum hyoseroides adjacent to the main road. There was an open gate and we were able to wander around trying not to step on the flowers, much to the amusement of some locals who happened by in their Sunday morning dressing gowns. At the next stop we saw our first conophytums (C. obcordellum and C. minusculum). It took a while to find them among the quartz as they are heavily disguised as small stones. For me the highlight of the afternoon’s botanising was Cephalophyllum pillansii with its small circular red centre surrounded by yellow petals. That night’s stay at the Namaqualand Country Lodge in Vanrhysdorp was perfect. This is a small family-run hotel, with several large Aloidendron dichotomum (syn, Aloe dichotoma) at the entrance and we enjoyed a traditional South African braai (BBQ) after a tasting of the excellent local wines..
The third day was very exciting for me as we saw our first aloes in habitat. We started with a visit to a nursery specialising in Aloidendron dichotomum and succulents before heading off to the Gannabos Quiver Tree Forest (see the photo at the top of this page), home to several hundred Aloe dichotoma estimated to be between 150 and 250 years old. They are called quiver trees because indigenous peoples used the tough, pliable bark and branches to make quivers for their arrows. It was a special experience to be able to wander around the hillside full of these majestic aloes, some reaching up to seven or eight metres in height. We made several other stops that day to admire Dimorphotheca pluvialis (Cape rain daisy), the stunning yellow Osteospermum hyoseroides (syn, Tripteris hyoseroides), our first Argyroderma fissum with lovely dark pink flowers, Conophytum calculus, Albuca spiralis and the purple-coloured flowers of the tiny Oophytum nanum.
Springbok was our base for the next three nights and each day we had headed off in different directions.
In the morning of day four we found some Lithops marmorata growing in the shade of beautiful quartz rocks. This was a very exciting moment for me as I grow lithops and really wanted to see them in habitat. Next we crossed a very arid area to visit Euphorbia virosa, Ceraria namaquensis, Hoodia gordonii and, quite unexpectedly, a Pachypodium namaquanum, somewhat out of its usual habitat. We also saw vast swathes of Sarcocaulon spinosum (syn. Monsonia crassicaulis), the white flowers standing out like wedding bouquets in the desert, Ruschia robusta with its beautiful pink/purple flowers, a small Crassula columnaris in flower, and lots of Cheiridopsis denticulata with bright yellow flowers.
On day five we set off in a different direction from Springbok and immediately found a large field of orange daisies flanked by a big group of yellow flowering Bulbinella latifolia. The next stop was a tricky climb but we were rewarded by finding Adromischus alstonii, Cotyledon orbiculata (in flower), several different crassulas and a group of Aloe melanacantha, stunning specimens with their black spines. The best was yet to come though as another scramble up a rocky hillside revealed a colony of Aloe gariepensis, one of my favourite aloes of the trip. In cultivation this has a green colour to its incurved leaves but here in habitat it was a beautiful brown and in great shape despite the harsh conditions. Just below this group of A. gariepensis there was a solitary Aloidendron dichotomum containing a huge nest of sociable weaver birds and I was able to spend 10 minutes seated on a nearby rock with my binoculars watching them fly in and out, a very peaceful and rewarding moment. The final stop of an eventful day was to see a group of Aloe khamiesensis surrounded by white-flowered Cheiridopsis denticulata with Pelargonium crithmifolium shrubs full of pink flowers growing between the rocks.
The next day we left Springbok and headed west towards Kleinzee on the coast. We saw some nice Aloe glauca just beginning to flower, Haworthia arachnoidea squeezed into rock crevices, tiny Conophytum meyerii forming balls of 100 heads and Crassula alstonii, a dwarf, short-stemmed species forming light grey spherical leaf rosettes. For me the best find was several clumps of Aloe arenicola close to the sea. As their name suggests, they grow on sand and have lovely brown leaves with white spots and numerous orange flowers. I had never seen this aloe before so it was a real treat. Growing next to them were gorgeous Jordaaniella spongiosa (syn. Cephalophyllum spongiosum) with yellow and pink flowers. We spent the night at Die Houthoop Guest House, being the only guests at a nice little farm in the bush where we had a splendid seafood buffet and then sat in a circle around an open fire. Before dinner some of us watched weaver birds building new nests on an acacia tree and were entertained by one naughty weaver who was stealing the material from other newly-built nests, much to the annoyance of the couples building these nests.
On day seven we drove to Port Nolloth, 60 km north of Kleinzee. We found some Fenestraria rhopalophylla (babies’ toes) buried in the sand with only the tips of the leaves exposed and flowers just starting to open. We also found many clumps of Conophytum uviforme subsp. decoratum, dark red Crassula elegans growing out of cracks in rocks, Pelargonium fulgidum with pretty, bright red flowers and an Albuca spiralis with a small yellow flower. Slightly inland we found Aloe microstigma subsp. framesii growing out of cracks in large rocks, 40 or 50 plants spread out with their incurved leaves and a simple, erect red inflorescence, quite spectacular and, again, an aloe I had never seen before. That night we had the first of a two nights’ stay in Port Nolloth, with a lovely sunset over the sea.
Day eight was another special day as we headed north to Alexander Bay and then turned right following the Orange River which serves as the border with Namibia. We bounced along an uncomfortable, corrugated dirt road as we entered the Richtersveld National Park heading to the biggest known colony of the extremely rare Aloidendron pillansii (syn. Aloe pillansii). The setting was spectacular with several 10-metre-high A. pillansii growing on rocky slopes overlooking a barren landscape. They were not in flower but their yellow flowers are similar to those of Aloidendron dichotomum and A. ramosissima to which they are closely related. There were quite a few dead plants but it was encouraging to see a few young ones developing. Our next stop provided excellent views of several beautiful Aloe karasbergensis growing between large rocks. Aloe karasbergensis is related to Aloe striata, with large green and pink striated leaves and a very short lateral stem. We climbed a small hill to admire the views looking across the Orange River into Namibia and happened upon a nice bushy Aloidendron ramosissimum. On the way back to Port Nolloth we found Lithops herrei after a long search and were excited to find a Fenestraria rhopalophylla with its yellow flower fully open.
On day nine we headed back to Springbok by a different route. It was another special day with lots of cheiridopsis including the aptly named Cheiridopsis peculiaris, pink-flowering Drosanthemum hispidum bushes and, after a rewarding hike up another rocky slope, some perfect small Aloe krapohliana var. dumoulinii with incurved leaves and a simple, erect scarlet inflorescence. The best was to come when in the afternoon we headed off on a small road and found fields of yellow and orange daisies (see the photo at the top of the TMG 111 page), gazanias, blue Felicia australis, masses of yellow-flowering Conicosia elongata and purple Ruschia robusta. We were privileged to be there by ourselves and spend over an hour soaking up the beauty.
Day ten was the start of our return journey to Cape Town. We stopped at another quiver tree forest, a group of about a hundred Aloidendron dichotomum on a steep rocky slope. By now we were out of the nasty biting fly territory so we spent a very pleasant hour in a beautiful setting overlooking a dry valley saying our farewells to these special tree aloes. We also saw clumps of Aptosimum spinescens, with striking blue flowers, and a beautiful Gazania lichtensteinii with oval yellow leaves and large black spots near the centre of the flowers. That night we were the only guests at a small B&B in the pleasant-looking town of Vredendal.
Day eleven was mainly a day on the road but after lunch we spent the afternoon at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in an attractive setting just outside Worcester where they cultivate a wide variety of arid and semi-arid plants. It was established in its current site in 1945 and encompasses 155 hectares of semi-desert vegetation, 11 of which are cultivated. There are a series of trails around the garden including one at the back where there is a population of Aloe microstigma in natural habitat. My personal favourites were seeing the bright red flowers of Drosanthemum speciosum, another plant on my wish list, the pink flowers of a group of carpobrotus and my first sighting of the very rare Aloe pearsonii.
On the final day of our tour a group of us climbed up a very steep hill through bushes and over rocks to see some Aloe plicatilis, now known as Kumara disticha and commonly called the fan aloe. There were four of them with gnarled trunks and pretty red flowers so it was well worth the climb. I have one of these in the ground at home, germinated from seeds from the MGS Seed Exchange, so I was very keen to see them in habitat. Our final stop was at the Fairview Wine Estate in Paarl for a wine-tasting and then off to our hotel close to Cape Town Airport. The hotel turned out to be a green hotel called Hotel Verde Cape Town aimed at providing a carbon-neutral stay. It has a lovely garden path around a dry reed lake planted with aloes, other succulents and proteas. A particular favourite was a beautiful orange-flowered Leucospermum cordifolium which was attracting a malachite sunbird and encouraging guests to sit down on one of many benches to enjoy the setting. Quite the best airport hotel I have stayed at.
The next day we all headed off in different directions. It had been a wonderful trip, extremely well organised by Guillermo and incident-free. I learnt a lot from Guillermo and the other more experienced and knowledgeable participants about succulents and was thrilled to see so many stunning plants in their natural habitat. I have returned with a shopping list of plants I would like to try and grow in Spain and plan to experiment using poor-quality but well-draining soil to try and grow plants like Cheiridopsis and Cephalophyllum in the garden, using stones to provide some shade where necessary.
Note: photos of these aloes and others are included in the Plant Gallery section on the MGS website
THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America