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|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld in Bloom!

03 July 2006

The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersvled Transfrontier Park is a fascinating place of many moods and is at present showing its most flamboyant side to the world. The dramatic park landscape is aflame with an unseasonably early array of colour as many of the tenacious plant species, characteristic of this area, come into bloom.

The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is situated in the Succulent Karoo, one of South Africa's most diverse and rich ecosystems. Many plants in the area, especially succulents, are specialists for a limited range of environmental conditions, uique to this part of the world. For an arid region, the Succulent Karoo has extraordinarily high plant endemism, including the richest succulent flora in the world. In total, there are more than 6,350 vascular plant species in this hotspot, nearly 2,440 of which are endemic (40 percent).

Local plant species richness is very high. On a surface area of one square kilometre more than 360 plant species of flowering plants (angiosperms) are found at a site with an average rainfall of only 68 mm per year. This species richness explains the dazzling carpets that greet visitors to the park between now and Spetember. There is simply no desert flora on our planet that can boast a similar species richness.

Not only are the plant species numerous and unique-many of them are fascinating studies of specialised plant life. Take the psammophorous plants. These plant species fix a layer of sand to their surface in order to build a protective shelter against the force of sand storms and the related sand blasting.

Other interesting plants include Aloe pillansii, (giant quiver tree), a scarce plant that comes from one small area in the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld. Another strange plant, the Aloe ramosissima, (maidens quiver tree), has a roughly sculptured bark that gives it an eerie appearance. There are also beautiful flowering pelargoniums, shrubs, and bulbs. Then there's the botterboom (Tylecodon paniculatus), a stem succulent that has glossy leaves in winter and red flowers in summer.

And anyone familiar with the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld landscape will remember the halfmens (half human) (Pachypodium namaquanum), a stem succulent endemic to the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld that can grow up to four meters tall. Clusters of halfmens stems tend to face toward the north, giving the appearance of groups of people gazing northwards into the distance. The stems' crowns of leaves, which resemble hairy human heads, enhance this impression.

The scientific explanation for this unusual orientation is that the plants, which grow on shaded slopes, lean northwards in order to ensure that their leaves and developing flowerheads, produced during the cool, foggy winter months, are maximally exposed to the sun's warming rays.

There are also numerous species of lithops - tiny succulent plants which resemble small stones, and an astounding 29 types of lichen.

The magnificent variety of dwarf shrubs with water-storing leaves, belongs to the succulent Karoo region of the Greater Cape Flora, while its western portion forms part of the East Gariep Centre, the most important centre of the Nama Karoo Region.

The two areas belong to two major climatical systems, the temperate winter rainfall region with its high air humidity, and the inland region with higher temperatures and important summer rains and low humidity, respectively. Both units are closely placed against each other, separated by a narrow transition zone of about 10 to 20 km.

Photos courtesy of Andy Davies