Richtersveld’s Rediscovered Succulent

A tiny plant that has been playing hide-and-seek for years in the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park has finally been found. The rare Conophytum ernstii is part of a group of dwarf succulents. It grows no more than two centimetres in height.

The plant was discovered by Dr Ernst van Jaarsveld in 1989. For the past five years specialists have returned to the park to search for ernstii, and left without finding it. This was until the park’s nursery and herbarium curator, Pieter van Wyk, stumbled upon the first-ever flowering specimen in the wild.

The search was not an easy one. Firstly, the lack of GPS technology at the time of the initial discovery made the population very hard to find again, says Van Wyk. Despite this, he would have been willing to continue searching much longer than the 11 hours it took to locate it.

Furthermore, the plant looks similar to Conophytum juncudum, one of the common species found in the area. Every plant therefore had to be scrutinised carefully.

“I spoke to Van Jaarsveld who explained the high peaks behind Sandberg to me,” Van Wyk says.

Soon after gaining this knowledge, he set off and traversed the highest peak, only to find Conophytum juncudum.

“After hours of walking and exploring the second highest peak, I gave up on this mountain.” It was only when he decided to call it a day that he spotted yet another plant. He was about to realise that the long search have come to an end.

“When my eyes caught a strange white marking, I took out my hand lens to inspect for papillae (small fleshy projections on plants). In front of me was the plant that Van Jaarsveld discovered 30 years ago and to crown the moment, it was flowering, the first ever specimen in habitat.”

There were hundreds of these miniature plants growing in the shady areas on the southern slope.

Van Wyk says that he was stunned when he made the discovery, especially as he was about to quit for the day. “In life we give up too quickly and miss out. It took a split second to see the difference which could have easily been missed.”

It was in fact only the fourth time the plant has been seen since the species was first discovered. “I am very happy that Van Wyk rediscovered it and that the population is so healthy. It is nice to search something and find it,” says Van Jaarsveld after the news that his plant was found again.

Van Wyk said that the rediscovery of ernstii enabled him to do an overdue red-data assessment on the plant. Nothing threatens it but due to its limited distribution, it will remain rare. In the meantime, his search for other ‘missing’ species will continue. There is a Portulacaria armiana population nearby that has not been found yet.

Pictures: Pieter van Wyk

Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za

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