Plants and People of South Africa By Patricia Hutchinson, UK

Plants and People of South Africa By Patricia Hutchinson, UK

Plants and People of South Africa By Patricia Hutchinson, UK
Let me first introduce you to a few well known names of people to whom we and our hobby owe such a lot.

Harry Hall is a well known name because of his love of succulents. As well as Lithops hallii, about ten other different types of succulent plants have the specific name “hallii”, mainly among the Mesembs.

This gentleman was a senior horticulturist in Kirstenbosch in South Africa but he came originally from Manchester and trained at the University of Reading, the John Innes Horticultural Institution of London and at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The latter led to his appointment as Curator of the Darrah Collection of Cacti and Succulents in Manchester. This was from 1934 to 1947.

Because of his great love of succulents, he went to Kirstenbosch in South Africa to take charge of the succulents at the Reserve of the National Botanic Gardens there. His wife was the Secretary for that organization.

Harry Hall collected many plants for the Kirstenbosch and the Karoo Gardens, forty of which were new to science.

Harry Bolus is probably best known for the Pleiospilos bolusii (now Tanquana bolusii) named after him. He was born in Nottingham in 1834. As a boy he spent his free time in the public library reading the volumes of Burchell, another famous name in the world of succulents, about whom we will talk later. Young as he was, Harry’s love of succulents knew no bounds and when he was 15 years old, he was delighted to go to Africa to work in the family business and also to pursue his interest. On his way to South Africa he suffered shipwreck before landing at Port Elizabeth, but he survived.

He wasn’t able to take up a lot of time at first with plant hunting but as the business progressed and flourished, he was able to make his home in Cape Town and do some collecting. He decided to treat himself to a holiday back in England and took with him many of the valuable plants which he had collected and presented half of them to Kew Gardens. They were delighted and tried to get him to leave the other half but he refused. After showing the rest of his plants to various interested people, he again set sail with his plants back to Africa. Harry probably regretted not giving the whole of the collection to Kew because on the way back, guess what happened? He was again shipwrecked and the other half of his collection went to Davey Jones’ Locker.

His interests extended beyond succulents to gladioli, orchids and many other plants of South Africa. And he was a great artist and could reproduce his plants in picture form.

The family business by this time had flourished and he was now head of it and financially very well off—so much so that he gave £27,000 (quite a sum in those days) to the upkeep and extension of the Bolus Herbarium and the Botanical Department of the South Africa College, which is now the University of Cape Town. The boy who once read botanical books in the Nottingham Public Library, could never have guessed that one day he would have an Honorary Doctorate conferred upon him by the South African College for his contribution to botany.

William J. Burchell had a Lithops named after him. But I don’t think it is a particularly pretty one. It is very dull and gray—but perhaps suited to the man! He was disappointed in love early in life. He was waiting for his fiancée to join him at St. Helena where he was a schoolmaster and acting botanist, but she must have been a fickle lass. When she sailed from London to St. Helena to join him, a shipboard romance developed and she married the captain instead. All this happened around 1810.

Burchell remained a bachelor ever after but this experience perhaps turned him into one of the immortals of Cape botany. He wrote many large volumes of his travels in South Africa where he travelled by ox cart over the most rough and even dangerous terrain. He experienced many hardships but was not deterred in his searching for plants. For all his travels, he never stayed in one place long enough to see the beauty of the surrounding areas in full bloom.

William discovered the first stone plant, which he called Mesemb turbiniformus. We know it as Lithops turbiniformis. He found this in the Prieska District.

Nearly one hundred years elapsed before any other species of Lithops was discovered. Was this because the plants were so well camouflaged that they were not easy to see? Or was it because his reports on mimicry plants were greeted with suspicion and even derision back in Europe? They didn’t really believe him so why would they go looking for plants they thought were only in his imagination.

Time, however, proved William correct. When others eventually went over to South Africa and found mimicry plants, they had to believe—but Burchell was the one to lead the way.

In 1812 he arrived at an African town near Kuruman. He found stone age tools and bones scattered over the surface of the land, just as they were left there 10,000 years ago. You may remember I spoke in the first part of my article of similar finds on Camdeboo in the Little Karoo which is one of the richest sources of fossil finds in the world.

The Beginning of Life on Earth

It was in South Africa that the beginning of life was found. In the geological museum at Witwatersrand is the first clue to the beginning of life on earth.

The first plants ever were Algae. In the Bernard Price Institute, just a few minutes away, a Dr. Plumstead worked here and described something of the story of the Pre Cambrian Period—a time recently thought to be without life. He told of how the Algae, held within the rocks, were the first forms of life and also the future forms of life. This algae lived in a killer world without free oxygen, on which, as we all know, life depends today. Algae was the first source. Now you might ask, how do we know that? Well, when scientists did tests on the residue in the rocks, it showed that the algae was green. Green is the vital word because what does green in plants make? Chlorophyll. And what does Chlorophyll give? Free oxygen. Thus the algae gave the world the first breath of life.

After this time came the higher plants, the animals and then man. The world as we know it was on its way. The next 2000 years, however, showed little fossil life and it was not until the Devonian period that the story resumed in earnest.

Life Goes On — The Karoo

In the rocks in the valleys of the Western and Southern Mountains are some of the earliest records of land plants and other fossil plants and they helped change the world. Traces of them are widespread in the Karoo system which is South Africa’s major geological formation. The Karoo features a great deal in the world of succulents.

If anyone were to try to describe the Karoo in a few words, even though it is such a vast area on the map, then a place called The Valley of Desolation would give the essence of the Karoo, the name is in itself foreboding.

This is a desert valley carved out of huge red precipices and tall rock columns on either side of a huge desert area. The color of the crags is red and gives a brooding redness to the whole area. The immense landscape is threaded with dry stream beds. This part is a very dry and arid area.

Just down the road is Aberdeen and conservationists remember this place sadly. It was the last dwelling place of the Quagga. Do you remember the beautiful, horse-like creature I spoke of in my first article? It was here that the last wild one was shot by the vile big game hunters in 1858. This loss left the Karoo a more desolate place than ever before for having lost one of its most beautiful and gentle animals. Desolate though it is, it is rich in desert plants. In the hills grow Pleispilos bolusii named for Harry Bolus, the gent I spoke of earlier.

It is in this area that Dr. Rudolph Marloth crept around on his hands and knees zealously hunting mimicry plants.

Further along the road, still in the Karoo, is Baviaanskloof, the Kloof of the baboons. It is the wildest and most spectacular road in Southern Africa. Part of the way is a dry river bed which is impassable in heavy rains. The bed rears up to the mountain tops with views of a thousand peaks beyond. The cliffs are red and brooding.

There are caves there too. The woods are a yellowish color with proteas everywhere. In this part of the Karoo streams flow down from the mountains.

And that will give you a very small description of the Karoo which is the habitat for many of our succulents.

The Eastern Cape

Let’s now go over to the Eastern Cape and see what it has to offer. There is a place called Middledrift and it is famous for its Aloe ferox or the Red Aloe. It grows in such abundance that in late winter it turns the countryside red and there is a hill called after it—The Red Hill. These aloes can be found all the way along the country westwards right along to Graf Rhienet near the Little Karoo. They stand on the plains and on the hill slopes with an almost human air, so much so that the troops in the Frontier Wars mistook them for men in the distance and delayed their advance!

These aloes flower from early winter when they grow near the sea and in the spring, in the high inland places, when they send up their cylinders of bloom, they are matched by nothing else. They are in fact so beautiful, whether in flower or not, that travellers will take this route just to see these spectacular plants, even if it means going miles out of their way.

The deeper one travels in the Transvaal, the deeper one feels the atmosphere of the stories of Sir Rider Haggard. He was at one time a Registrar in the High Court there and it was at Government House that he heard the splendid after dinner stories of the myths and legends of the area and as he travelled around, he soaked up the atmosphere of these places. As the author of King Soloman’s Mines and She*, it is thought that it was in the Potchefstroom area that these stories were set. It is also thought that Mojade, the Queen of the Lovedu Tribe was the person upon whom he based his story of *She. Mojade, the Rain Queen, was a real person in Haggard’s day. And the forest of sacred Cycad trees had a part in the Queen’s rites. This forest is greatly prized in South Africa for its strange beauty which is quite unique. These Cycads, as you may remember, harping back again to my first article, are living fossils inasmuch as they are in the same form as their ancestors were 150 million years ago (give or take a few million that is).

It is said that the ancestors of these Cycads lived side by side with the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs passed away and the form of every kind of life has changed since then except for the basic character of the Cycads which continues as before. The seeds of these Cycads are poisonous. They contain a potent liver poison and it is interesting to note that in the Anglo Boer War, General Smuts and a Boer commando camped near some of them and ate the seeds and were poisoned. They did recover but how easily they might have died and what then would have been the course of South African history for the next 50 years?


I have saved the best for the last! All of South Africa’s arid regions are famous for their succulents but this area is the richest of them all. Here we see strange shapes and forms in abundance. Fat, smooth dwarfs, spikey columns and stone plants that are indistinguishable from the stones around them. Some are as small as a little finger nail and some taller than a man.

One of the rarest succulents belongs to the Richtersveld attracting botanists from the far corners of the world. This is known locally as the Half Mens. We know it as Pachypodium namaquanum which grows in the stony hills near the Orange River. Its tall, bottle shaped form is extraordinarily human as it inclines its head, with its small leaves and flowers, gently to the North.

Legend has it that these pachypodiums are the spirits of a people from the North who were stranded here and died and who, now in new form, look always to the land they left behind them. What a lovely and sad description.

So beautiful are the flowers in Namaqualand that every bed in every hotel is booked to overflowing by tourists who want to see the burst of color which follows the rain. This is one of the sights that poor Burchell never saw in the many years that he wandered around plant hunting. I found a description of this sight in a book called Namaqualand in Flower which I will quote as it is written because it is too beautifully put together for me to use my own words.

“From Springbok the flowers radiated every way, although in the evening the flowers shut, even so, with every petal tightly closed, the country on either side of the road was a subdued orange.

The landscape was colored with closed buds packed on either side in their millions.

In the sunlight they were all that everyone had ever said they were—they were even better because of the contrast.

Here were no gentle fields of flowers, but poor inhospitable semi-desert laced with somber granite hills.

There were swathes of flowers pouring over the land, solid tides of brilliant colors that did not hide the nature of the country. Nobody could ever look and think they were the fruits of easy living. One look at the hills and the sand from which they sprang and they were clearly desert borne.

The myriad of small, ephemeral, delicate, glittering forms, when seen against the dark, everlasting hills, were as near to perfection as anything we had every seen.”

For me to try to add to this would only spoil it.


  1. The Little Karoo, Pauline Smith
  2. The Influence of Plants and the Environment on the Developing Animal Life of the Karoo Times.
  3. Sth African Jnl. of Science Vol 59 Johannesburg May 62, Edna Plumstead
  4. Cape Floral Kingdom, Conrad Leighton, Cape Town ’60
  5. Namaqualand in Flower, Sima Eliovson, Johannesburg 1972
  6. Travels in South Africa by William Burchell, London 1953 many volumes.
  7. Karoo by Laurence Green, S. Africa

* For those who do not know the story of She, She was a queen reputed to be thousands of years old who renewed her youth and beauty by walking in the flames of eternal youth. She was known as “She who must be obeyed”. Because she fell in love and told her lover of the secret of the flames, and wanted him to join her in the fire, the flames made her revert to her age and she just crumbled to dust. There have been films made of both stories and they are shown often on T.V. over here. The books do capture the atmosphere of Africa and make good reading.

First published in our Digest Vol 9 Issue 5 March 1999 with additional photos and graphics.

Rescued from The Wayback Machine.