Have you ever seen anything like this? For the uninitiated this
plant must seem extraterrestrial. So it must have appeared also
to the discoverers of this strange plant in 1791. Little "dumplings"
crammed in between rock crevices growing like a green mat, all seemingly
struggling for a bit of sunlight and space! Why do they do it? These
strange plants, unique essentially to South Africa, are little known
- even to South Africans!
Conophytums are about the most reduced plants in existence. They
consist of one pair of fused succulent leaves that get absorbed
and regenerated every year. They have a very rudimentary filamentous
root system, no stem to speak of, and the ability to produce one,
sometimes two, small flowers a year! Some species only form one
or two heads, whereas C. truncatum forms huge mounds of sometimes
many hundreds of heads. It is very variable in form, colour and
markings, ranging from small (4-5 mm in diam.) to large (25 mm in
diam.!); from completely unmarked specimens to very heavily spotted
or lined, and from bright green to grey-green to having a heavy
reddish coloration all often within a single population! The small
flowers are nocturnal and typically white or yellow in colour.
Conophytums are distributed essentially throughout the winter rainfall
areas of South Africa (the three Cape provinces) and the southern
parts of Namibia. This species, however, has its centre of abundance
in the Little Karoo stretching from the Steytlerville-Springbokvlakte
in the east to the Montagu area in the west and is reluctant to
venture beyond the confines of the Langeberg in the north and the
Swartberg/ Outeniqua Ranges in the south. There are two subspecies:
C. truncatum subsp. truncatum which occupies the eastern
part of the range, and C. truncatum subsp. viridicatum
which occupies the western part.
Derivation of name and historical facts
Conophytum literally means "cone shaped" and the specific
name truncatum refers to its truncated nature - very reduced, fused
leaves with a flattened top-now a fundamental feature of the genus,
but to the first discoverers in 1791, it must have seemed like a
peculiar characteristic. This was the first member of the genus
to be described and was originally called Mesembryanthemum truncatum
by Carl Thunberg.
This species tends to form big tight mounds of heads that secure
themselves in rock crevices - known as obligate rock dwellers -
where they don't have to compete with other plants for water, space
and light. They are found generally growing on east, south or west-facing
rocky outcrops - very seldom north-facing (too hot). They are not
fussy in terms of their geological preferences and can be found
growing on shale or quartzite. They are often found growing in amongst
mosses and lichens and other shade lovers. Their flowers are pollinated
by nocturnal moths that are attracted by a very faint scent while
during the day the flowers close.
Growing Conophytum truncatum
This Conophytum is very easy to grow and very rewarding to the
novice and advanced grower alike. They bulk up quickly and will
outgrow the pot if not kept in check. They enjoy being grown in
either plastic or clay (dries out more quickly) pots with good drainage
holes. The soil medium should be essentially mineral with very little
organic matter - decomposed rock (granite/sandstone etc.) is best
with both fine and coarse particles.
They can be grown in full sun in winter but in the summer months
they should be shaded to protect them from drying out.
The drainage should be fairly good but should retain the moisture
well as the watering only needs to happen about once a week in winter.
In summer the plants go dormant by covering themselves in a shell
- the shriveled up leaves of the previous year. During summer they
should not be watered at all as this might stimulate them into a
new flush of growth, which is not a good idea in the baking heat.
Misting the plants with a spraycan using rainwater is a good idea
in summer as it keeps the plants from dehydrating - this simulates
fog. This can be done even more frequently in winter when they are
Conophytums can be very easily propagated from seed and cuttings
which means that one never has to remove whole plants from the wild.
Seeds can be sown in autumn thinly on the soil surface with a thin
layer of fine grit covering them. Keep them moist and use a fungicide
to prevent them from damping off. Cuttings can be taken anytime
during the growing season - no rooting hormones are necessary.
HAMMER, S. 1993. The genus Conophytum. Succulent Plant Publications,
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden