Conophytums, these peculiar gems with their highly reduced leaves and exposed surfaces, and with flowers resembling miniature shaving brushes have fascinated people for almost two centuries.
These dwarf, almost stemless succulents grow in small dense clumps forming compact mats or domes. The fig-shaped bodies are greyish-green, 20 mm long and 15 mm thick, sometimes depressed at the fissure (gap, groove), with two distinct lobes. They are often flushed with purple and have characteristic horseshoe-shaped markings of greenish to reddish dots or lines which surround the fissure and cross the lobes. The highly scented rose-pink, white to pale yellow flowers are long lasting and appear in autumn. The fruit is a capsule containing many small seeds. Most species of Conophytum will live indefinitely with proper care.
This endemic is listed as Least Concern on our Red Data List.
Distribution and habitat
Conophytums occur throughout the areas with winter-rainfall and all year rainfall in South Africa (in the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape) and southern parts of Namibia. Plants flourish where the rainfall varies between 50–200 mm per year.
Conophytum ficiforme is found on steep slopes of rocky hillsides, sometimes inhabiting the crevices of thinly layered, upturned shale or tillite. They can also occur on Malmesbury shale between quartzite pebbles or even under the protection of nurse plants in the Worcester Karoo between the Worcester and Robertson area where they are abundant and can form dense populations (Hammer 1993). A nurse plant is a shrub that shelters the seedlings from the sun`s damaging rays.
The Bonnievale and McGregor specimens also occur on shale but they are overall much smaller. They prefer the cooler southern or eastern slopes. When not in flower these plants are difficult to detect in nature.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Conophytum means “cone plant” and the specific epithet ficiforme refers to the fig- shaped bodies. There are 88 species of dwarf cushion-forming or single-bodied succulents with ornately fused paired leaves. Conophytum burgeri, a single-bodied succulent gem is the oddest member of the genus. This endangered species endemic to Bushmanland grows to the size of a small onion and is known from a single locality near Aggeneys.
The flowers have a strong scent of dianthus and initially open in the evening, and later in the daytime, possibly attracting moths as pollinators. Dry fruit capsules have 4–6 valves which open when wet to disperse the seeds a short distance from the parent plant, and close again once the capsule dries out.
Uses and cultural aspects
The genus Conophytum is believed to have sedative properties, possibly as a result of mesembrine-type alkaloids.
Growing Conophytum ficiforme
The trade in wild plant material is thoughtless and needs to be discouraged, as members of the whole genus are available from cuttings or seed.
Growing conophytums from seed is easy and very rewarding. Sow seeds in autumn in a medium containing well-drained, Malmesbury shale (sandy loamy clay soil) and cover with a top dressing of fine gravel. Keep the seed tray moist by misting. After one year transplant the seedlings into plastic or clay pots which do not dry out too quickly. Most seedlings can flower within 1–3 years. Conophytums are grown as pot plants all over the world.
Cuttings can be taken in late autumn which is the start of the growing season; use a rooting hormone to speed up root formation. Plants should be kept dry and in a cool place during their summer dormancy as they are easily killed by overheating during this period.
The larvae of a species of moth are particularly damaging and a major threat to conophytums. They are most damaging when the conophytums are in their summer dormant stage. Newly hatched larvae can totally desiccate large clumps of conophytums. The larvae are the same colour as the dry parchment-like skin on the conophytums and thus go undetected by the untrained eye. The larvae also tunnel underneath the dry skin and eat their way into the underlying protective tissue. Use a systemic or contact insecticide registered for larvae and boring insects. The protective dry skin (visible in the summer) needs to be broken before the end of April. If the new skin doesn`t appear, there is a good chance of the plant dying. The healthy tissue is literally smothered underneath the old protective skin. (Oliver, I.B. pers. comm. 2002).
References and further reading
- Hammer, S. 1993. The genus Conophytum . Succulent Plant Publications, Pretoria.
- Oliver, I.B. 1998. Grow succulents . Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Smith, G.F., Chesselet, P., Van Jaarsveld, E.J., Hartmann, H., Hammer, S., Van Wyk, B.-E., Burgoyne, P., Klak, C. & Hubert, K. 1998. Mesembs of the world. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Smith, G.F. & Van Wyk, B.-E. 2008. Guide to succulents . Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Jaarsveld, E., Van Wyk, B.-E. & Smith, G.F. 2005. Succulents of South Africa: A guide to the regional diversity. Sunbird Publishing, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants: A guide to useful plants of southern Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden