Looking for Haworthias (1980)

Printed in Calandrimia, Succulent Publication, South Australia. :57 (1980).
M.B. Bayer, Worcester, South Africa

The attraction of Haworthias is their interesting diversity of leaf arrangement and form, as their flowers certainly do not attract attention.  My own interest in these plants owes itself certainly to my introduction to a plant then known as Haworthia chalwinii.  This is now know to be a variation of H coarctata in which the leaves are shorter and more closely adpressed to the stem than is normal.  Even now I am still impressed by the closely-incurved, tubercled leaves packed tightly above one another on a stem which may he up to 20 cm long.  Although I was scarcely 10 years old then, the memory of dense mats of H. cymbiformis on a riverine rock-face in the eastern Cape is still a strong one, but interest remained dominant until nearly twelve years later.  My father was stationed in the Natal Midlands and an uncle, who was a Health Inspector in the malaria areas of northern Natal, brought in an Haworthia from those parts.  J. R. Brown’s book…”Succulents for the Amateur” was one of my favourite books and by that stage would fall open at the section on Haworthias.  The picture of H. bolusii most impressed me and I felt that I knew enough then to recognise these plants from Natal as something new.  They seemed to me quite unlike H. limifolia which 1 knew from illustration, and I thought they should be described as a new species particularly to record the occurrence of the species in Natal.  Fortunately Dr. R.A.Dyer, Chief of the National Herbarium in Pretoria, persuaded me to be more moderate and the plant was eventually described as H. limifolia var gigantea.  . Dr. Dyer also suggested that it would be wise to investigate the species in the field and so launched a 5,000 km wild-goose chase across northern Natal, Zululand and Swaziland.  The only direct success my companion and I had was in meeting Captain D. R. Keith at Stegi on the eastern border of Swaziland.  He directed us to the bottom of the Umbuluzi Valley where we found H. limifolia growing in vast quantity on the shaded dry forest floor (On reflection I wonder why he did not direct us to his original farm Ravelston where the vars keithii and ubomboensis were found).   Although we found no other plants, we did find evidence of plants from as far afield as Paulpietersburg. Barberton, Gollell, Mozaan, Hluhluwe and even as far south as Stanger.  The plant is used by native witch-doctors and herbalists as a remedy for a variety of ailments and one recorded use is for the plants to be placed on the tops of the huts as a lightning deterrent.  Our collecting trip was thus highlighted by endless cross-examination of the rural blacks crying to locate where the plants could be found.  Neither of us had more than a smattering of the Zulu language and this was probably our main stumbling block to success.  On one occasion we were excitedly directed towards an unlikely looking hillside to find a police contingent waiting for us on our return to the vehicle.  Our ‘guide’ had taken us for communist agitators.  Another highlight was being marooned in the Umfolozi Game Reserve by flooded rivers.  Taking adantage of the forced respite, we thought we would explore the Reserve itself, famous as the then last resort of the white rhinoceros.  Our intrepid guide directed us off on a side road in search of the hotter-tempered black rhinoceros and we were soon axle-deep in thick black sticky mud.  The guide was most reluctant to get out of the car and help dig, push and curse while we tried to extract it from the mire.

In retrospect it is a pity that we did not make a more concerted effort to see H. limifolia in the field.  It is clearly a widespread species but in localised and isolated populations and subject to indiscriminate collecting.  I would particularly have liked to have seen the variety ubomboensis in the field, although each locality seems to produce a distinctive form.  After our exhaustive trip, the distant Cape became the obvious place for Haworthias.  My job held no prospects for getting there and a disaster to my collection in which all my labels were removed, persuaded me to abandon any further attempt at getting to know the genus better.  Although I had acquired a considerable number of plants, very few of them were authentic field collected plants and none were authoritatively named.  The few authentic specimens did not take readily to cultivation and I decided that, rather than collect for the compost heap, I would stop collecting.  Soon after this I moved to Johannesburg to be lost in a concrete jungle for four years until I was transferred to Cape Town.  At first I was reluctant to start collecting plants again and I confined myself to finding and seeing Haworthias in unfenced likely looking hillsides during travels through the karoid areas of the south-west Cape.  A visit to Kirstenbosch introduced me to the Fourcade/Long photographs, but more importantly to G.G.Smith’s collection and record.  G.G.Smith’s published work may not be of very much value, but the value of his herbarium material is inestimable.  The average collector (and it appears so for some would-be taxonomists too) can have no concept of the relationship of a herbarium specimen to a plant name or of the importance of proper herbarium record as a permanent, reliable record.

Among the first Haworthias I saw while in the Cape were plants of H. chloracantha near Great Brak. They were growing on a hot north-western slope with the tips of the leaves at ground level and betrayed only by a few old dry flower stalks that caught my eye (I cannot account for the change at this locality which is now heavily vegetated and quite unsuited to the haworthia).  This was followed by finding H. mirabilis ssp. badia at Napier growing in among small multi-coloured pebbles.  The leaves were the identical colour shades of yellow, white and orange as the pebbles and the plants were as difficult to see as any Lithops.  At one point I called my wife to come and locate three plants in a 15 cm (6”) square plot – she missed them, but pointed out two others which I hadn’t seen.  In those days we were still inexperienced and it was often a battle to find the plants.  I have since been back to the site where I first had the thrill and excitement of finding H. magnifica, to find that there were considerably more plants than I could have imagined on my first visit.

Several years earlier I had been corresponding with Roy Littlewood who was Horticulturist at the Karoo Botanic Garden.  Passing through Worcester one day I thought I would take the opportunity of ‘looking him up’ and meeting him personally.  It was a hot, dry day in February and I was singularly unimpressed with the Garden which had a country-wide reputation for the spring-flower display.  The Curator was Mr. F. J. Stayner who told me that Roy had died the previous year as the result of a heart-attack while collecting butterflies in the mountains nearby.  At that time Roy’s post was filled, but six months later was again vacant.  This time the old personal conflict between trying to forge a career and doing something which I was really interested in finally resolved itself.  I presented myself at Kirstenbosch and, in the absence of any other applicants, was lucky enough to be appointed to the post ‘Assistant to the Curator’ at the Karoo Garden.  Mr. Stayner was very good to me and I was allowed to devote my time to replanting and re-organising the extensive Haworthia collection which included a great many of Smith’s original plants.  The Curator of the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch was also good enough to let me have all Smith’s papers to work on at Worcester.  It was immediately obvious that very little was known about the Haworthias in the Worcester/Robertson area and that all the available names bore very little relationship to the natural association of the plant populations in the area.  For one species growing indigenously in the garden and common throughout the area, there was no positive identification and about seven names to choose from.  Then there was Haworthia magaritifera (pumila) and all its variants as well as names such as H. semimargaritfera and H. papillosa to choose from too.  It was not surprising that as a collector in Natal I was being confused by the available literature.  A species such as H. reticulata had never been validly recorded from the field since it was described by Haworth in 1804 and yet here it was growing commonly in the area.  The problems involved in trying to ‘tie a name down’ for the species indigenous to the garden, now H. herbacea, proved that the identification by and from simple verbal description was going to be an insuperably difficult job.  Certainly comparison and separation of closely related species or populations on this basis would be virtually impossible, and this is a point which the collector should not forget.  There are many facets of the Haworthia charade which need to be appreciated by enthusiasts.  The first of these is that interest in the plants is associated with rivalry and antagonism.  The exchanges between Smith, Resende and Uitewaal were quite unnecessary and many other authors contributed to confusion and misunderstanding in the genus.  One common error which impressed me was the identification and matching of plants from illustrations or photographs.  So many times Smith, Long, Brown, or ‘A. N. Other’, would take one picture and match it with a comment like…”agrees with…” and so often this would be quite wrong.  Among the most blatant errors of this kind was the confusion of H. limifolia from northern Natal identified as H. margaritifera var. granata sub-var. polyphylla.  Many plants were described as varieties and forms of species which themselves had not been rediscovered or positively identified.  Plants from single populations were frequently classified down to varieties and sub-varieties of different species. In some cases species were being incorrectly identified at the level of sub-genus, and, for example, forms of H. fasciata were being confused with H. margaritifera.  Even Aloe aristata collected in the mountains of Natal had been collected and taken for an Haworthia and an herbarium specimen still bears the. manuscript name H. natalensis sp. nov.  It is more than likely that H. ferox was actually Aloe humilis.

When I first obtained Smith’s notes they included very few indications of how he intended to finally treat the genus.  There were of course all his published species and varieties and his final article “Views on the naming of Haworthias”.  In 1976 Kirstenbosch acquired many more papers from the estate of G.G.Smith through the kind agency of Dr. M. Courtenay-Latimer who had done so much of Smith’s paper work.  These papers contain Smith’s assessment of his collection and it is interesting to note just what he had in mind.  Firstly it is clear that he had no species concept whatever and that he had an immense hoard of new species and varieties in mind.  In the ‘retusae’ he had nine varieties of H. nitidula (which is a synonym of H. mirabilis) drawn from three different species.  He had designated two varieties of H. pygmaea, fifteen varieties of H. retusa, a variety of H. rossouwii (H. mirabilis), three varieties of H. dekenahii, three completely new species and several sub-varieties.  In H. viscosa he had earmarked seven new species, and in H. reinwardtii he had a further four varieties for description.  No one should underestimate Smith’s observations and the detail with which he compared his plants.  Each description was preceded by a point-for-point check-list of characters and he insisted in growing all his plants for several years before coming to conclusions.  Smith had virtually set himself several life-times’ work to classify and describe each variant he encountered.  Unfortunately this kind of single-minded intensity still persists and there are still collectors following the same path, but with plants which do not even have the merit of field origin.  It is not in the least surprising to find that there was so much difference of opinion concerning identification.  For many names there was no type plant of any kind and it is really ridiculous to find controversy where neither party had any basis for argument.  Unless there is some reference point for a name and unless there is some appreciation of what a name actually stands for, argument as to identification is totally futile.  It is tragi-comic to find collectors who still insist on using the nomenclature abandoned by Smith and von Poellnitz.  In most cases this excludes about 95% of the natural populations and leaves the remaining 5% in a curious and impossible tangle.  It should be remembered that most plants now in cultivation, particularly overseas, probably are derived from plants propagated during the Triebner era or earlier.  These are mostly species which propagate vegetatively and are difficult to kill with kindness.  Possibly more than half the actual existing species are not even in general cultivation.

During my first three years at the Karoo Garden I spent much of my time following up G.G.Smith’s locality records.  One interesting trip involved following a diarised record of the collector Otzen through the south-western Cape.  Several localities no longer existed, but it was an impressionable experience to come again upon localities which he had visited 40 years before.  One of these involved the locality for H. otzenii (=H. mutica), and it was clear that the origin of this species had been confused.  I met many most interesting and helpful people figured in the records and literature such as Mr. A.J. Joubert, a schoolteacher now retired, at Ladismith; and Mr. J.J. Dekenah at Riversdale who must have been on nodding acquaintance with every Haworthia plant within a 50 km radius of the own.  I met Mrs. L. Lategan at Oudtshoorn to try to extract cite veiled mystery behind the name ‘H. smitii’, and Mrs. Baldii (nee Taute) who verified the locality for her mother’s find H. tauteae.  Mr. C.J. Payne still lives at McGregor and is a complete character in his own right.  He is a bachelor, the local church organist and the possessor of one of the greatest collections of South African sheet-music.  He has lived all his life in this remarkable backwoods town and still has a derelict collection of Aloes dating back from C.W. Reynolds’ pre-war collecting activities.

Having seen all the known species of Haworthia in the field, each name conjures up related memories.  The setting has varied from H. chlorocantha in the middle of the town of Mossel Bay (now a concrete jungle), or H. unicolor in the caravan park at Barrydale, to H. wittebergensis in the solitude and grandeur of the mountains.  H. marumiana was a complete mystery for many years until Bruce Bursey introduced me to Cameron McMaster at Cathcart.  Cameron showed me a plant which he had collected along a remote road south of Tarkastad in the northeastern Cape.  I arrived at the locality late at night and had to spend a wretchedly uncomfortable night contorted in the cab of the small truck I was driving.  However, I was rewarded by finding the plants the next morning and so could confirm that the species is in fact from the mountains of the Great Karoo and north-east Cape, and not the little Karoo as stated. H. lepida also gave a lot of trouble, although the locality was recorded fairly accurately by G.G. Smith.  We spent two days in the hot dry dusty Fish River valley scouring the steep brush-covered hillsides and had to conclude that the population no longer existed.  This was probably the only occasion on which I could not confirm one of Smith’s records and we had to content ourselves with a population a few miles further on.  However, Smith did make a serious error in the case of H. baccata.  He described this species without seeing it in the field and it is practically certain that it never was collected from Stutterheim as recorded.

I shall never forget the two weeks spent with Dan Timm in the Grahamstown area looking for H, coarctata and H. reinwardtii.  We particularly visited the farm Hopewell’, which was a Smith family farm, and where G.G. Smith had found H. musculina, H. fulva, H. greenii var. silvicola and also identified H. coarctata, H. chalwinii and H. reinwardtii.  After repeated visits and hours and hours of scrambling, stumbling and falling through dense thorny thicket we could only conclude that there was one species on the farm and not even as variable as all Smith’s identifications suggested.  It is the sort of place that Mr. J.W. Dodson, or the New South Wales Study Group would really appreciate.  We also looked for Smith’s varieties of H. angustifolia and it took considerable detective work and eventually pure luck to find the plants.  We found the variety paucifolia only by virtue of the fact that the plants were in flower, as otherwise they are completely hidden among dense thickets of grass-like Restio.

It was G.J. Payne who caused me the most collecting grief.  Late one afternoon following two very strenuous days in the undulating Robertson-Bonnievale area, I passed through McGregor and called in the see Mr. Payne.  He said that he had once collected an Haworthia at a place called ‘Die Galg’ in the nearby mountains, and we duly set off to look for it.  ‘Die Galg’ (in English ‘The gallows’) is a very impressive incomplete pass or cut, high up in .the Riviersonderend Mountains.  It is the start of a long, deep valley which runs southwards to Greyton and the Riviersonerend River about 25 km away.  During the War years, Italian prisoners had been put to work making a roadway through the valley, starting at Die Galg’ at the top.  It was an impossible task and the road was never remotely finished.  It petered out completely after about one kilometre, over a steep-sided valley with the deep gorge winding away in the distance to the south.  Mr. Payne said that he would stay and wait as he did not feel fit enough to accompany me and in any case the plants were not far and the place was easy to find.  Previous experience had shown tine and again that collectors (Payne included) had seldom ventured far from the beaten track and so despite my tiredness, I climbed down into the gorge.  After miles of rough, narrow, often indiscernible track I did eventually find the plants, but the light was already fading as I turned to go back.  I have seldom managed so good a night’s sleep in a room of a country hotel, above the pub on a Friday night.

Very long distances were usually involved in collecting trips but the most hazardous eventually turned out to be a local search.  Smith had an odd record of plants collected ‘at 4,000 feet, Audenberg Peak’.  The Karoo Garden is at 1,000 feet and thus the locality was somewhere high on a series of four tooth-like peaks a few miles north of the garden.  The original collector of Smith’s plants was Miss Elsie Esterhuyzen, an ageless, spry queen of the Western Cape mountains who is still associated with the Bolus herbarium at the University of Cape Town.  It took time, co-ordination and organisation to get a party together for the climb and it was a disappointment to wake up in the morning to rain and mist.  Undaunted, Elsie led us on what, with anybody else, would have been a completely foolhardy venture.  The climb was a very steep one and at times we could only guess where the almost vertical rock sheets ended in the swirling mist below.  In most places there was no track or path at all because even the local mountain club members very seldom ventured there.  However, Elsie led us unhesitatingly right to the plants – no mean achievement when one considers that she had been there once thirty-five years before.  It was a bit of an anti-climax to later find the same variant of H. herbacea (H. maculata)within fifty metres of the National Highway in the Hex River Pass at an altitude of 1,000 feet.  It is this kind of record which will eventually pave the way for a real understanding of the complexity in Haworthia.

After contemplating the difficulties of Haworthia taxonomy, I pushed the thought of a book completely into the background.  Although they have such fascinating forms they are almost devoid of characters by which they can be identified by eye.  The species are separated by nuances of shape and colour and often there are no clear boundaries within whole groups such as in the retusae.  The decision to produce a booklet was finally undertaken simply to record a workable assessment arrived at after considerable involvement with the group.  The original title of the booklet was “Haworthia – an Illustrated Check-list”’ and it is intended solely as a guide to the nomenclature and literature in the genus, and to streamline the nomenclature to a more relevant and workable one.  Names are not for collectors, but provide the basis on which information is collected and collated about our environment.  No matter how many books are written on Haworthia, however profusely illustrated, the collector will never at this point in time be able to identify all the plants he encounters with complete certainty.  He will have to concede that each species name covers a variable group of plants.  In some cases the species are not absolute and technically should perhaps not even be regarded as species.  John Pilbeam of England is presently completing a more comprehensive book on Haworthia and this will indeed give the collector something to which he may look forward.  Perhaps we can look forward to an era where a genuine concerted effort is made towards propagating and distributing those species which have so far been rare in cultivation.