A shadow of the past – Haworthia arachnoidea again. (1999)

M.B.Bayer, 16 Hope St., Cape Town

In the welter of words that has arisen around the enigmatic enigma, it has occurred to me that this information may help bring some perspicacity to the way we think about Haworthia and names.  Somehow or other I have forgotten to examine how Col. Scott came to apply the name arachnoidea in the way he did.  It is really curious that the whole story is so intricately woven in the rise and fall of my own career, and shows how the greater wheels of politics and economics grind down the least of us.

When I started work at the Karoo Botanic Garden in 1969, the Worcester Veld Reserve was an unknown entity.  I only learned later that it was a most curious duplicate institution.  I think I am probably the only one that ever became aware that there were two identical botanic gardens in one little town.  This strange situation arose from the historic origins of botanic gardens and the role changes they underwent from the 18th to the 20th century.  Initially they were herb gardens and primarily concerned with the discovery and cultivation of medicinal and economic plants.  This was also true of Kirstenbosch.  With the passing of the age of exploration and colonialism, coupled with the development of agriculture and horticulture in their own right, this justification for botanic gardens fell away.  In South Africa, the role of gardens for the sheer intrinsic value of a remarkable flora, resulted in the establishment of Kirstenbosch much as it is today.  However, botany as a field of human survival and endeavour, remained with the government of the day.  Thus there was a department of Botany in the government in Pretoria.  While Kirstenbosch sailed merrily along as a source of national pride, the position in Pretoria was far from easy.  The department of Botany had to meet the practical needs of the country.  While Prof. Compton and his small staff, together with the Bolus herbarium, were comfortably indulging themselves in the delights of the Cape flora, the botanists at Pretoria were battling with the realities of vegetation and the demands of agriculture for information in the rest of the country.  The Worcester Veld Reserve came into being in 1934 just after the great depression when droughts and excessive animal numbers suddenly had taken their toll.  The government woke up in surprise to find that production from natural rangeland had dropped tenfold.  In the consternation that followed this discovery, Veld reserves were established in various parts of the country to serve as monitoring points for vegetation change.  Unfortunately the Great War and other factors led to the Veld Reserve being lost from general sight. Being primarily a fruit and crop area, the western Cape was not being subjected to the same pressures of animal grazing as the rest of the country. Another reason was that the founding officer was killed in a car crash and his very young son was, by an act of oversight, human empathy, and diffuse economic, social and political pressures, appointed to further the cause of the Reserve.  This young man was P.A.B. van Breda.  He had all the enthusiasm and interest that could have been asked for, but he was uneducated and undirected and left alone to simply follow his own inclinations for close on 30 years.  He learned much of his botany from his father and from the few books at his disposal.  It was only until the slow wheels of government finally turned that the position changed.  Brand van Breda had collected specimens for his masters in Pretoria who seemed to have little interest in the reserve other than for its political and taxonomic foothold in the Cape.  The Karoo Botanic Garden as a satelite to Kirstenbosch had come into existence at Laingsburg in 1941 due to the goodwill of a political strongman and it gave Prof. Compton a foothold in the arid Karoo adjacent to the Fynbos.  Unfortunately it could never have been viable where it was placed and in 1946 it was moved to Worcester.  Nobody seems to have been aware that Mr van Breda was already running a botanical garden there, with a fairy grotto for ferns and Disas, and rockeries and beds for collections of all kinds of plants.  By the time I got to Worcester in 1969, the bubble had burst for van Breda and the Dept. of Agriculture was demanding its pound of flesh from a Dept. of Botany that was not producing the goods to satisfy the farming lobby.  Rangeland condition was seen to be deteriorating again, and when the drought of 1968 to 1971 struck there was drama.  A great stock reduction scheme came into affect which made many farmers, who would have otherwise stayed poor, rich.  It also led to the White Paper on Rangeland Condition and demand for real rangeland research.  Van Breda was hopelessly caught up in the need for scientific work and the wild ideas that veld could be reseeded and revegetated to a productive condition.  The Veld reserve moved from the benevolent indulgence of the Dept. of Botany to the harsh demands of agricultural production in 1972.  The very same pressures were indirectly at work at Kirstenbosch and Pretoria, with a heavy overlay of personal ambition and interest.  The Dept. of Botany was absorbed into Kirstenbosch as the National Botanical Institute instead of the more obvious converse.  I left the Karoo Garden in 1987 feeling all the pressures of this amalgamation of Pretoria Botany and Kirstenbosch.  On the strength of the White Paper I was easily accomodated to take over from Mr van Breda back in the Dept. of Agriculture where I had started my career in 1957.  All things considered Mr Van Breda did an extraordinary job, but technically it was a disaster.  Measuring vegetation change is a problem that science has yet to find answers for.  We barely understand what we have, let alone what changes and how this can be explained.

Without going into the longer saga of how this finally laid me low, I can now explain something about H. arachnoidea.  Mr Van Breda had an enormous amount about plants.  Unfortunately it was gleaned and deposited in a disorganised and untrained mind.  His knowledge was simply derived from the names his father had used, and from the names he was given for any specimens he sent to Pretoria (which even in 1975 was delivering identifications for Cape Flora with an accuracy of less that 70%).  He used the very few books that he had, but treated them in a naive way as though these accounted for all the plants species there were.  His own vast experience and keen observations where often interpreted in the wrong context.  I had the misfortune of inheriting vegetation surveys that he had been suddenly called on to conduct in order to measure rangeland condition.  These surveys were conducted in his own fashion and using a self-devised technique.  He did these surveys for 17 years under the auspices of the regional agricultural authority who had no way of knowing if they were right or wrong – and which never called for either result or report.  The identifications he had for his vegetation surveys will haunt and taint my image of ecology, or any other sphere in which latin plant names are used, forever.  From the Dept. of Agriculture’s point of view I was expected to write a vegetation description based on the meagre and incredibly poorly devised surveys.  I worked with the loveable, big-hearted charitable man until he was finally retired.  In the end the shortcomings of the Reserve and the surveys came to rest on my shoulders and I was never given the opportunity to defend myself or be seen to have turned the place around.  The reserve still exists but quite outside its original brief.  All the work I did on the surveys is hidden in a filing cabinet and in a computer directory that no one bothers to access.

I had met Brand van Breda several times before in connection particularly with Asclepiads.  Functioning as the curator of a botanical garden he had taken a particular interest in these plants (viz. Caralluma bredae which now is known to be the lost Stapelia miscella – and an identification error along the same line as H. arachnoidea).  The Botanical Society, which is the public support arm of Kirstenbosch, often used to make excursions to his collection.  In fact the scientific content of the Veld Reserve in 1969 despite its weaknesses, was justifiably seen to be stronger than that at the Karoo Garden.  So the Bot.Soc. visit alternated with visits to the Karoo Botanic Garden where the hybrid aloes were the attraction.  Brand van Breda had many friends and his wide knowledge attracted many plant enthusiasts – among them Col. Scott.  Now one of Brand van Breda’s great attributes was his generous assistance to others.  He was heavily involved with a study of the Veld reserve vegetation by Dr Ria Olivier.  Together they somehow arrived at the identification of the Haworthia which grows there as arachnoidea.  This is not so strange as it seems when one considers that the local herbaria had Aloe aristata in the collection identified as Haworthia natalensis (spec.nov.), and H. limifolia identified as H. minima.!  Using the name arachnoidea here was completely against the traditional usage of the name then in vogue.  This is despite the fact that while the name herbacea was in limbo, there were also the names like submaculata, aegrota, pallida, translucens, paynei and luteorosea to choose from.  In the circumstances which Brand van Breda worked, he was totally isolated from his parent institution in Pretoria, isolated from the literature and isolated by the fates which placed him where they did.  He had very little contact, and he sought no contact with the herbarium or staff at Kirstenbosch because it was not politic on the part of either body to do so.  Brand van Breda is in my experience not very different at all from the vast number of people I have met.  He had a notion of what a species is which was as good as any dictionary could give, and as good as many plant ecologists and scientists (even taxonomists) would give today if they were asked.  He had no inkling of nomenclature and its intricacies.  He had a blind faith in some authority somewhere and one book was as good as another.  If something was down in black and white it was authentic.  I have no doubt that Col. Scott absorbed the authority and credibility that Brand van Breda had and in subconsciously accepting the thus accredited use of a name, saw no need to examine it further.  Or if he did, it is hardly surprising that his interpretion of the type against living specimen did not quite match up.  Hence the name H. arachnoidea was mistakenly applied.  It subsequently became part of a non-existent enigma simply because Col Scott omitted the citation of H. herbacea sensu Bayer under his use of the name H. arachnoidea.  A simple problem of incomplete synonymy.  This is a very different explanation to the tortuous nomenclatural and ‘juristic’ path that Borgmann and Breuer have mistakenly sketched, but it is a truer one.

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