Volume 4, Chapter 6:- Comments on Haworthia mortonii I.Breuer

Credulity stretched.

Haworthia mortonii I.Breuer was published in Alsterworthia International  7(1):22(2007).

In Alsterworthia 7(1):22  Breuer states “No records have been found to indicate that this plant has been discovered before and as it is dictinctive I have decided to name it as a new taxon”.  This population is recorded in the old collecting record of G.G.Smith and I searched on the calcretes further to the east as far back as 1969.  Unfortunately it never occurred to me then to even look at the remnant of rock in an area largely destroyed by road-building operations.  Presently this small ravaged quartzitic outcrop is bisected by a meaningless road which is fenced and I did find the plants there in 2004 – name the place SW Karsriver.  Why I looked is because of the mindless destruction of a small valley habitat on the Karsriver about 3km further northeast where a magnificent form of Aloe brevifolia once grew with a population of H. maraisii that has gone with it.  I was thus anxious to confirm a maraisii so close to Bredasdorp for reasons best explained elsewhere (Update 3 Chapter 1).  Morton Cumming  apparently found more than the three plants I saw there across the fence on the north side.  I recognized the plants as minima/marginata hybrids and was also a bit nonplussed by the absence of putative parents.  Minima was only known at Mierkraal far to the southwest and marginata is known about 10km further to the northeast.  I was disturbed by the fact that I could only find the three plants and in February 2005 I visited the site again and collected seed under MBB7453.  Cumming seems to have been at the site also early in 2005 and claims to have seen many plants, which surprised me.  In the past the site has been grossly disturbed and a constant pain to me is that major road-construction in the late 1960era led to the use of rock outcrops such as this, as gravel sources.  The badia-locality at Napier became a major gravel source and could be seen as a huge white scar on the landscape from afar afield as Swellendam.  Thus this site at Bredasdorp suffered the same treatment and the land surface has been transformed with the removal of surface rock and gravel.  Only the smallest fraction is left and I do hesitate to report the survival of “maraisii” on virtually a single quartz rock remaining on the south side of the road pictured in Alsterworthia.  I cannot believe that I would have missed any plants in the area available to be searched.  Farming in the area is not mainly devoted to “merino-sheep and grain crops”.  Farming in the area has become highly commercialized and water is exported from afar afield as the Theewaterskloof Dam at Villiersdorp.   Grain crops are unreliable and with this artificial supply of water, farmers have turned to ostriches and dairy cattle.  The result of  feed-supplementation has resulted in higher stocking densities and greater trampling and damage to natural vegetation.  This has put tremendous pressure on pockets of surviving vegetation that is also exacerbated by a turn to dual purpose Dohne-Merino sheep breeds that graze more aggressively than the original Merino.  Additional to this is the destruction of roadside vegetation in what appears to be a deliberate policy of road-engineering to clear verges to the farm fences, and the dreadful application of herbicides for the fear of weed-seeds contaminating crops from those road verges.  The possibility that this herbicide application and disturbance of stable natural roadside vegetation will certainly lead to greater weed problems in the future, is left for that dark future.

If there were more plants there at SW Karsriver in 2005 there certainly are not now.  When I revisited the site in 2006 one of the three plants had been dislodged presumably by grazing animals, and we replanted it across the fence.  At a later visit we found that the plant had sadly died or else, having been in the fenced zone, may be the “small two plant” now gracing a herbarium specimen?  In February this year, 2007 I again visited the site in passing and saw that another plant had been broken off.  The crown was re-sprouting and I removed the main body of the plant to grow on in cultivation.  Together with this I can report that Sheilam has very successfully germinated the seed I collected and has given me about 20 seedlings for further cultivation and we will return these to the site in due course.  Thus 1.5 specimens of H. mortonii represent the species and I hope Sheilam makes a fortune selling this now gravely endangered taxon.!

Breuer in his article makes a reference to MBB6633 as “also this taxon” viz H. mortonii.  I already have a problem in that I think professional botanists have reduced taxonomy to a playing field where “the most ignorant and uninformed parade as taxonomists”.  Unfortunately the fragmentation of the literature and the existence of a privately operated journal exacerbate the situation enormously.  Both fortunately and unfortunately, it also provides me with a public platform.  This MBB6633 is simply H. marginata and what Breuer has observed in cultivation with respect to the two populations and his acquisition of material probably has as much to do with the disappearance of plants as do animals and road-building.  Incidentally I periodically visit the marginata at Adoonskop as the northerly population is known.  Now in 2007 the plants are very severely grazed down to ground level and the landowner is contemplating turning that non-arable 140ha into a fenced game camp with accompanying ecotourist facilities.  Curiously Cumming has reported (private communication) small marginata still further north and I suppose further “research” is going to result in yet another superfluous taxon.

Not over yet!  A population of H. mirabilis (var sublineata) used to occur on the south bank of the river course (This river is named Dryriver because like a few “rivers” in the area it only holds water in winter) that runs west to east immediately north of Bredasdorp.  In distress at the loss of this population I scoured the wider area to see if by chance it occurred elsewhere.   By virtue of a minor miracle we found seven scruffy and bedraggled specimens surviving within a grove of gum trees, covered by a fallen litter of old gum seed capsules, leaves and branches.  How they have managed to survive for what must be 50 years or more is very difficult to believe.  The site is virtually the same as an historic laundry concretion dating from the 18th century.  In searching for the plants we had to scratch and scrape among the litter, raising huge doubts and difficulties in respect of more disturbances and of conservation.  Very curious was the additional discovery of a truly depauperate and chlorotic specimen of H. minima from the wreckage.  Thus there is no doubt that H. minima was never far from the mortonii locality.  It certainly was known a little further east and Breuer is again inaccurate in his reporting that the “coastal area areas from Bredasdorp and further to the south-west are not very well explored for haworthias”.  The area is extremely well-known in general botany and has also been explored specifically for haworthias.  A proper view from both these perspectives is that this is the southwestern boundary for the genus and it is unlikely that further exploration is going to yield anything new – i.e. based on a rational opinion.

Here I want to point out something.  I do not hold a collecting permit from nature Conservation anymore, and yet I have removed the plants from the gum-tree litter at Bredasdorp and also the broken specimen from the DMC10485 site – for which I am fairly confident no permit was issued for so-numbered specimens either.  The reason that I do not apply for a permit is manifold.  Primarily I suppose it is because I feel I am busy passing my sell-by date (comforted by the fact that some people never were saleable).  Secondarily I feel humiliated by the process and the scrutiny of people whom I do not think are knowledgeable or really interested.  Thirdly by the challenges of conservation where my activities – however many plants I might remove – are as nothing compared to the mindless destruction of habitat by roadworkers, farmers, other landowners.  There seems to be nothing in an environmental impact assessment which lists species by name, that draws anything from those names and bears on the fact that we have living things of different kinds in our living space and we should be very careful indeed that we call it that.  The permit system seems to me to be a way of harassing interested people and worded solely to improve the probability of successful prosecution should officials be so lucky as to fall over someone removing so much as a seed from the field without a long list of provenances.  There are severe changes taking place in respect of our environment and I think that foolish taxonomy is doing nothing towards helping constructive engagement with conservation issues like this SW Karsriver site presents.  Not to speak of proving information which can usefully be added to the knowledge-base we all should gainfully share.