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A Virtual Tour of the Succulent Karoo

Published on January 28th 2021
Succulent in habitat anacampceros
Southern Africa harbours an astounding 46% of all succulent species on record (1). It outcompetes all other arid regions to become one of the many natural wonders of the world. From bulbous caudexes to creeping vines, we have it all in what may at first appear to be a dreary barren landscape.
In line with our previous virtual tours, we want to entice the average gardener to expand their horizons with inspiration from natural landscapes, habitats and indigenous flora. It is the start of a new decade with environmentally-minded designs and ecological corridors. So let us dive right in and show you something spectacular.
Klein Karoo

The succulent Karoo

It surprises people to hear that South Africa’s climate is predominantly (>90%) semi-arid to arid (2). The wet coastal areas stretch inland butting up against a long mountain range known as the Langeberg mountains, which trap most of the moisture. The Klein Karoo, where several succulent species occur, span the area between the Langeberg and the next set of mountain ranges known as the Outeniqua mountains.
Mountains allow for a range of microclimates to develop, which in turn leads to succulents exhibiting what is called point endemism. This means they may occur in substantial numbers, but in a single locality. It makes it very troubling from a conservation point of view as poachers can wipe out such populations overnight. On the other hand, it also means that we keep on discovering new species each year!
mesemb on a rock

Nama-karoo to Namibia

When you mention Namaqualand in any conversation, the first thing to pop up is the vast spring display of bulbs and Namaqualand daisies. Another equally striking display is put on by the indigenous mesembs or vygies as we like to refer to them. Everything from Antimima and Conophytums to the ever-popular Lithops popup anywhere they can get a droplet or two of water.
A group of colorful pink yellow Antimima flowers


Antimima spp.

Cone Plant

Conophytum spp.

Living Stones

Lithops spp.

It may serve you well to swing by the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve if you plan on taking some beautiful photographs. The reserve is the custodian to some 155 threatened species, so supporting their endeavours is our way of giving back. Note that it is a very unforgiving landscape and expeditions should be undertaken at the break of dawn or dusk rather than midday.
Some lesser-known plants to look out for:
There are several succulent species within the back dunes of the coastal areas, as we mentioned in the Beach Flora of Southern Africa article. You can always get the best of both worlds if you know when is the best times to visit for each display.
gethyllis in habitat
Calitzdorp is home to a wide array of succulents including bulbs.

Roaring through Route 62

The Cape is rich in its succulent diversity. While the Karoo National Botanical Gardens will allow you guided tours (for six or more) into shade house after shade house of curated collections, observing them in habitat is what we are here for. Jumping on Route 62 from Montagu will take you through the centre of succulent country.
Noted areas to visit would include Barrydale, Calitzdorp and Baviaanskloof. The region is home to small (but diverse) outcroppings filled with Aloe, Anacampceros, Astroloba, Gethyllis and Haworthia. A great way to learn more about the region is during the annual Calitzdorp Vetplantfees (Succulent Festival), which attracts several of our local heroes. Our Succulent Guides!
root succulent in habitat

Trailblazing with a Guide

One of the best learning experiences for any gardener is at the hand of a seasoned ecologist. Anyone who has had the privilege of attending one of Ernst van Jaarsveld’s talks will agree that it triggers a thirst for more!
Follow Ernst on Candide!
It might not always be possible to get a taxonomist or botanist to trek up the mountain, but several guides offer such services. We spent one such afternoon in the company of nature conservationist Kevin Koen, who also runs succulent treks in the Klein Karoo as part of Karooicus. He even has a beautiful Gasteria named after him (a recent find in one of the Valley’s near Calitzdorp).
I cannot recommend it enough, as such guides enrich any experience you can have. To learn a bit more on succulent flora in South Africa, I have included a link below to Neil Curry’s exquisite documentary. Do have a peek if you have the time.

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Best time to visit

Many succulents will shrivel and camouflage during summer months and open up to bloom during winter and spring when water is more abundant.
Time to visit: Spring or Winter
Guides of note: Kevin Koen (Klein Karoo Botanical Expeditions). You can book nature walks through their website.
A close up of a cactus

Sheilam Cactus Garden & Nursery

A garden and nursery boasting a large variety of cacti, succulents, and cycads. Recognised by authorities as owning one of the finest collection of specimen plants worldwide.

A close up of a flower

Kokerboom Nursery

Cultivators of rare succulents and quiver trees. Mr. Buys Wiese founder of Kokerboom Nursery bought the farm Quaggaskop in the Knersvlakte many years ago. The debt on the farm was such that it was difficult to make a living from it. During the construction of the N7 Cape Town to Namibia over the farm, millions of succulent plants were destroyed. Mr. Wiese saw an opportunity and applied for permits from Nature Conservation to relocate and/or sell some of the plants. In this process, a part of the farm was registered as a nature reserve, and plants were relocated to the Kokerboom Nursery in Vanrhynsdorp. From there on a collection of succulent plants were built and today all plants sold in the nursery are cultivated on the premises. Mr. Wiese is retired and today the nursery is run by his eldest son Danie. The nursery specialises in succulents and especially in quiver trees.

A cactus in a forest

Obesa Nursery & Garden

Plants-lovers will be like kids in a sweet shop at Obesa Nursery. 22 years ago, you’d have found a bare and empty 7-hectare space. Now, thanks to one man’s passion, Obesa is home to 7,000 plant species; one of the largest privately-owned Cacti and succulent nurseries in the world - it is a stunning oasis in the historic town of Graaff-Reinet. Obesa also uses sustainable methods to raise 350,000 plants annually and stocks over 2 million which are for sale to the public and exported worldwide. Among the extensive collection, you can find caudiciforms and bulbs, miniature and adult Cacti, the large tree-like Trichocereus Terschecki, Aloes, medicinal plants and various small and large succulents from across the globe, including the striking Ferocactus Stainesii (Mexican Fire Barrel), Yuccas, dramatic Dasylerions and Agaves. And, that’s not all. Discover rare and exotic varieties in the giant greenhouses, explore the incredible labyrinth and experience the ‘spike-tacular’ garden.

Want to learn more about succulents? Dig into the Exotic Succulent Series below.

String of tears bananas Senecio Curio
Curio radicans in habitat. The form can be very variable thus the abundance of common names (e.g. String of bananas/fishhooks etc).
(1) Van Wyk, A. E., & Smith, G. F. (2001). Regions of floristic endemism in southern Africa: a review with emphasis on succulents. Umdaus press.
(2) Hoffman, M.T., Carrick, P.J., Gillson, L., & West, A.G.. (2009). Drought, climate change and vegetation response in the succulent karoo, South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 105(1-2), 54-60.

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