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Sphaeroids Out of Africa

Posted on September 15 2002

Bizarre rock formations and desolate terrain comprise the Greater and Lesser Karoos in Africa. The light and heat are intense, and in some years there is no rain, only fog. Amazingly, in this harsh environment, exist the "sphaeroids", miniature succulent members of the family Mesembryanthemaceae, or "Mesembs". Sphaeroids have evolved ingenious strategies to maximize water conservation. Morphologically, the plants are nothing more than two fat succulent leaves and a taproot. In times of extreme drought, sphaeroids can become flush with the soil, with only the "windows" at the tips of the leaves exposed. In this manner, the "windows" diffuse the light entering for photosynthesis, minimizing the effects of the intense heat and light. The colors and markings of these plants blend so well into the surrounding soil and pebbles that often it is nearly impossible to discern the plants from the rocks. This phenomenon is known as mimicry or crypsis. The sphaeroids include the granite-like pebbles of "Split Rocks" (Pleiospilos), the intricately marked "Stone Faces" (Lithops) and many others. Other members of the very diverse "Mesembs" include the reptilian "Tiger Jaws" (Faucaria), "Baby Toes" (Fenestraria) and many "shrubbies", including all of the vivid cultivars of iceplant used extensively in our landscapes. As we approach late summer and early fall; many of our plants have finished blooming for the year. In contrast "Mesembs" are just awakening from summer dormancy and soon light up the landscape with their late afternoon satiny flowers. Original Article by Renee O'Connell Originally published in Garden Compass magazine Sept/Oct 2002 Used with permission.

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