Willem says: 'The Phyto-Philes are for plant lovers of every size and shape, colour and flavour. As with my Colours of Wildlife column, I'll be featuring one species per article, illustrated with sketches, paintings, and/or photos. Over time I hope to be showcasing the amazing diversity of weird and wonderful plants that occur in South Africa, while also from time to time looking at the flora of other countries. While featuring many spectacular species, I'll not be neglecting the smaller, more humble kinds that are nevertheless fascinating in their own right.'
This time I feature a species not many people even in South Africa know about! This is the Gemsbok Sorrel, Anacampseros telephiastrum. This little plant is a succulent, found in dry and usually rocky areas in the south of South Africa. The entire genus Anacampseros is restricted to Southern Africa, most species being found in the southern and western regions of South Africa. Most species are very small and inconspicuous; this one, the inflorescence of which can stand 15 cm/6" tall, is actually the largest one!
Anacampseros plants are generally known as 'Haaskos' ('Hare's Food') in Afrikaans, as well as 'Haassuring' ('Hare Sorrel') or like this one 'Gemsboksuring' ('Gemsbok Sorrel'). Whether or not rabbits and hares, or Gemsbok, eat them I don't know! As for the name sorrel, they're not closely related to true sorrels which are in the genus Rumex. Neither is Anacampseros related to the woodsorrels, the family Oxalidaceae. They used to be considered members of the Portulacaceae, the Purslane family, but currently there are signs that they might be sufficiently different from other plants to warrant their own family, the Anacampserotaceae. The only other members of the family are the genera Talinopsis, with a single species occurring in North America, and Grahamia, which includes a few species living in South America. The name
'Anacampseros' is old, coming from Greek, and was used for plants thought to restore lost love. Needless to say, this is not something you should try out and rely on!
In South Africa, the genus Anacampseros is quite diverse. It is sometimes split into two, with a subsection that has tiny leaves covered by white, paper-like scales closely pressed to the tiny stems, giving the stems a white appearance, separated into the genus Avonia, which in Afrikaans is called 'Gansmis' ('Goose droppings'). But they all bear similar flowers which are whitish, yellowish, pinkish or purplish. The species separated in Avonia are usually smaller, some being among the tiniest plants found in all of South Africa, with stems just a few millimetres tall and a millimeter or so thick! Anacampseros proper usually form rosettes of succulent leaves; these are usually a centimeter or few in height and diameter. But there is a lot of variation between the different species. Some, like the Gemsbok Sorrel, have quite large rosettes and very few hairs. Others are densely hairy so that the leaves themselves are hardly visible. In the wild, the hairs can cover and shield the rosettes. These white hairs reflect sunlight away from the rosettes, preventing the plants from overheating and drying out. This must be amazingly effective since I've seen plants growing in shallow patches of gravel on rocky hills, which in Summer can get so hot that they will burn your fingers at a brief touch!
These hairs also have a sort of automatic climate adjustment feature. When a lot of rain falls, the leaves themselves will plump up and grow, and the rosettes will enlarge. The hairs will then be more sparse over the rosettes, and more sunlight will reach the leaf surface, allowing photosynthesis and growth. But if there is a long dry period, the leaves themselves will shrink, and the hairs will then become more prominent and overshadow the shrinking leaves and so guard them against further dessication.
There aren't many human uses of these plants noted. The plants separated into the Avonia-group are sometimes used as yeast is, in the baking of bread or brewing of beer. They, as well as some of the proper Anacampseros-species, have been said to have hallucinogenic properties, thus resulting in a more potent brew.
Although I don't know of much use of these plants by humans or animals, they are very delightful to find in nature. They can be very hard to spot. The rosettes and leaves are tiny and will take on a colour and texture similar to the gravel in which they grow. In this they are somewhat like the Flowering Stone plants. Like them they are also most charming when found flowering! In their case the flowers are usually held high above the rosettes on long stalks. But the flowers are completely incongruously delicate compared to the harsh, dry, stony and gravelly areas where the rosettes grow. The plants open only on sunny days; the Gemsbok sorrel flowers most of the time in the late afternoon. The flowers only open for a short while and then close up again.
Growing the Gemsbok Sorrel
This, and other species of Anacampseros, are sought-after by succulent growers. They are among the easiest of succulents. Being so small, they can be fit into small gardens or planted in pots and kept on sunny windowsills in the house. Where there is only light frost in winter they grow well outdoors; I have many in my garden! You see here a display of several plants flowering in the afternoon. This species has leaves that are bright green in the shade but get some red and purple hues when exposed to the sun. Especially the undersides of the leaves can have a wonderfully intense colour. I find it best to grow them where they have some direct sunlight but also a bit of shade at the hottest part of the day.
Anacampseros plants make rather thick but short and small taproots and can thicken considerably at the base, making them suitable to shape into small thick-stemmed or pachycaul specimens, if the specimen is raised a bit, and the lower branches and leaves of the rosette trimmed away.
I've found that my plants produce lots of seeds … growing outside their flowers are pollinated by insects … and these freely sow new plants that will grow all around the others. In time they will spread and fill garden beds, unless there are bigger plants competing with them. You can pollinate your flowers by hand with a small brush if insects don't seem to be doing it. Following pollination, the fruit capsules will develop and when 'ripe' will dry out; the small, papery seeds are inside. You can easily gather them if you catch the flower at the right time, before it has burst open completely. In the wild the wind will distribute the seeds. To sow them, first prepare good soil – well-draining with a bit of compost – and put a layer of coarse, gritty sand on top of that, about half an inch thick. Spread the seeds over this and sprinkle a final layer of sand over them. Keep moist but not wet. They ought to germinate in a few days. Continue keeping them moist. They can be quite crowded together while young; let them grow a season or two before planting them out … you might be surprised at how many little plants you end up with from a single pot!
But this species of Anacampseros can also easily be grown from cuttings. Just snip off a single branch bearing a rosette at the tip; leave it for a week so the wound can heal, then plant it in a similar coarse, well-draining medium. It should be established and start growing in a week or two.
To keep a healthy Anacampseros plant, keep it as I've said in a place with sun as well as shade, because even if in nature they can stand extreme heat very well, they always do better when not stressed. Keep it moist but never wet. This species grows throughout the year but in winter you can reduce watering somewhat. It can survive weeks or even a couple of months without water but again grows better if watered somewhat regularly. It can stand only light frost. This is perhaps the easiest Anacampseros-species to grow, but if you achieve success with it, by all means try some other species from this charming group!