Namibia’s desert flowers

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BIG STORIES about little things – Namib desert lizard
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Desert flowers, shy flowers

By Jackie Marie

I’m a USA big-city girl, born and bred. The jungles I know are concrete. Where I come from, trees have their place in an asphalt opening in the sidewalk that is the tree block, and flowers have their place in a designated flowerbed or a flowerpot hanging off someone’s window ledge.

Now that I live in Namibia, I have many colourful, vibrant plants around me, all the time! It’s like I’ve moved from oak and maple trees to baobab and quiver trees.

Living with the desert flowers, succulents and cacti in my garden have completely changed my flower-love perspective. I now appreciate the shy desert flowers. Of course, there are desert flowers in the USA, and folks coming from regions with deserts certainly understand desert flowers better than east-coast city slickers like me! And I must say here that enjoying a BBC special on flowers with Sir Richard Attenborough is truly not the same as having them all around you in real life, every single day.

Desert flowers are shy beauties that peek out after the seasonal rains. The rareness of their appearance adds to their aura and beauty. They open their shy buds and display lovely flower bouquets for just a few hours a day. Then, like we close an umbrella after the rains, they close their colourful displays for the hottest part of a sunny day, or to retire for the night.

The contradiction of the harshness of the long, sharp succulent thorns with their soft, delicate, colourful flowers is amazing. I have many different succulents in my garden, and have decided to try and find out the names and characteristics of each one. It will be quite a mission.

So far, I have established that the quiver trees in my garden are not actually trees; they are aloes! Their leaves grow only at the top of the branches, and their trunks are light brown to silver, and peel all the time.

The Kalahari San people use the hollowed out branches as quivers for holding their arrows, which gave rise to the name of the tree. Their flowers are big and yellow; they are the hesitant, shy, beautiful ones that I admire so much.

desert plantsAs I continued my name search, I discovered that the plant world has issues with mothers-in-law. I have several round barrel cactus plants in my garden that are called ‘mother-in-law’s cushion’. As are all cacti found in Namibian gardens, they are imports from the Americas, in this case Mexico, as ‘cacti’ indigenous to Namibia are correctly called succulents. These so-called cushions have inch-long (about two and a half centimetres) needles all over, which are wicked. Even though my kids are not married yet, the thought of sitting on that thing makes my bum sting! On the top of the ‘cushion’, however, are the sweetest little diaphanous yellow flowers that peek out only a few times a year.

Then there is the plant I had thought was a snakeplant, but found out that while related to the snakeplant, was in fact the ubiquitous mother-in-law’s tongue, which is native to West Africa, where its leaves are commonly used to produce fibre. It is a flat-stalk-like thing with heavy ‘leaves’ that jut up a couple of feet, and has about six or so stalks per cluster. Each thick leaf is a darker mottled green down the middle and yellow-green up the sides. I was worried about this one, because it’s toxic for cats and dogs, and I have three Labradors and a cat I acquired from the SPCA and named Norman, who actually owns me.

I also have a weird-looking succulent that is commonly referred to as halfmens (Afrikaans for half-person) or elephant’s trunk, a good description for this strange plant. It’s scientific name is Pachypodium namaquanum, which I dare you to say that three times in a row! I would describe it as a tall, skinny basketball player with one of those fade (mullet) haircuts, that is with all the hair on the top of the head and nothing on the sides. This plant has no leaves anywhere except at the top! But it has short, sharp, thorns all around the sides, and no branches at all, just the single trunk.

desert treesThen I have several different kinds of aloes, such as the Aloe vera (meaning green aloe) and a candelabra aloe (Aloe virosa) that I sometimes break off and use as a salve when I burn my fingers cooking something in the kitchen or have been pricked with a thorn from a cactus! These are hearty guys that grow easily and don’t need a lot of water.

Take note that in Namibia, water is a scarce commodity. Visitors and residents need to be constantly aware of this. This is a semi-arid country and wasting water is a serious no-no. I learned that very quickly when I first came to Namibia and made wrong choices about what plants to grow in my garden. In my first month in the country, I removed some local plants to make room for a grassy lawn. I went for the ‘pretty factor’ in my limited east-coast USA perspective, having no knowledge or understanding of the practical Namibian factor. Boy, had I made a mistake! My ‘lawn’ dream vaporised in the heat of the Namibian sun and the growing level of my water bill each month. After asking around for advice from locals, I got smart and went natural.

Sometimes the indigenous flowers in Namibia look good but have no scent, others have scents ranging from herby to sweet, and a few even have a rotten smell, somewhat like carrion. I had always thought that a beautiful flower should have a perfumed scent. I had now learnt that the yucky smell in some Namibian flowers was nature’s way of attracting the insects the plants need for pollination, plus the smell also protects the flower from things that would eat it.

Once when I was in New York, a florist proudly showed me a lovely genetically modified flower that had a brighter-than-normal, blended soft pink, fuchsia, red colour and an enhanced smell of carnations. Somehow, I wasn’t impressed. I’d rather tolerate the yucky flower smell that is natural than the laboratory-created flower smell that is fake.

For me, falling in love with local, naturally Namibian plants and flowers, saves water, fits into the local environment, and allows me to enjoy shy colourful desert flowers!

So, during your visit to Namibia, don’t forget to stop and appreciate the flowers!

This story was first published in the November 2012 Flamingo magazine. 





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