Among all the various growth forms in the genus Euphorbia, the design of this species stands out as something singular.
The plants consist of a thick main stem covered with numerous branches up to 8 cm long, decreasing in length towards the top of the plant.
In this way, a compact cone is formed up to 60 cm tall and to 25 cm across at base. In some cases however, the plants are not shaped quite so neatly, resulting in a far less appealing and peculiar habit of growth (see pictures).
The spines are in fact sterile flower stalks; they are 0.8 to 7 cm long and arise from both main stem and branches.
The species occurs on stony slopes and flats from Steinkopf in Namaqualand to the western Little Karoo.
In contrast to Ornithogalum sardienii, this species is widespread on dry rocky places, from Caledon and the Little Karoo to the eastern part of southern Africa. It was first described in 1797, but in the period between 1843 and 1945 it got no less than 16 new names. To make this even stranger, only 6 botanists were responsible for this.
The plants form clusters of above-ground bulbs to 4cm in diameter and tall, with pale to grey-brown, leathery outer tunics.
The leaves are more or less erect, often present when flowering, 10-20 cm long and only 2-3 mm wide, usually strongly ribbed.
The inflorescences are up to 40 cm long, with up to 15 flowers (white with darker keels); they appear from November to March.
When in flower the plants are usually 30-60 cm tall; they consist of one to a few rosettes.
The leaves are tightly packed but become more separated when flowering. They are 2-8 (sometimes 10) cm long and 1-2.5 cm wide, usually densely hairy and with longer hairs (cilia) at the margin.
The plants are found from southwest Namibia along the western coast of South Africa to the Cape Peninsula and the western Little Karoo to near Laingsburg. They often grow in coastal sands, but also on gravelly slopes and larger rocks.
These peculiar and very distinctive plants form little clumps of soft and velvety-hairy* leaf-bodies which are about 4 cm tall and 3 cm in diameter.
During the long resting period, the bodies are completely enclosed in the dry sheath-like remains of the previous pairs of leaves.
Because the leaves are completely united, the flowers have to rupture the tops of the bodies in order to emerge. They are about 2 cm in diameter, white to mauve and appear from November to Januari.
The plants are locally abundant on quartz outcrops, but are known from only one location (west of Barrydale in the western Little Karoo), in a highly saline area. They grow together with G. album -see first picture- and sometimes hybridise.
In his book Flowering stones and Midday flowers, Gustav Schwantes dedicates nearly 3 pages to this species and he is clearly highly impressed by it, as witnessed by the following remarks:
“The plant exhibits the highest expression of leaf succulence in the whole plant kingdom.
There is nothing of greater interest among the Mesembryanthemaceae than this living creature which is so unusual in shape and structure”.
*the hairs are among the longest in the family.
Mature plants of this species usually have a globose caudex to 10 cm tall and to 9 cm in diameter. The branches are about a cm thick and normally about 1.8 cm long.
The species is very rare and only occurs between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo. It was described in 1999, but nowadays the consensus seems to be that it should be incorporated in E. decepta.
When one sees a great many of these plants together, this usually means that the local vegetation has been heavily disturbed (the plants are rarely eaten by stock or game because the juice in the leaves is very salty). They can absorb a great amount of water after rain, not only in the leaves but also in the roots.
The plants usually live for only a few years or, in more official terms, they are annuals or short-lived perennials, up to 50 cm tall with leaves 3-4 cm long and about 1 cm thick.
The flowers appear in spring (August-October) and produce large fruits with woolly seeds.
This species (the only one in the genus) is widespread on dry sandy or loamy flats from southern Namibia and Bushmanland to the Little Karoo.
It’s a bit of a pity that the former genus name has been dropped, as it aptly suggested the way in which the persistent old, dry leaves form a sceleton protecting the new leaves.
The creeping or scrambling plants have imbricate leaves (overlapping like the tiles of a roof); which are to 4 cm long and 2 cm wide, with the tips turned inwards.
The flowers are white to pale yellow, pale salmon or pale pink, about 2-3 cm in diameter; they have a short stalk and appear in July-October.
It is a widespread species, occurring under bushes or in the open from Namaqualand to Montagu and Aberdeen in both winter and summer rainfall areas; often on quartz.
As in other members of the genus, the plants contain the alkaloid mesembrymine and have medicinal properties. The fermented leaves are widely used as a sedative and to relieve pain such as toothache and stomach ache. The concoction can also cause drunkenness.