An outstanding Huernia (Huernia praestans)

H. praestans was described by N. E. Brown in 1909 and judging from the name he gave it (praestans = outstanding; pre-eminent) he must have considered it to be something quite special. It is  recorded from a relatively small area in the western part of the Little Karoo (from Montagu to around Ladismith and Vanwyksdorp).
Up to now I only know the species from one slope with a rather dense scrub vegetation  between Hoeko and Ladismith, which is slightly east of the recorded distribution area.

Huernia praestans

H. praestans, east of Ladismith

When I first saw the plants, I thought they belonged to the much better known H. guttata, which occupies a wide area in  the Eastern Cape and the eastern part of the Little Karoo. Its habitats from near Calitzdorp are only 40-50 kms away from the place mentioned above.
The main differences between the two species is the fact that H. guttata only has some bristles in the mouth of the tube, whereas in H. praestans they also occur on the lobes.
All in all little is known of H. praestans and it has been suggested that it is  a hybrid between H. guttata and H. barbata.  The latter has a very wide distribution area, from the Knersvlakte as far as Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.

Huernia guttata with Duvalia caespitosa

H. guttata, above (with Duvalia caespitosa) and H. barbata, Mom and Dad?

Another picture story (Brunsvigia)

For today’s post I choose one of the picture stories that are part of my e-book “Plant photography; from theory to practice” (have a look at my website

The species of Brunsvigia that is pictured here (B. bosmaniae), is widespread in western South Africa. The common name is maartlelie (March lily), although it may also flower in April and May. When we had our farm in the southwest corner of the Great Karoo, we regularly encountered plants and dry inflorescences of these bulbous plants in the veld. Because we did not got there often during the hot summer months, it took us three years however before we saw the plants in flower. And what a delightful sight it was! Smaller and bigger groups of plants -sometimes dozens of them- colouring the otherwise dry landscape with big bright patches of pink. When I had a closer look at the flowers I decided to try and record some of the thoughts that flashed through my mind while photographing these wonderful subjects. What follows is the result of that process.

1 This is how I first saw the plants as part of the landscape, growing in their natural surroundings. If that is what you want to record, the picture does what it should do, especially when it is part of a series. Visually, however, something is lacking.

2 By going a bit closer and photographing 3 inflorescences from above, I got a completely different picture. The composition is now much less spontaneous and perhaps even a bit formal.

3 When you look at only one inflorescence, it becomes clearer what the individual flowers look like and how they are arranged. Although there are many flowers vying for attention, the picture is held together by the flower stalks all leading to a central point.

4 Although getting closer often makes for a stronger image, in this case it works counterproductive. As there is no dominant point of interest, the photo looks jumbled.

5 Slightly raising the camera and then tilting it down, resulted in a much improved picture, with clear lines all leading to the centre of the inflorescence.

6 Compared to what happened in 4, getting closer really helps here, because the flowers are more or less in the same plane and all the rest is out of focus.

7 It would be interesting to get a good picture of the stamens with their dark colour. Although I used an aperture of only f/6, the petals are enough in focus to draw the attention away from the stamens. Because of that, it is unclear what the message of the picture is.

8 Now the concept is somewhat better, but the execution is still bad. As only one stamen is in focus, the picture is completely out of balance.

9 Here most of the stamens are well defined, in focus and standing out against an unobtrusive background.

10 Because of their prettiness, flowers have a habit of drawing all attention to them, so that other parts of the plant tend to be ignored. Often it pays to resist that call and see what else of interest is there. Here we are looking at the buds and although the photo is not great, it gives the feeling that something beautiful is hiding in there.

11 After cropping and a bit of playing around with light and colour, this is the result I got. Botanically it is of little use, because it is quite hard to identify if you have not seen the preceding pictures.
Visually however, this is what I would call “an image with attitude”.

* * * * *

Warts and all

In a recent post (Cover up, 14th Jan.) I discussed how spines, hairs etc. help succulents conserve water. In some families we also come across plants where the leaves are (partly) covered in warts, papillae or tubercles. Although these are often highly decorative, it seemed likely to me that they would first and foremost serve a useful purpose. After doing a bit of research I came up with some interesting information.
It appears that the presence of these projections on stems or leaves has an advantage for the plants in that the breathing pores are hidden in the lower areas between them. This diminishes transpiration and protects the plants from dehydration.
In the case of warts, there is an additional advantage:  their epidermis is rich in crystals and lies over cells that store up tannin. This combination makes the plant rather unattractive to herbivores.

Crassula tecta is named after the warts on the leaves (tecta =covered or protected)

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 Crassula corallina v. macrorrhiza (corallina = coral-like)

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In Rhinephyllum graniforme the genus name means file leaf 

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Haworthia scabra is aptly named too (scabra = rough)

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This Astroloba used to be called A. aspera (=rough). The current name A. corrugata has a similar meaning (wrinkled or furrowed)

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Ruschia muricata is rough to the touch and that is exactly what muricata means

In the following two species the names make no reference to things like warts or tubercles, but it is clear that this is not because of lack of these.

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Aloinopsis spathulata

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Stomatium suaveolens

Making simple pictures

The word simple has many meanings, but the ones I have in mind here describe qualities such as clear, clean, uncluttered,  not complicated or consisting of  only essential things.
Striving for these qualities may well be the most important way to get better photos. Andreas Feininger put it this way: “The simpler and more direct, the clearer and stronger the statement”.
The problem is that many of us tend to include as much as possible in the picture, so that the viewer easily gets confused, because there is no clear message. When there are fewer elements competing for attention, your picture will usually be a lot stronger. The first thing you have to do is decide what the main point of interest in the scene is. Then you must find out if there are any competing ones. If this is the case you must determine whether the image would become weaker or stronger by including these.  You may be able to do this on the spot, but it often easier to take a couple of different shots and select the best ones later on.  If you take pictures of plants in the wild, at least some of them should include a fair bit of the environment too.

One way to get a better, less cluttered picture is often to get closer to the subject. As the famous war photographer Robert Capa used to say: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you aren’t close enough”.
By getting closer you simplify the picture, thereby focusing attention on the main subject and getting rid of distracting objects.
Often the picture can also be simplified by limiting the Depth of Field

This picture gives a good impression of the harsh surroundings  this species of Hessea has to cope with , but visually it is not very appealing

The second picture gives much more information about the flowers, while still showing the plant in its environment

The first of these 3 pictures gives a good impression of what this species of Aloe looks like, but it is a bit jumbled

For the second picture I cleaned up the plant a bit, by removing remains of old leaves. This gives us a better view of the spotted backs of the leaves, which are so typical for this group of plants. By moving in, we have also got a much stronger picture

The third image verges on the abstract, but it is still recognizable. Because of that, it is not just visually but also botanically interesting

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The individual flowers are quite beautiful, but the pictures does not show them to advantage

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By going nearer I managed to get rid of the unnecessary and disturbing elements

Under cover; ways and means of conserving water

When looking at all those beautiful and unusual forms, colours and textures in succulents, it is easy to think that all thist is there  for our enjoyment.  I’m afraid  that is not the case; most of it is purely functional. For me, instead of  being disappointing, this fact  adds to my pleasure and admiration.  What can be more likeable than things that are both useful and pleasing to the eye? In this post we will have a look at some of the contraptions that succulents use to conserve water.
The one thing that sets succulents apart from all other plants is their ability to store water that they can use during periods when there is no external supply.  Obviously it is not much use to store a lot of water if you do not have the means to conserve it as well. Managing the stored water sparingly, mainly  has to do with reducing transpiration.
The rate at which plants lose water by transpiration is influenced by a number of factors: size and form of the plant, temperature, humidity,  intensity of sunlight, precipitation, wind speed, land slope etc.
On some days the temperature of the soil surface may rise as high as 75 degrees C, but a few centimetres higher up it will usually be much cooler  (up to 40 degrees less ). The two extremes will be separated by a layer of still air.
Comparable layers with gradients of humidity and temperature are found above plant surfaces; they have a great influence on transpiration. These layers are  disturbed or even destroyed by wind.  Because of this, many succulents have a cover of hairs, spines, etc. on the surfaces of their leaves or stems. This helps in producing and protecting these layers.  Such a cover  also gives a certain shade and helps to diminish exposure to strong radiation –especially when it is light in colour.  It has been found that tissue temperatures below spines of the cholla cactus (Opuntia bigelovii) can be reduced by as much as 11 degrees C.

In this Anacampseros albidiflora, short hairs on the leaves and long bristles between them, cooperate to keep the plant cool

Pelargonium barklyi is a tuberous plant. Although the leaves are short lived, it is apparently worthwhile to protect them with a cover of hairs     

Haworthia arachnoidea  gets its name from the spiderweb like cover of hairs. This variety is called scabrispina because the hairs are rough and hard like spines

In Senecio scaposus the leaves look like covered in felt

Many people think that spines are only there to protect the plants against browsing animals.  In line with what we have discussed here, I think that spines play a certain role in that respect too, but that it is not the only, or even the most important, one.


 In cases like Othonna euphorbioides (above) and Euphorbia stellispina  -and in many other plants- the spines are actually hardened remains of inflorescences




Leaf and stem surfaces are often thickened too, or coated with a layer of wax (Senecio stapeliiformis, on top) or cork (Othonna herrei)



Why do we take pictures?

That’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it? We take a picture of something  because we want to have a picture of it. That’s all there is to it, or is it?
To get a more useful answer, maybe we should make the question less general: Why  take a picture of a certain plant?
The answer could still be vague: because I like to have a picture of this plant.  As long as that is all you want, fine. As they say: if you don’t mind where you are going, you ain’t lost.
If, on the other hand, you want to make a meaningful picture, your answer will have to be more specific.  You must be able to put into words why exactly you would photograph this plant. Otherwise, the best you can expect is what the famous Ansel Adams used to call “a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”.

The reasons for photographing a plant (or a part of a plant!) may cover an enormous range:
– because I like these flowers
– because I’m writing an article on this species
– because this is the first time I see the plant in the wild/ in this kind of environment/ in this area
– because I want to show the peculiar hairs on the leaves
– because I don’t have a picture of this species yet
– because the fruits remind me of …
– because I want to show the plant in its natural surroundings
– because normally the plant does not flower in this time of the year
– because I don’t know the name of the plant and hopefully the picture  can help me sort it       out
– because the fruits/buds/young leaves look so wonderful
– because I am awed by how this little plant survives in its hostile environment
– because I want to impress people with a picture of this rare plant in my collection
– because the picture will remind me of this wonderful trip
– because……, because……., because…….

Obviously you don’t have to restrict yourself to one reason. Do remember however, that each reason will demand a different approach. You will not be able to show a big  plant as  a whole and a detail of it, at the same time; if you want to show hairs or warts, you will probably need to use side lighting or backlighting, etc.
When you look at the list a bit closer, you will notice that part of the reasons have to do with the subject as such. In that case you will need a documentary, representative approach.  Other reasons have to do with your response to the subject, requiring an impressionistic,  creative approach.  Being aware of all this and responding in a suitable way, is an important step on the way to better pictures.

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Twice the same species (Euphorbia multiceps), but what a difference in pictures!

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Huernia pillansii lends itself perfectly for making abstracts pictures

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The first picture shows the plant (Drosanthemum bicolor) in its environment,  the second one tells us  much more about the flowers

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The first picture shows the juvenile stage of Mitrophyllum clivorum, the second one gives an impression of an adult plant

A portrait of the bearded Crassula (C. barbata)

It would be hard to come up with a more apt name for this interesting little gem which is not just beautiful, but also interesting in an ecological sense.
The following pictures show how dramatically the appearance of the plants changes between late autumn and late spring. Please bear in mind that the plants occur in the southern hemisphere, and also that they only grow in the cooler and wetter months (autumn to early spring). They  are almost always found in shade, under shrubs or rocks.

Crassula barbata
Mid May (late autumn)

Late May

Early August

Late September

Early October

End of  October (late spring)
Now that summer is approaching, the rosettes have closed to minimize transpiration.  As a result of this, the cover of long hairs at the same time acts as insulation against strong light and desiccating winds.