Conophytum (2006)

By Chris Deem (November 2006)

The train runs from Cape Town to Springbok, then on to Alexander Bay. It is winter. The rainy season has arrived.

Women in colorful dresses carry packages and sleeping children onto the painted train. In the darkness near the station, a clump of conophytums is growing.

No longer do they look like dry, papery husks. New speckled green leaf pairs, round and in bloom, have replaced them. Thirty-one daisy-like flowers, fragrant, yellow and white like stars, have opened on this night. Perhaps a weary traveler will happen upon this sight and enjoy a tiny wonder in the African night.

Rocky crevices, rocky hillsides, empty arid lands – welcome to the land of conophytums. As far as the eye can see, quartz, gravel and sand.

Conophytums are tiny single-body or clustering species from the family Aizoaceae. They are found in areas of South Africa and southern Namibia where the rains come in winter.

To successfully grow conophytums in the United States takes a bit of information and a lot of luck. In our summers, when most succulent plants are green and growing, conophytums are dry and dormant. In autumn, their new leaves emerge and most of the species bloom. Many flower in daylight, but some very fragrant species bloom at night. Some conophytum flowers last for many days, others only hours.

Active growth continues during our winter, and a few rare species bloom before they go dormant in late spring. Most species want water between October and March. Conophytums are slow-growing, sun-loving plants, but be warned: They need to be shaded and protected from the excessive heat of our summers.