namaquanum) are endemic to the the drier,
northern reaches of Namaqualand in the
Cape and to part of the Namib desert.
Much of this region, known as the
Richtersveld, is a remote, wild and fiercely broken
mountain desert. It is a very rewarding destination
for plant hunters since it has a
large flora that includes many endemic species.
charismatic, northward-leaning halfmens is perhaps the most intriguing of
all stem succulents.
It is a tree-like plant,
devoid of branches, with a spiny trunk and a mop of
leaves on top. Growing to a height of about 2m,
halfmens have swollen succulent stems which they use for
storing water in this parched desert region of South
Africa and Namibia.
The thorns that cover the upper half of the
stem are long, brown and downward pointing,
while those near the base of the trunk are
short. The top part of the trunk (the apex) is
usually covered with a rosette of crinkly
green leaves which fall off in summer.
The tubular flowers (4cm long) appear in the
centre of the leaves in spring (August to
October). The velvety flowers have 5 short
lobes and are light-green with crimson near
The north-leaning stem apex ensures
that the short-lived leaves and developing flowers get
as much sunshine as possible during the brief winter growing
season (remember, this is the southern hemisphere
and the sun is in the north).
The Afrikaans name
of halfmens, which means
human-like, is widely used to describe this
Khoekhoe legend has it that when their
ancestors were driven southwards by warring
tribes from the north, some turned back to
look with longing across the Orange River.
They were turned into trees by a sympathetic
god to relieve their suffering, eternally
gazing northwards in this hot, waterless
Seen from a distance against the skyline they look like
people frozen in motion, their spiny trunks
forever inclined northwards, with leaves on
top like mops of hair.
This strange plant is one of the few
tall plants able to survive through the
seasons in this desert climate. Growing
extremely slowly, halfmens are rather rare
and not easily seen. For this reason many
people confuse them with the much more
common varieties of
Kokerboom, or Quiver Tree.
Under threat from illegal collectors,
the halfmens are internationally protected. It
is classified as highly endangered under the
Convention on the International Trade in
Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
[Recommended book: Namaqualand - A succulent
desert. Richard Cowling & Shirley Pierce. 1999.
ISBN 874950 41 5]