Life in the desert: Weird and wonderful plants that battle the odds
Heat, wind and drought are some of the severe climatic extremes that the Richtersveld’s inhabitants face on a daily basis. Life in the desert is not for sissies, yet how remarkably full of life this desert remains!
The Richtersveld is considered a ‘mega-ecosystem’. It is home to the world’s richest concentration of desert flora; a biodiversity hotspot brimming with more than 360 species of flowering plants per square kilometer, with a mere 68mm average rainfall per year.
Survival belongs to the fittest, and there are no ordinary creatures living here. Each species has a plethora of strange and clever adaptations that help it face the elements.
Some plants choose not to avail themselves until the timing is just right. They lie dormant in the form of bulbs, seeds or tubers for years until very specific conditions arrive, before allowing their seeds to germinate with a higher chance of survival.
Others protect themselves by fighting fire with fire: psammophorous (sand-loving or sand-baring) plants secrete a sticky, gluey substance that traps sand and creates a hardened shield on their leaves. This sand ‘armour’ protects the plants from the incessant sandblasting which they receive from gale-force winds that can reach up to 180km/h!
In the case of a particular species called the Sandblaartjie (Strumeria bidentate), this is not its only ingenious adaptation. This plant has developed a very specific technique to protect its seeds from dehydration and sandblasting. Just before the seeds are ready to germinate, the plant bends its peduncle downwards and pushes its seeds into the ground – in essence, planting its own seeds!
Numerous other plant species have developed an ability to regulate their own body temperatures. When Forsskaolea candida is faced with temperatures above 35+ degrees Celsius, it curls its leaves upwards to hide the dark green side of its foliage and expose the white, reflective underside of each leaf. Similarly, there are many plants that have evolved with curlier and hairier leaves to ‘shade’ themselves from the sun, or to trap moisture droplets when the desert fog rolls in.
Most of these species are rare treasures, found in small numbers and only in very specific areas of the desert. In fact,103 of the Richtersveld’s endemic plant species are currently endangered, due to the effects of climate change, over-grazing, mining, disease, and illegal plant trade, amongst other factors.
Thankfully, there are a few extraordinarily dedicated SANParks members who have made these plants their passion. They work tirelessly to gain a better understanding of these remarkable species, so that their beauty can be shared with others and they can remain protected.
We look forward to exploring these natural wonders with local plant experts and naturalists as we make our way through the Richtersveld on the WWF Desert Challenge. Sign up here to join WWF for this once in a lifetime experience.
Kate Black is a Cape Town-based writer focused on exploring the outdoors and conserving our natural environment. Adventures like the Desert Challenge are top of her bucket list.