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p l ant t a xo n o my

A preamble to the dassie vygies

Weeding out opposing views
by Matt h. Buys and Kush Singh, Compton Herbarium, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Kirstenbosch

esembs, whether in full bloom or just parading outlandish growth forms, will arrest the attention of even the most ardent urbanite. Apart from their external appeal, they also provide an immense taxonomic challenge. The journey to discover the vygie family tree is a path less travelled, potholed by the (over?) enthusiastic Mrs Bolus and a predominance of variable characters for taxonomic scrutiny. While in other families one dabbles with species boundaries, in the mesembs this is a luxury. What genera, let alone species, exist and how they are related, remains a vexatious mystery to this day. This preamble to Oscularia (commonly known as the dassie vygies) represents what we believe will be an exciting taxonomic journey into the domain of the enigmatic mesembs. The science of plant taxonomy (and it is a science!) has been likened to solving a crime. If ever there was a cold case, this is it! Imagine trying to unravel a case that happened millions

of years ago with nothing to go on except the characters and states we observe in plants today? Not only that, but the crime scene has been contaminated by a number of processes known to occur in nature like hybridization; or convergence of evolutionary trends where non-related species look the same merely because they experience similar selective pressures. (See p. 24.) Succeeding generations of taxonomists, building on each others work, endeavour to get closer and closer to the real tree of life. By and large, each new generation has more evidence to work with than the one before DNA data, for example, is the latest source of evidence at our disposal. Taxonomists generally have respect for the inevitably disparate views regarding the use and interpretation of data, but as scientists we do not blindly follow what has been proposed by our peers. This is how science works the existence of opposing ideas or hypotheses on relatedness with

weak cases or arguments weeded out and one being preferred over others at any given time. And so too, it is with Oscularia. Different views exist as to what defines Oscularia, how many species there are and how they are related to each other. Oscularia came to be when Schwantes (1927) described the new genus based on a transferral of a known species, Mesembryanthemum deltoides originally described by Linnaeus (1753), the father of plant taxonomy. Fifty years later, Glen (1978), one of the first to employ computer technology (via punch cards!) to analyse plant systematic data in South Africa (and this on mesembs!), considered Oscularia and Lampranthus to be the same. In spite of Glens (1978) view of sinking Oscularia into Lampranthus, Smith et al. (1998) recognized Oscularia as separate, defining it on the premise that all species possess toothed leaves. Heidi Hartmann (2001) modified the concept to include in Oscularia entities possessing sickle-shaped leaves,

WhAT DEfINES oscularia? ABOVE LEFT: The sickle-shaped leaves of Oscularia steenbergensis. ABOVE: Oscularia comptonii flowers with stamens in a cone. (Note the pink and white flowers on the same branch). LEFT: Five distinct nectary glands in Oscularia piquetbergensis. ABOVE RIGHT: Disintegrating fruit in Oscularia steenbergensis.

ABOVE: Toothed leaf margins and keel in Oscularia deltoides. TOP MAP: The distribution of Oscularia according to Heidi Hartmann (grey line) does not quite agree with collections (orange dots) of Oscularia and selected specimens from the Bolus Herbarium (blue triangles). CENTRE MAP: Collections (orange dots) of Oscularia illustrating the correlation of distribution with sandstone. Note the northwestern most occurrences along the southern banks of the Olifants River. The sandstones to the north thereof represent a prime spot for exploration.

stamens forming a cone, five distinct nectary glands and disintegrating fruit. Whether Oscularia and Lampranthus are separate taxa remains to be seen because exceptions to these rules exist but, in an analysis by Klak et al. (2003), an examination of four genes grouped Lampranthus and Oscularia together. As Hartmanns views are the most recent, her work will form the basis of our own research. The state of knowledge regarding the distribution of Oscularia is presented on the map (left), superimposed on which is the result of a single season of fieldwork as well as selected data obtained from the Bolus Herbarium. In this regard, we can already make the following observations: Hartmann (2001) considered Lampranthus falciformis to be an Oscularia, but as pointed out by Klak (2003), this is an error and hence Oscularia has not yet been found on the Cape Peninsula. Oscularia occurs along the west coast to at least Papendorp near the mouth of the Olifants River. Oscularia is predominantly confined to rocky outcrops of Nardouw, Piekenierskloof or Peninsula sandstone (this could be a survival strategy against fire or simply a reflection that it does not like competition, or both). As the sandstone sediments also occur just north of the Olifants River, an expedition to this area is on the cards to see whether Oscularia made the jump north. Whereas the majority of species of Oscularia have a limited distribution, it is Oscularia deltoides that extends the reach of the genus to the east. The previous most easterly locality for O. deltoides was Garcias Pass near Riversdale. This has now been extended to Montagu Pass near George. This new locality was independently brought to our attention by Cornelia Klak and Jan Vlok. We have reconnoitred Prince Alfreds Pass without success in an effort to see whether O. deltoides occurs even further east. We suspect that our failure is due to the possibility that suitable habitats are to be found at altitudes higher than the meandering pass allows easy access. Any keen succulent hikers planning to do the Outeniqua Trail? Matroosberg has been scouted by Ernst van Jaarsveld without success and here too we would be interested in localities from the Hex River Mountains and Kwadousberg. That they should occur here is evidenced by a historical collection from Audensberg Peak (south-western part of the Hex River Valley), collected by Wilman in 1950 and housed in the Bolus Herbarium. A number of dassie vygies are known to occur exclusively on granite. Oscularia steenbergensis and O. vredenbergensis, both flowering in late winter, have been collected in the Saldanha Bay and St Helena Bay area. That these two species represent one entity seems obvious

in the light of recent fieldwork. Oscularia paardebergensis, endemic to the Paardeberg, is a separate entity based on the observation that it flowers in summer. All granite outcrops from the coast eastwards need to be explored to shed light on whether any dassie vygies occurring there belong to one or the other aforementioned species. Oscularia alba, described from Oorlogskloof, is distinguished by the possession of white flowers and nectaries forming a ring (one of the exceptions to the rule that all Oscularia possess separate nectary glands). Oscularia cedarbergensis, also possessing a ring-like nectary, has in contrast been described as possessing pink flowers. Our recent adventures in the field have revealed pink forms of O. alba and white forms of O. cedarbergensis in the Cederberg. (Visitors to Leipoldts grave in the Pakhuis Pass will, at the right time of year, be treated to some fine specimens of the latter adorning the peculiar rock outcrops characteristic of the region). In addition, both entities are high altitude taxa and both flower at the same time, leading us to suspect that they may well be one and the same. The Oscularia family tree is indeed in need of fine tuning and fieldwork will be crucial in our attempt to weed out all the misconceptions and resolve this once and for all. We are about to embark upon a research project funded by the South African Biosystematics Initiative (SABI) of the National Research Foundation (NRF) and invite all interested parties to contact us if they think they have come across a dassie vygie in the field.

gET CONNECTEd Matt Buys can be contacted at

Brown, N.E. 1930. Mesembryanthemum. Gardeners Chronicle 87, 71-72. Glen, H.F. 1978. A taxonomic monograph of Lampranthus and allied genera (Mesembryanthemaceae). Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cape Town. Hartmann, H.E.K. 2001. Illustrated handbook of succulent plants. Aizoaceae F-Z. Springer, Berlin. Klak, C., Hedderson, T. & Linder, H.P. 2003. A molecular systematic study of the Lampranthus group (Aizoaceae)... Systematic Botany 28, 70-85. Linnaeus, C. 1753. Species plantarum. Stockholm. Schwantes, G. 1927. Einige neue Mesembriaceen. Mllers Deutche Grtnerzeitung 42, 187-187. Smith, G.F., Chesselet, P., Van Jaarsveld, E.J., Hartmann, H.E.K., Hammer, S., Van Wyk, B.-E., Burgoyne, P.M., Klak, C. & Kurzweil, H. 1998. Mesembs of the world. Briza, Pretoria.

TOP MAP: My collections of Oscularia associated with granite. The area between Langebaan and Malmesbury remains to be explored. ABOVE CENTRE: Although some individuals of Oscularia caulescens have what appear to be solitary flowers, as this one does, others possess multiple flowers in an inflorescence and the status of this species in relation to O. deltoides must be explored. ABOVE: Multi-flowered inflorescences of Oscularia cedarbergensis.