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South Africa Holiday: Halfmens in the Richtersveld


Pachypodium namaquanum is a tree-like succulent devoid of branches, with a spiny trunk and a mop of leaves on top. Endemic to a small part of north-western South Africa and the Namib, Khoekhoe legend tells of fugitives changed into trees to relieve their suffering - thus the name "half-human" or halfmens.

Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) are endemic to the the drier, northern reaches of Namaqualand in the Northern 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.
South Africa Holiday: Halfmens in the RichtersveldThe 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.
South Africa Holiday: Flowers of the HalfmensThe 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 tip.
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).

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Biodiversity hotspots
South Africa Holiday: Halfmens in the RichtersveldThe Afrikaans name of halfmens, which means human-like, is widely used to describe this succulent.
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 land.
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. 
South Africa Holiday: Halfmens in the RichtersveldThis 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]
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