Winter growth phenology and leaf orientation in Pachypodium namaquanum (Apocynaceae) in the succulent karoo of the Richtersveld, South Africa

Abstract

Pachypodium namaquanum (Nyley ex Harb.) Welw., an unusual arborescent stem succulent from the succulent karoo of the arid Richtersveld in north-western South Africa and adjacent Namibia, is characterized by a striking curvature of the terminal 20–60 cm of the trunk toward the north. This orientation displays the single terminal whorl of drought-deciduous leaves with their flat surface angled at a mean inclination of 55° from horizontal. Inclination of 50–60° was found in 65% of individuals sampled, and 85% were inclined between 45 and 65°. Northward azimuth was also quite regular, but varied slightly between populations. The fixed leaf orientation in P. namaquanum maximizes radiation absorption during the winter months when leaves are present. Leaves normally form in early fall (April) and abscise early in spring (October). Growing season conditions in the Richtersveld are relatively mild, with mean maximum temperature dropping only to 21.6°C in July, the coldest month of the year. Frosts are rare. By the fixed orientation of its leaf whorl, P. namaquanum is able to maintain nearly twice the midwinter radiation absorptance that it would have with horizontal orientation. Over an annual cycle the angled leaves receive more radiation than would horizontal leaves for each of the 6 months in which they are present on the plant. This increased winter irradiance is hypothesized to singificantly increase net primary production by concentrating growth activities in winter months and allowing the species to remain dormant during the hyperarid conditions of the hot summer months. Midwinter flowering from apical buds in P. namaquanum may also be aided by its stem orientation. The evolution of this characteristic pattern of winter growth phenology and nodding stem orientation may have come about because of low but relatively regular autumn precipitation and moderate winter temperatures. Slow and regular growth of P. namaquanum leads to long lifespans which may reach 300 years or more.

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Correspondence to P. W. Rundel.

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Rundel, P.W., Cowling, R.M., Esler, K.J. et al. Winter growth phenology and leaf orientation in Pachypodium namaquanum (Apocynaceae) in the succulent karoo of the Richtersveld, South Africa. Oecologia 101, 472–477 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00329426

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Key words

  • Pachypodium namaquanum
  • Orientation
  • Succulent karoo
  • Richtersveld
  • Energy balance