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A New Species Leucadendron "climacticum"

Tony Rebelo and New Leucadendron - Photo: Nigel ForshawProtea Atlas LogoWe discovered a new species of Conebush on the first day of our last Annual Get-Together in the Riviersonderend Mountains in March 2001. This is the eighth new species of protea discovered since the Protea Atlas Project began.

The new Conebush, which we have dubbed the Climax Conebush - Leucadendron nova or "Ld climacticum", is unusual in having a low mat-like bush of vegetative branches bearing narrow leaves. In this it resembles Ld nitidum from the Cederberg. From this mat 2 m-tall reproductive stems grow erect, with round leaves on the top. In this is somewhat resembles some of the Delta-seed, Fuse-bract and Pauciflor Conebushes, except that by the time the flowers are borne, these erect stems have lost most of their leaves. This is quite unique! In the female plants these stems bear large cones in which the seeds are stored for release after a fire. It is closely related to the Ridge-Cone Conebush - Leucadendron comosum, but this is a conventional protea with a normal bush habit and branches each bearing a single terminal cone. Ld climacticum thus differs from the other Needle-leaf Conebushes, by its habit, the large rounded leaves below the cones, and the tall, erect, leafless stems bearing the cones. The Cones are typical Needle-leaf cones, with prominent ridges as in Ld comosum.

Dr John Rourke has confirmed that the plant is both new and unique.

The plants were discovered on the north slopes of Olifantsberg above Villiersdorp, while exploring underatlassed areas on the Riviersonderend – the real reason why we had our AGT there. I first noticed the plants almost half a kilometre away while scanning the area with binoculars – as David Osborne had taught me years ago (and because my eyes are not what they used to be when I started this project). I had no idea what the plants were - they looked like a bunch of lollipops on the horizon – a ridge extending from the saddle between Olifantsberg and Silverstream Peak above the Doring River. It was only when I got there, that I realized they were Conebushes. By then I had already worked out that they were proteas and new. I called Ivor Jardine and Bill Turner over from the saddle – about a kilometre away – but only Ivor decided that my antics were worth further investigation!

They had to be new - there is nothing in the protea family like them! What a fitting way to end off the final Annual Get-together of the Protea Atlas Project! Atlassers have already elevated the area from a rich protea local to the richest in the country for protea species - the true heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom. But we were not expecting a new species so late in the project.

There were over 40 atlassers at the AGT walking the northern slopes of the Riviersonderend Mountains. It was pure chance that I happened upon them first – quite a few members of our party would have happily gone along the "overnight route". So much for the farmer who told us not to bother – atlassers have already been there and given me a list of the species. He also told us that the last people to walk the ridge had to be airlifted off by helicopter as the route was impossible – perhaps that’s why they missed them: but they certainly weren’t atlassers!

My immediate problem was how to tell the other atlassers at the AGT. This was too good a discovery to keep secret until we met in the evening, or indeed, until Ivor had walked over to the site. The cell phone signal was too weak: I tried leaving messages in Nigel’s mailbox but the calls were cut off. I tried leaving SMS, but even these did not get through. However, unbeknown to me, he had heard enough to get the general idea. Little did we realize that it would be another 5 hours before we were picked up by Nigel and the Mazda Wildlife 4X4.

The teams that had opted out of the ridge top walks had to wait at the Dennehof base camp until 20h00 to see the "baby". (Even those atlassers returning from the south slopes in Suikerkannetjie and Witblits had to wait till then to see the critter). It was fun hearing the comments.

Only 16 plants were seen in a single patch. Much of the area burned in December, so it is possible that there are more populations on the north slopes of the range. However, the cones and habit are so large that even burned plants should have been clearly visible. Still, this must be one of the rarest of the Conebushes. We will have to wait about four years before we can survey the surrounding areas for more populations. There were about 3 plants that were still mats without any erect stems, of the remaining plants there were about 7 males and 6 females, except, like a fool, in my excitement, I did not make detailed notes and I may have remembered incorrectly.

What I find interesting is that other species with vaguely similar growth habits (e.g. Se williamsii and altiscapa) also occur in the area and are also both rare and recently described. However, there are so many new species from the area (e.g. Se stellata and viridifolia), and so many range extensions (e.g. Pr acuminata, Pa adiantifolius, Di divaricata montana) that this may just be coincidence. I am certain Ld climacticum has not finished with us yet. When it flowers there may still be more surprises. We will keep you informed.

Have a look at more about the Climax Conebush.

Tony Rebelo

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