Since the discovery of mesembs in the 17th century, plant lovers, both amateur and professional, have been fascinated by their beauty and resilience.
These xerophytes have adapted to survive some of the harshest climates on our remarkable planet. Their unique morphology allows them to thrive where few plants fear to set root.
The succulent Aizoaceae family is highly diverse in structure, from the pea-sized Conophytums to the tree-like Stoebarias. The otherwise dry and grey veld comes alive after the annual rains. The flowers open around midday to reveal their spectacular display. Flowers vary in structure, from small inconspicuous little yellow flowers to the brightly coloured flowers of Cephallophylum spongiosum (Seen Above).
Mesembs are also known as "vygies", "fig-marigolds", flowering-stones", "ice-plants" or "midday flowers". There are many more vernacular names for individual genera or species, these names are listed by the image or genus section.
The term mesembs apply to succulent plants of the Aizoaceae family, mesembs are often placed in a family of their own, the Mesembreyanthemaceae. Currently a 123 genera are recognised. These genera’s are highly diverse in leaf and fruit structure, flower colour and shape, but species in each genus can resemble one another to such an extent that they can only be distinguished by their floral habits and the various differences in their fruit structure.
Mesembs play an invaluable role in the habitat. They help prevent various types of soil erosion by stabilising the soil, their buds supply insects with food year round (365/24/7), their fruit provide nourishment for rodents and the leaves are a vital source of fodder for wild animals as well as domesticated farm animals.
Above right: Argyroderma species flowering in the Knersvlakte.
Mesembs have adapted to grow in various habitats, from rock crevices to silty flats as well as saline wastelands. Without mesembs many parts of South Africa especially Namaqualand would be a barren desert.
Plants, like Lithops, survive more than just dry conditions they also have to evade detection by their hungry predators. These masters of deception employ mimicry to hide away from their predators, they have evolved to look like the pieces of quartz in which they grow. Mesembs have a widespread distribution, the majority of mesembs occur in Southern Africa and few species occur in northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand and around the Mediterranean sea. Mesembs that occur on other continents have most probably been introduced by man.