First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

We'd like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick

More specifically, we'd like those who can afford to pay to start paying. What it comes down to is whether or not you value Daily Maverick. Think of us in terms of your daily cappuccino from your favourite coffee shop. It costs around R35. That’s R1,050 per month on frothy milk. Don’t get us wrong, we’re almost exclusively fuelled by coffee. BUT maybe R200 of that R1,050 could go to the journalism that’s fighting for the country?

We don’t dictate how much we’d like our readers to contribute. After all, how much you value our work is subjective (and frankly, every amount helps). At R200, you get it back in Uber Eats and ride vouchers every month, but that’s just a suggestion. A little less than a week’s worth of cappuccinos.

We can't survive on hope and our own determination. Our country is going to be considerably worse off if we don’t have a strong, sustainable news media. If you’re rejigging your budgets, and it comes to choosing between frothy milk and Daily Maverick, we hope you might reconsider that cappuccino.

We need your help. And we’re not ashamed to ask for it.

Our mission is to Defend Truth. Join Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Quiver Trees – a succulent that would literally give...

Maverick Life

STARK WORLD

Quiver Trees – a succulent that would literally give an arm and a leg to survive

These massive succulents are often decades old, survivors of droughts and extreme temperatures. Image: Chris Marais

There are two quiver tree forests in the Northern Cape: one is south of Loeriesfontein and the other west of Kenhardt.

On the ridge lines they stand with arms wildly splayed, frozen in place, as if waiting to say their lines from some epic drama.

Every treelike aloe has its own identity and beauty, a profound and reverberating presence, a survivor’s spirit that shimmers like beaten copper. Some are carved and twisted by sun and heat. Others stand on the brink of cliffs, relishing the cooling updrafts. Many are old and golden; a few are pale and young. Most have a bronze fissured bark that glows at dawn and dusk as if lit from within. All have pale forked branches and sage-green hands holding up the blue sky.

Quiver trees thrive atop ironstone ridges. Image: Karoo Space

Sci-fi trees

Quiver trees look so otherworldly that director Stanley Kubrick wanted to make them part of his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to author Michael Benson, who wrote a book on the making of the movie in 2018, Kubrick “stole” some of these endangered plants in Namibia and had them moved to a different location for a more photogenic backdrop. In the end, though, very few real quiver trees appeared in this sci-fi classic. Instead, Kubrick had several fake ones made in England.

More recently, another legendary director in that genre, Ridley Scott, filmed his successful Raised by Wolves television series outside Cape Town. He created a fictional Planet Kepler 22-b out on Lourensford Wine Estate and had a bunch of kokerbome shipped in to add an otherworldly effect to the craggy background.

That’s Hollywood for you.

Their pale forked branches once made handy holders for arrows – the source of their common name. Image: Chris Marais
A young quiver tree spreads its stiff thorn-lined leaves to the sun. Image: Chris Marais

Grandfatherly dignity

Their Latin name, Aloidendron dichotomum, literally means “tree-like aloe with bifurcated branches”. Sit in the shade of one of these massive succulents, lean against the trunk and you will feel comforted by its grandfatherly dignity and sheltering arms.

The soundtrack is silence, interspersed by the occasional wheezy twitter of a sociable weaver or the distant keraak of a korhaan. In midwinter, when the yellow flower clusters are out, you’ll also hear the steady drone of bees and the excited calls of malachite sunbirds coming for the nectar. Baboons have been known to eat the sweet blooms. People who have sampled them swear they have the subtle flavour of asparagus.

Dutch colonist Simon van der Stel described this plant for the first time in 1685:

“Its bark is rather hard but the pith is soft, light and spongy. The branches of the trees are used by the natives (Bushmen) as quivers for their arrows. They hollow them out and cover the one end with a piece of leather and thus skilfully make from this tree, which they call Choje, a strong and serviceable quiver.”

It’s a forest, but like no other you’ve seen. Image: Chris Marais
When severely water-stressed, a quiver tree will survive by ‘amputating’ some of its branches. Image: Chris Marais

Where to find them

Apart from the two “forests” in the Northern Cape, there is also one outside Keetmanshoop in Namibia, and a small but expanding man-made version at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens outside Worcester. The SA National Biodiversity Institute sourced several from Klein Pella in Bushmanland in 1999, rescued before being flattened to make way for a new road. They add a few more every year.

Quiver trees grow readily from seed, but as any dryland gardener can attest, they loathe too much water. This is why the attrition rate in the moist botanical garden seems higher than in dry Bushmanland, where the punishing summer temperatures, winter frosts and frequent droughts apparently suit them better.

Its relations are also extremophiles. The very rare Aloidendron pillansii (also called the bastard, false or giant quiver tree) and the maiden quiver tree (Aloidendron ramosissimum) are only found in the Richtersveld desert, part of South Africa’s hot, dry north-westernmost corner.

Among the living lie the dead aloes, slain by age, climate change or windthrow. Image: Chris Marais
Quiver trees on a hillside are like sculptures in a gigantic post-apocalyptic gallery. Image: Chris Marais

Arm and a leg

A typical specimen will live for anywhere between 80 and 200 years. It survives drought by making calculated sacrifices when needed, cutting off the flow of moisture to some of its branches, effectively amputating them in times of extreme water stress. While walking among quiver trees you will also notice the fallen soldiers among them, taken by old age or drought, and some that have fallen victim to what scientists call “windthrow”.

This is when buffeting winds actually pluck these unmoving quiver trees right out by their roots and dash them to the ground where they slowly devolve into prone skeletons – with an added benefit.

Anyone who enjoys a chilled ale in the desert will be pleased to note that there is a definite cooling effect as air passes through the fibrous tissue of the dead trunks. In death, these survivors of desert storms and climate change make very handy natural fridges, especially when wet. DM/ML

This is an excerpt from Karoo Roads II – More Tales from the Heartland. Written and photographed by Karoo storytellers Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, the book can be ordered from [email protected] and delivered to your door (within South Africa) for only R340.

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 2

  • Highly recommended that anyone taking a road trip up the west coast should take the drive via Vanrhynsdorp and Niewoudville, both beautiful little towns on the way to Gannabos and see the quiver tree forest referred to here… it is truly magnificent and awe-inspiring and the magnificent nightly star gazing is reason enough to overnight in the beautifully restored old farmhouses on the farm. And Loeriesfontein to the north has a fantastic windmill museum set out in the veld.
    A beautiful part of the world…

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted