Somalia's untold beauty
- Kevin G. Belmonte () - May 23, 2009 - 12:00am

In the first part of this piece on Somalia’s untold beauty, I presented some of the fascinating succulent flora of this country whose image has been largely tarnished by the rampant piracy occurring in its waters.

In her compilation on cactus and succulent plants, Sara Oldfield discusses Somalia’s flora: “Somalia has about 3,000 flowering plant species of which about 500 are endemic. Highly specialized vegetation types within the country support many endemic xerophytic plant species, suggesting that arid climate conditions have remained unchanged for long periods of time…The northeast of Somalia is particularly rich in succulent plant diversity and is considered to be an internationally important center of plant diversity. Specialized limestone habitats, with outcrops of pure gypsum, harbor many endemic species. Some of these species have been known only from single collections by early naturalist explorers, and many others have only been discovered in the past 15 years.”

In this final segment, I will describe more of the fascinating succulents endemic to this country, their state in the wild, conservation efforts being undertaken to ensure their future survival, and some tips on cultivating these wonders of nature.

I was fortunate to secure most of the photos in today’s article from Ernst and Marita Specks. The Specks are the owners of one of the world’s best sources for rare and unusual succulents, Exotica ( Located in Erkelenz, Germany, Exotica has been selling beautiful succulents worldwide since 1983. I can highly recommend them for the high quality of their plants and their very professional service. Their photos (and those from showcase an array of unusual and truly exotic succulent forms — from the pachycaul Adenia aculeata to the “thorny” Echidnopsis, to the dainty Euphorbia globulicaulis, to Whitesloanea crassa, an Asclepiad that was once thought to be extinct. It was also once considered the rarest succulent on earth until commercial propagation from growers such as the Specks enhanced its numbers and made this plant more readily available to collectors worldwide.

Somalia’s succulent flora, however, remains threatened. The main threat comes in the form of overgrazing the lands. In her analysis, Sara Oldfield notes that Somalia has the greatest proportion of pastoralists in Africa. About 40 percent of the country’s gross national product (GNP) is derived from its livestock. Succulents such as Euphorbias have a poisonous milky sap in their stems and leaves and, as such, form a natural protection against marauding goats. However, these succulents have succumbed to another serious threat spawned by overgrazing — soil erosion.

As many of Somalia’s succulent flora have weak, poor systems (many Euphorbias included), soil erosion has caused a serious reduction in numbers. This is also one of the main reasons why Somalia’s succulents are among the very rarest in the world today. The lengthy civil war and the accompanying refugee flow across the country has also caused significant disruptions over the landscape, including massive vegetative destruction. Unfortunately, conservation efforts are still weak and lacking in organized protected area systems to conserve critical sites.

One of these sites is the Nugaal Valley, an arid area about 250 kilometers long and a center of plant diversity in the country. The western part consists of massive deposits of gypsum and anhydrites, while the coastal part is mainly limestone. The succulent flora is particularly rich here, with numerous endemics. Dorstenia gypsophila, Adenia aculeata and many Euphorbias are found here. In all, 61 succulent species in the country are naturally threatened. However, commercial propagation of many of Somalia’s rarities for collectors worldwide has resulted in absolute numbers growing. But unless conservation efforts are enhanced, many of the endemics (which occur nowhere else in the world), may soon be wiped out in their natural habitats.

Growing these succulent exotics from Somalia can also be a bit tricky. Coming from very arid environments, most of these succulents require what we succulent growers term as “poor soils” (mineral-based, non-organic growing mediums based around a good sandy garden loam) and infrequent waterings. These plants are quite sensitive to overwatering and will quickly rot if their substrate remains wet for lengthy periods of time (in my experience, even a medium that stays wet for four or five days straight can cause a quick death for some of these plants). I grow all my Somalia succulents in porous clay pots. The growing medium is usually an equal mixture of a good sandy garden loam, washed riversand, and pumice. I expose my plants to as much direct sunlight as possible and water generously once a week. I occasionally fertilize, but really don’t want to “force” these plants into quicker growth by using too much fertilizer.

These plants are naturally slow-growing in the wild, and unduly “forcing” them into growth may quickly result in a pile of rotten mush. But when grown well, these beauties from Somalia can really be such a joy. I don’t recommend these plants for beginners, but more experienced growers should definitely try one or two of them for starters. These plants deserve a prized position in anyone’s collection. Somalia is a fascinating country with a fascinating heritage. Now, if only the piracy problem can be curtailed.

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