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Sempervivum octopodes on Mt Pelister
by Klaus Schropp (and translated by himself)
To the discovering of a very local Houseleek from southern Makedonia, well known in cultivation by one clone with abnormal flowers. What about this plant in in its natural habitats?
3. The mountain
Among all these beautiful Sempervivums, this one is very special for me: I know under recent nomenclature, Sempervivum octopodes is not longer admited as a true species, but by using this short name I wanted to avoid writing a lot of times “Sempervivum ciliosum subspecies octopodes” I hope you forgive me...
So let’s begin with the description from Alan Smiths booklet:
S.octopodes Turill, Gard.Chron.ser.3, 102: 303 (1937). Dr.R.S. Wale made a translation of the original description and this is to be found in the Bull.Alp.Gard.Soc.Vol. 6 page 98 (1938)
Var. apetalum Turrill this variety was described by Dr.Turrill along with the type form in 1937. Collected by the Rev.and Mrs. H.P.Thompson in the early 1930`s when they paid a visit to Mt.Peristeri, growing close to the original find of the type plant.
So far the description and the story of S.octopodes.
My first contact with it was in the Botanical Garden of Berlin in the rockery in 1995. A really fascinating plant: this vivid splendour on the hairy leaves, long Androsace-like stolons and the very fragile appearance. Also the particular name... together with the somewhat mysterious story - growing only on ONE mountain, the type form only ONCE found and overall the apetalum form - for me there is something different in it from all the other sempervivums:
Sempervivum octopodes is for me a magic plant!
Several years ago I studied the road map, looking with desire at the Balkan mountains, but it was the war in Yugoslavia. So in 2005, having asked a Macedonian friend in Germany about the situation in Macedonia, finally it was time to get my bike fit for the trip down there.
Taking the Adriatic coast road in Croatia and passing through Montenegro and Kosovo one will arrive at the border of Macedonia. The border between Kosovo and Macedonia is not only a political one, it is also a topogrgaphic one. If you ever tried to explain a border to a dog, the border between Kosovo and Macedonia it will understand. Coming from the dark Balkan forests, exactly at the border station, the landscape opens up and is getting steppic, reminding more to the Mediterranean area.
Pelister or Baba Planina is a very dominating massif above Bitola, “crowned“ at his top by an antenna. Here in Bavaria we call this kind of mountains, rich in meadows, “flower mountains”
The whole mountain is a national Park but a dirt road leads at the western slope up to the top.
I had got a description of the investigations of Ben Zonneveld there in the 1980's (in Bul. AGS), but I had no idea from which side to get on the mountain. So I took a coffee in Bitola and after a few minutes I was into a good talk with several people. One of them, who turned out to be the Pope of Bitola, gave me a complete description of every way up to Pelister. Taking leave he gave me the words “God bless you.” So I was really set up perfectly for Pelister.
Next morning - under god protection! - I took the standard way up to Pelister, starting at Nizepole and leading to the two lakes to the summit. It was to presume that also Dr. Seligman (who first discovered this plant) has taken this way. The mountain slopes, granite with junipers and high grass and sometimes a Molika pine (Pinus peuce) reminded me very to the central Alps, a kind of lanscape in which I would search immediatly for S. wulfeniii if I would not be in the Balkan core!
But to get to my desired sempervivums I had to get at the lakes.
After some hours of hiking, only few meters below the first lake I found my first Sempervivum: it's S. marmoreum! Only one tuft, grey and pubescent leaves, flushed with orange at the outer leave surface. I looked for more, but nothing.
So I took the way to the lake, hoping for more. The description gives ”an outcrop of volcanic rock above a little tarn on the way up to the summit of Mt. Peristeri “. The rock above the lake was there, but it was northern exposed - so, for all I know in Sempervivum they prefer sun. Climbing up I found Saxifraga pedemontana on the naked rock, but still no sempervivums. Still getting steeper, it was not too easy to get up the rock, but then I saw some J. heuffelii and having climbed over the ridge something between the juniper leaves...
Yes my search is over - 76 years later I’m standing on the original site of Dr. Seligman saying to me again the description ”on an outcrop of volcanic rock above a little tarn on the way up to the summit of Mt. Peristeri“. Twenty mighty words who led me back there after all this time!
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s not always so easy!!!
Searching around on “Rock Seligman” how I named it, I found a good colony of S. octopodes growing In crevices or on the granite rock, making nearly a competition with J. heuffelii who’s the harder one. Of course, S. octopodes is not a vigorous grower being able to colonise the meadows below the rock.
S. octopodes is shy-flowering and I am on 18.8.2005 about 3-4 weeks too late for the flowers, but I still can see the rests of the petals at the few ones that have flowered.
The place where they grow is really an extreme one, few soil, hot sun, wind, rain? I hadn’t suggested it for such a dainty, fragile looking plant.
The dominant Sempervivum here is still J. heuffelii growing and flowering abundantly also in the meadows around and, by the way, with fine hairy leaves.
Climbing up the southern slope, there is only J. heuffelii and after some search S. marmoreum, flowering, but only two tufts.
The next interesting finding was a sample of J.heuffelii bearing what I provisionally named “Endophyllum schroppianum” - I didn’t dare to take it with me so the experts can discuss what it can be, disease or mutation?
But there was a second lake to visit, “above a LITTLE tarn”, and the map gave the, still to visit, upper lake as the smaller one. Well, I made up over the large meadows to the next summit towards Pelister finding rests of military positions but no Sempervivum.
After a longer hike I came to the upper lake that turned out to be the bigger one. In the north-east exposed rocks above there were no Sempervivum.
Because I was running out of time, I decided to go back on the western side of the mountain, following a sheep path. Taking way up to the ridge, a little over the top I stumbled over a small colony of S. octopodes, less than 100 plants in crevices on a granite rock.
Again a really extreme habitat at the windy corner, imagine how hard the winter will be here, it is to presume there will be not too much protection from snow!
Taking my way down, I wanted to avoid the stressing contact with the junipers growing all over, which had scratched my legs too much on ascend. So I thought to take a shortcut over the meadows and then steep down on a little path I had seen from the opposite. The idea was good but after a certain altitude there were growing ferns, getting always higher the more I hiked downwards. When they grew over 2 meters they had also the company of a well known plant, Urtica urens! I was still walking in short pants. Being arrived at the little path, it turned out to be a rather impassable jungle of about 20 years old trees - the hardship wasn’t still over... Finally back at my motorbike I was really boiled, if they search good scenery for the next Jurassic Park movie, here it is!
So far about my day on Pelister.
The habitat I found is without doubt the “original one”. Ben Zonneveld reports another habitat at the western slope which I haven’t seen. Therefore it seems that S. octopodes is distributed over the whole Pelister.
S. octopodes is allied to extreme habitats on rocks and windy corners because it cannot withstand the competition in the meadows on Pelister. These extreme conditions at 2000 m limit the will to flower; the first challenge for these plants is to survive. I have found only 4 flowering plants, all of the “petalum” type.
Now about the “apetalum” type, it was of course a “find of the century”. We don’t know how many plants there were, if it was only one clone. We have it now in the collections but no more on Pelister. Because of the shy-flowering character of S. octopodes, finding again apetalum would be still a sensation, even 70 years later.
Well, but today we are further in research, as just Alan Smith mentioned verdict, S.octopodes is now regarded as a subsp. of S.ciliosum, perhaps not the worst idea...
Because I could not control the reddish base of the petals - the distinguishing feature with the type ciliosum stricto sensu - I cannot add anything to get clearer.
If we consider the discussions about some S. ciliosum forms in the Sempervivum Society Journal, S. ciliosum is growing on several places in the Balkan, having a certain variation as well in size as in flowers. So the problem is within all of us, we can distinguish easy varying sempervivums in lots of subspecies, as we had in S. tectorum hundred years ago, or handle it like recently Eggli in glabrous and hairy. In the frame of the current nomenclature, S. octopodes is maybe only a testimony of the conceptions of its time.
Of course there are more visits to pay to Pelister to get deeper information about the being of S. octopodes, this here is nothing but the report of a joyful day on Pelister and the thoughts of a simple gardener, who is really grateful having lived all this - at the heartbeat of life.
If you ever describe a habitat of a plant, think about these 20 words here, which made this place re-find after over 70 years, I have never found a better description.
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