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South African trip yields succulents for Riverside couple

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10:00 PM PST on Saturday, November 7, 2009

Special to The Press-Enterprise

Indian Hills resident Buck Hemenway had two things in mind on his and wife Yvonne's second trip to South Africa -- succulents and succulent wine.

Owners of a Riverside wholesale succulent and cactus company found themselves in isolated Richtersveld, one of four karoos, names for the high arid plateaus in South Africa areas in which succulents grow, and to a winery dating to 1695. The mountainous Richtersveld is so dry that it only receives about two inches of rain a year.

"It is like no other place on earth," said Buck Hemenway. "It's really at the end of the world."

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Special to The Press-Enterprise
Buck Hemenway stands beside a Halfmen's succulent, found in South Africa. Hemenway owns a wholesale succulent and cactus company in Riverside and travels abroad.

Going to the ends of the earth to search for and study succulents may seem odd for a man who grew up in the wet, forested region of the Pacific northwest and a woman who grew up in Canada.

But, Hemenway said that as soon as he and his wife moved to Southern California, they became in awe of the many different forms of the succulents.

"In the northwest, it's like you can't see the forest for the trees. The forms of the individual trees are basically hidden. We were fascinated by how individual the succulent forms are," said Buck Hemenway.

The couple flew to London, then to Capetown, South Africa, located in the Horn of Africa, the southernmost area of the continent. Richtersveld is seven hours north of Capetown.

On the trip, they traveled with fellow succulent lovers Jen Craig from Corona and Martin Heigan from Johannesberg, South Africa, in a high clearance four-wheel drive over the tracks (not roads) to the karoos.

Besides the Richtersveld karoo, they explored Little Karoo, Tanqua Karoo and Namaqualand. Hemenway said that they stayed a few days in Capetown, located on the same parallel as Los Angeles, but in the southern hemisphere. Because they are on the same parallel, the weather of the two cities, so far apart, is nearly identical.

He said that the west and east coasts of South Africa are only a few hundred miles apart, the west side on the Atlantic Ocean and the east side on the Indian Ocean. Because of this, the west side of South Africa receives winter rains like Southern California, while the eastern side only receives summer rains like the east coast of the United States.

Hemenway explained that some karoos receive more rain than the Richtersveld, and the names of different species located in the karoos, sometimes reflected the history of the area.

For instance, the Pachypodium namaquanum or Halfmens succulent is named after the bushmen, who were forced out of their native area by settlers moving down from the north. It was believed half their souls were left behind, so therefore the name Halfmen. The succulent itself always faces north towards the bushmen's homeland and the sun.

The couple brought home seeds of many plants to propagate for personal and business use.

The couple's thirst in the dry, arid climate was satisfied at nine different wineries. "In the 1970s and 1980s, apartheid products were forbidden in the United States," said Buck Hemenway. "Now, you can find them here and they are fabulous wines."

One of the best parts of the trip was seeing the stars so well because they were out away from any ambient light emanating from the cities.

"The stars were incredible," Hemenway said, "We saw constellations we don't see in this hemisphere and we saw the Southern Cross." Wife Yvonne Hemenway agreed.

"You could see the stars in the Milky Way. It was amazing!" she said.

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