The mountains of East Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, Mt Mero, etc.) are a great place to consider how plants and animals adapt to their environment. Each of these mountains have specific life-sets that are arranged vertically from bottom to top (corresponding with temperature and rainfall). They also demonstrate mutation as one moves from mountain to mountain. The broad plains between these “sky-islands” isolate these life-sets and encourage “customization.”
Our friend and guide, Ambrose, is pictured here with a giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari). The groundsel is a perfect illustration of the principle described above. At least 17 different groundsel species have been identified in East African alpine belts, and, with few exceptions, each appears on a different mountain!*
Believe it or not, the groundsel is a member of the dandelion family with a leafy terminal rosette above and a woody stem below. Unlike back-yard varieties, however, these “mutant weeds” can grow up to thirty feet tall, have a rosette that folds at night, keep their leaves as a shaggy mane for protection from extreme cold, and possess a natural anti-freeze. They also seem to grow successfully at altitudes above 14,000 feet.
All of this sounds wonderful, but keep in mind that that that giant groundsel has a seedling survival rate of less than one percent.
I wish the same were true of the dandelions in my lawn.
For more on the giant groundsel, see our post from 2017 here.
*See D.J. Mabberly, “Evolution in the Giant Groundsels,” pp. 61-96 in Kew Bulletin 28/1 (1973).
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