Poisonous succulents

Without realising it many people have poisonous plants (f.e.: Dieffenbachia sp; oleander; datura and frangipani) in their gardens. Succulents are not an exception.

It hardly happens that one read about (terminal) casualties related to poisonous plants. This contributes to the assumption that accidents caused by poisonous plants are a rarity. Most ‘poisonous’ succulents however are capable of causing highly allergic reactions. Few, however, do lasting harm and all should be treated with respect.

Garden and household chemicals are more dangerous hazards than plants!!!

But it’s always good to take some precautions when handling succulents.

The members of the Euphorbiaceae family are the best known for their poisonous content although the alkoides of many Euphorbia species are also used for medical and industrial applications. To provide you with two examples of the Euphorbiaceae:

The latex of the Euphorbia antisyphilitica  is used for the production of Candelila (leather polish) and mixed with rubber it’s applied for sealing wax, dental mouldings and lithographic colours. Mixed with paraffin it’s applied in candles.

The latex of the Euphorbia bupleurifolia is highly poisonous but is used for medical skin creams such as those for cracked skin and other skin disorders.

Cactaceae: No cactus spines are poisonous. Some spines, however, cause more pain than others; mainly due to barbs on the end of the spines. 

The US Army has a guide of poisonous and toxic plants.

Symptoms of poising of plants are, amongst others: vomiting, stomach cramps, irregular heartbeat and burning/irritating skin. There are a few simple first aid measurements:

Skin related; wash skin with clear running water

Eye contact: irrigate the eye with clear water for at least 10 to 20 minutes.

Internal contact: stimulate vomiting and rinse mouth thoroughly with clean water. It’s advisable to see a doctor after this first aid.

If irritation becomes worse always consult a doctor. If possible always tell him/her which plant caused the symptoms.

The best is to avoid poisoning by taking good precautions.

A few hints (maybe it seems a bit overdone; that’s up to you): Never take cuttings of (or prune) poisonous plants during a warm day and always wear protective clothing like gloves and glasses (eye-protection). In case of Euphorbia species and (for example) some Adenium species eye-protection is extremely important. In South Africa the most used implement is de ‘braaitang’ (BBQ-tongs). Wrapped in corrugated paper it’s an ideal tool to handle (smaller) spiny plants.

Hygiene is also of utmost importance when handling poisonous plants. Always wash hands and other (possible) attached bodyparts thoroughly!!!


About Crassulaceae

The Crassulaceae or orpine family consists of 33 genera with a total of around 1400 species. These dicotyledons have the characteristic that they store water in their leaves. Most species are native to Southern Africa and the Northern Hemnisphere.

Another characteristic of this family is that the different species hybridise easily. Advised propagation is (leaf-)cuttings but for gardeners who like to experiment with cross pollination the crassulaceae are very rewarding.

All crassulaceae originate from areas where water is (sometimes) scarce.

In the Western Cape: no additional water in Winter but during long dry spells in Summer Crassulaceae will reward you with extra growth if you give them a good morning soak once every week.

Tip: cut flowerheads out of young plants. This will stimulate growth and spread.

Soil: In general Crassulaceae are not fuzzy about soil as long as it drains and the pH is somewhere between 6.5 and 8. They even grow in heavy clay but too much clay has the disadvantage that after heavy rainfall followed by high temperatures there is a risk of rot.

Pest and diseases: Most common are aphids which are a real pest for some Crassulaceae. Aphids can become a plaque during high temperatures after rainfall.

Crassulaceae originate from areas with a wide scope of temperature-zones (USDA 6-10/11) but most from (sub-)tropical climates.

In South Africa we experience regulary that overseas Crassulaceae like the ones blonging to the genera of Aeonium and Echeveria are sold as “indigenous” by nurseries. Maybe because some of the species of these genera are common in many South African gardens.

Some of the more common known, except the ones mentioned, genera of the Crassulaceae are:

Dudleya; Sempervivum; Sedum; Tylecodon; Cotyledon; Andromischus; Monanthes and Kalanchoe.

Three of our favorite Crassulaceae:

Kalanchoe marmorata: Originate from Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenia. This Kalanchoe has paddle-shaped blue-green leaves with purple markings. Attractive in any rockery of succulent garden. Large white pinwheel flowers in clumps. Easily to propagate with (leaf-)cuttings.

Crassula columnaris (“koesnaatjie“): This monocarpic dwarf (Western and Northern Cape) needs at least 5 years to mature and becomes 5 cm high. When mature it starts to flower. It can grow in full sun in well drained (slightly alkaline) soil. The plant will tell you when it needs water (shriveling leaves). The scent of the flower is divine. Propagation by seed or leaf-cuttings.

Kalanchoe orgyalis: This native from Madagascar is relatively rare in cultivation. This Kalanchoe has thick velvet-like leaves which makes it sensitive in climates with a high humidity. The leaves are silver toned mahogany coloured. The flowers are bright yellow. This specie becomes about 50 cm high but that can take a while. Kalanchoe orgyalis is very, very slow growing in comparison with the other species of this genus.

About Aloes

The genus name Aloe is derived from the Arabic, alloch and translated as allal in Greek and Hebrew, literally meaning bitter or bitter sap which is descriptive of Aloe sap. The genus Aloe belong to the family Asphodelaceae to which also other succulent genera such as Haworthia and Gasteria. A widely spread misunderstanding is that also the Agave and related American genera belong to the same famly. These belong to the family of the Agavaceae. Some Aloe species (f.e. A. Ferox, A. Barbados and A. Socotrine) are valued for their medical properties. There is however a large number of medical claims which are not scientifically proven up to date or are proven to be false. The globally best known Aloe is the Aloe barbadensis (better known under the previous botanical name Aloe vera). The Aloe barbadensis is commercially cultivated in the USA, Australia and India. In Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, India, Aloe vera is raised as an organic. The crop is ready for harvest after 18 months from sowing. The average yield for organically grown aloe is approximately 12 t/ha. 


A slightly alkaline (up to pH 8.5) sandy loam soil is the  most ideal for most Aloes but some prefer slight acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5) such as A. mitriformis (A. perfoliata) and A. plicatilis. It is normally propagated through root suckers or by cuttings of the new growth. Because Aloe plants consist of 95% water, they are extremely frost tender. If they are grown outdoors in warm climates, they should be planted in full sun, or light shade. The soil should be moderately fertile, and fast draining. Established plants will survive a drought quite well, but for the benefit of the plant, water should be provided. 


All known garden pests can be kept to a minimum by simply ensuring optimal growing conditions and a good selection of plants that attract wildlife to your garden. In principle a garden is always un-natural. One of the challenges of organic gardening is to make use of nature in order to strive towards an ecological balance. For our and your dissapointment: even nature is never in balance. There are many ‘surprises’ every year but without ‘ecological measurements’ these can go a bit out of control. A daily ‘inspection’ walk in the garden -preferable early morning or late afternoon- helps the gardener to foresee ‘threatening’ pests and diseases and making the right decisions towards preventive measurements.

Most common pests/diseases in aloes are aphids, scale insects and cancer.  

For scale insects the best results are obtained by physically removing scale using a cloth.

Occasional aphids on flower clusters and scale insects on leaves. These are relatively easy to control with water (high pressure) of, even better, preventive with a tea of garlic. Aphids are ‘farmed’ by ants. The ants regard aphids as their ‘milk cows’. Keeping ants away, two rings (10 cm or 4 inches space between them) of chalk powder on soil around aloes, minimalise the number of ants and aphids. 

Cancer: Caused by aloe-cancer mite.  This mite lives inside the plant and is the carrier of the virus and cause the cells to multiply and form ugly weird growths.  Cut out the affected part of the plant and let it dry.  General info about pest control and pest and disease prevention can be read elsewhere in this blog  


Propagating is best done via cuttings. Sowing is also possible but bear in mind that Aloes hybridize easily. 

Southern Africa is home to a few hundred Aloe species. Two of our favorites are the Aloe perfoliata and the Aloe polyphylla. 

Aloe perfoliata

Growing A. perfoliata is very easy. The best results are achieved by simply making stem cuttings. Allow cuttings to dry for a few days and insert into river sand and keep moist. The roots appear after about two weeks. Seeds must be sown as fresh as possible. When kept too long they are parasitized by small crawling insects. The best time for sowing would be in the winter, June to July. Use coarse river sand and cover seeds lightly, then keep moist. It is advisable to treat seeds with a tea of khaki-bush, as seedlings are prone to damping off, a fungus that eventually kills the young plants. Simply add tea to the soil. After germination, when plants are about 20 to 30 mm, plant over using a sandy-loam medium. If you have a garden with clay soil, use some bone meal to break up and nourish the soil. Mature plants in the garden may from time to time be subjected to attack from scale insects and aphids.

Aloe polyphylla originates from high, relatively cold, altitudes in Lesotho. It is a very difficult plant to cultivate in the open in the Western Cape. It’s main requirement is well-drained soil. It performs best when planted on a slope (or planted up at a slight angle so water does not collect in the spiral), where it can enjoy sun, or part (afternoon-) shade in the hottest areas. It also does well in pots. Water requirements depend on soil and weather. They are generally suited to low water, but prosper with some summer water. 

Information about South African Aloe species can be obtained via one of the websites of the National Biodiversity Institute. This site contains a wealth of info of many indigenous plants including succulents.

The (psycho-) medical use of succulents 2

As follow-up of our submission yesterday we just ‘pinched’ some literature which was announced:

The Golden Guide
Hallucinogenic Plants

by Richard Evans Schultes

What are hallucinogenic plants? How do they affect mind and body? Who uses them – and why? This unique Golden Guide surveys the role of psychoactive plants in primitive and civilized societies from early times to the present. The first nontechnical guide to both the cultural significance and physiological effects of hallucinogens, HALLUCINOGENIC PLANTS will fascinate general readers and students of anthropology and history as well as botanists and other specialists. All of the wild and cultivated species considered are illustrated in brilliant full color.       


A brief preview learns us that we can recommend this book to everyone who is interested in this subject. It includes the description of some psychoactive succulents (mainly cacti).

The (psycho-) medical use of succulents

Many succulents, including cacti, are known for their pharmaceutical value. In this contribution a bit of general background and a brief description of the medical uses of some succulents. Including references to websites.

An alkaloid is a nitrogenous organic molecule that has a pharmacological effect on humans and other animals. Alkaloids are found in plants, animals and fungi, and can be extracted from their sources by treatment with acids. When administered to animals most alkaloids produce striking physiological effects, and the effects vary greatly from alkaloid to alkaloid. Alkaloids are poisonous, some are used in medicine as analgesics (pain relievers) or anaesthetics. The medical use of most succulents are related to their alkaloid content.

The Mesembryanthemaceae (mesembs) is South Africa’s largest succulent plant family, and it constitutes a major part (ca. 63%) of the southern African succulent flora. With approximately 123 genera and ca. 1680 species, it is also South Africa’s second largest plant family, accounting for approximately 10% of South Africa’s flora. The family is almost entirely endemic to southern Africa, although a few species are known to occur naturally outside this region. Most South Africans know plants which belong to the Mesembryanthemaceae as ‘vygies’. Of many mesembs the ‘medical’ virtues are known with indigenous people for centuries but not until recently ‘discovered’ by scientists and pharmaceutical industries.One of the best known mesembs is Sceletium namaquese or Sceletium namaqua. The active ingredient is a cocaine-like alkaloid. South African psycho-freaks love it but -and we’ve seen examples- it can cause braindamage!!! As do many plant based drugs after over usage. Paradox: in the medical world an extract of the Sceletium alkaloid is used for treatment of psychological and psychiatirc disorders.

The globally best known Southern African succulent is most probably the Hoodia Gordonii. We are outspoken critics of hoodia gordonii scams and con artists.  The Hoodia attracted the most unscrupulous operators who continue to sell counterfeit Hoodia diet pills simply because they know they can get away with it. But there are a few honest players in the market but to find them is as looking for a needle in an haystack.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of the Hoodia being bought by consumers is adulterated (cut with cheaper ingredients) or just outright counterfeit. The USA-based Alkemist Pharmaceuticals, “The Plant Authentication Experts,” can provide you with a list of suppliers of approved hoodia products.

The San tribesmen have chewed on Hoodia Gordonii for eons as a hunger surpressor. Indigenous use of herbs is actually a good indication of long-term safety, despite the frustrating fact that conventional medicine scientists tend to ignore  such cultural evidence.

The medical proportions of  Aloe vera  were known by the Greeks since at least the fourth century BC. Today, they are still popularly used in a bevy of products. One company lists over 300 kinds of cosmetics, medicines and ointments that are made from various aloe extracts; mainly from Aloe vera and Aloe ferox. The latter one is a South African native. The Internet is rife with get-rich-schemes involving Aloe products. Most of the aloe grown commercially is from the Carribean, South Florida or South Texas.

There is a website which must be owned by one of the global mailorder giants in the field of ‘medical’ (read: hallucinating) herbs and succulents. It includes brief descriptions of the effect of the use of some cacti. A few examples:

“Stenocereus (Ritterocereus) hystrix. This is a truly unique cactus as it is the only species that is known from outside Southern America and Mexico to contain similar alkaloids to Lophophora williamsii and Trichocereus Peruvianus!!!! This species is found in the West Indies and could be used in places where Peyote ceremonies can be legally conduced if Peyote was not available or as alternative more economical entheogen.

Trichocereus bridgesii is unique in it’s appearance with its long menacing spines. The Trichocereus bridgesii has a long shamanic tradition of use throughout its homeland in the high Bolivian deserts. It is perhaps the most powerful, magical and least used of the Trichicereus cacti. Trichocereus bridgesii is often kept indoors because of its powerful, protective spirit. It’s a hardy Cactus which grows very fast.

Trichocereus terscheckii. This is a very large cactus, found in Northwestern Argentina were its called Cardon grande or Cardon santo “sacred cactus.” It has frequently been confused with another species, T, pasacana, of the same region, but it is more branched, with fewer ribs, different spines, and large flowers. Terscheckii cactus contain mescaline and trichocereine which account for the psychedelic effects.

Peyote Cactus, Lophophora williamsii- Sacred Cactus. Peyote is a native of the Chihuahan Desert, specifically, portions of the Rio Grande Valley in Southern Texas, and south as far as the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. It has provoked controversy, suppression, and persecution for centuries now. Condemned by the Spanish conquerors for its “satanic trickery”, and attacked more recently by local governments and religious groups, the plant has nevertheless continued to play a major sacramental role among the Indians of Mexico, while its use has spread to the North American tribes in the last hundred years.

San Pedro cactus is the name given to the species of the genus Trichocereus (T. pachanoi, T. peruvianus and T. Terscheckii) which comprises about thirty species. San Pedro Cactus is a large columnar psycho tropic cactus that grows in the Andes and has been used for shamanic healing in Peru and Ecuador for centuries. The wisdom within San Pedro Cactus can activate the “healer within” by showing the patient through visions deep insights into there own lives. Cuzco cactus, Trichocereus cuzcoensis. Very closely related to the Peruvian Torch, Trichocereus peruvianus, the Cuzco cactus is found only in the Cuzco area of Peru. It has a densely branched body and grows to about 6 meters and produces large white fragrant flowers.
The very interesting thing about this particular cactus are its alkaloids M, Dimethyl-M and anholine. It is consumed for shamanic purposes as often as T. peruvianus and has been reported to be similar to Peyote.”

 In the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia you can find more info about the most psycho-active alkaloid mescaline and other alkaloids in cacti such as the peyote and Peruvian torch cactus.

Far more interesting is the diverse medical use of the Yucca genus.   Herewith an extract of one of the internet encyclopedias:

” The primary medical use of Yucca is to treat arthritis and joint pain and inflammation. Native Americans used sap from the leaves in poultices or baths to treat skin lesions, sprains, inflammation, and bleeding. Teas made from Yucca mixed together with other herbs are still brewed by folk healers in northern New Mexico to treat asthma and headaches. Constituents of the Yucca are used today to treat people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The plant’s medical properties are found in saponins, precursors of cortisone, which prevent the release of toxins from the intestines that restrict normal cartilage formation. Saponins are produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands. It is believed Yucca works best for arthritis when taken over an extended period of time.Yucca extract is used to treat a variety of other conditions, including migraine headaches, colitis, ulcers, wounds, gout, bursitis, hypertension (high blood pressure), and high LDL cholesterol (also called bad cholesterol). Liver, kidney, and gallbladder disorders are also treated with yucca extract. More recently, researchers have found that resveratrol, a compound found in Yucca extract as well as in red wine, inhibits the aggregation or clumping of blood platelets. This finding suggests that Yucca extract may be useful in preventing blood clots.”

At last but not at least something about the most widely used natural ‘psycho-therapeutic’ medicine in South Africa; Gethyllis spiralis better known as the ‘koekmakranka’ (Afrikaans abbreviation of ‘good for my sick stomach’). The skin is used for the treatment of boils and carbuncles, bruises and insect bites. And extract is also used as insect repelland. A draught made of the fruit softens teethache with babies and haertburns of older people. Best it’s known as the medicine for ‘die boer’ (the farmer). Soaked fruit in brandy (‘mampoer’ or ‘witblits’) is claimed to cure stomachache. That gives many people an excuse to simulate illness and to drink their medicine.