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.

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Indigenous versus Indigenous

Thought during an early Sunday morning:

Sometimes visitors insist on buying indigenous plants. But what is indigenous? Is, for example, a quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma) indigenous to South Africa or to Namibia? For sure is that many succulents in the Richtersveld and other parts in South Africa, including the quiver tree and other ‘indigenous’ aloes, originate from Namibia but that these South African ‘habitats’ are distribution areas. Another example: if it comes to the point; the Western Cape hardly has any ‘indigenous’ (read: endemic) trees but is home to many fynbos-  and succulent species. One of the baobab species (Adansonia digitates) is indigenous to Zimbabwe and the far Northeast of South Africa but does that make the tree indigenous to the Western Cape. The sausage tree (Kigelia africana) is more ‘indigenous’ to Tanzania than South Africa but it also grows well at many places in the Western Cape. A more local (Western Cape) example is the Euphorbia crispa. This plant is ‘sourced’ to an area near Clanwilliam but one of the distribution areas is here in Klaas Voogds (unfortunately poaching has practically diminished their numbers!!!). To make a long story very short: we always tell visitors that if we talk about ‘indigenous’ we talk about plants which originate from Southern Africa which includes, more or less, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and even Madagscar.

End of discussion!

Second thought:

Many customers want to see (buy) a ‘halfmens’ (Pachypodium namaquanum) which originates from Namibia but is also distributed in Namaqualand (South Africa). This is a protected plant and one need to have a permit to possess, to propagate, sell, etc. To do our garden and nursery business we have a total of 9 official permits of Cape Nature Conservation but forget about that. Many nurseries sell ‘halfmens’ but what they sell is not the Pachypodium namaquanum but the Madagascar relative Pachypodium lamerei and that is a fast growing member of this family. A ‘halfmens’ grows, in optimal conditions, about 1 centimetre per year. The annual growth of the P. lamerei sometimes exceeds 50 centimetres. Reminds me of a nursery which was selling these Madagascar ‘half humans’ as “Sudanese halfmens”. If one, at any nursery, can buy a real ‘halfmens’ with a length of one metre or more one may, in 95% of these cases, question the source of this plant. Poaching is, unfortunately, a ‘national hobby’ and although, via media publications, one might have the idea that only foreigners are involved (including a CEO of a European botanical garden which was busted in the ‘veld’); the naked truth is that the ‘bulk poaching’ is done by real professionals, emptying acre after acre of their valuable vegetation for the export. Since economics is involved authorities seem to close their eyes for this phenomena.

About buying cacti and other succulents

The majority of people buying cacti and other succulents don’t really care if their purchased plants die after some time; they just buy a replacement. These are fortunately not our customers (and that is very un-commercial!!!).

The real passionate gardener, hobbyist, etc. buys with the intention to enjoy his/her plants for a long time. These are the people we like to welcome in our nursery and they are invited to be critical and during many of such occasions we experience an educational interaction to the benefit of all.

First something about our own experience. In the beginning (we didn’t know that much about the subject and we are still learning) we bought quite a few Aloes at one of the botanical gardens in the Western Cape. The plants were nicely labeled with with their full botanical names. Almost all turned out to be hybrids. At a specialist succulent nursery we bought 12 cacti of which 8 had a ‘hidden’ (underground) disease.

Botanists are in continuous discussion with each other about botanical names and during identification of certain group (genus) of plants. The Aloes are very good example because these hybridise easily and proper identification, in case of doubt, can only be done with DNA-research. THE Haworthia ‘specialist’ of South Africa is very honest when he says that he is unable to generate a proper identification key which covers all Haworthias and that he has difficulties to identify some of the Haworthia-species. With other words: don’t always be too sure about about the botanical names with which plants are labeled. Another issue is that many botanical names are changing nowadays because of DNA-research (f.e. part of the Stenocereus species becomes suddenly Cleistocactus or whatever) and that makes it even more complicated. A self-respecting nursery man will, in case of doubt, always label ‘spp’ after the genus name; f.e. ‘Mammillaria spp.’

How can one check if the plants are healty? This is not always easy but you can take some precautions. Is the nursery clean, relativily weed free and do the plants, on first sight, look healthy? This is the first impression. If the first impression is not good be extra critical.

Some hidden diseases are difficult to identify such as roots which start to rot at their tips. Even if the plants look healthy but you see that they are waterlogged (and not just after a heavy rainfall) be critical. Some nurseries use quite a few fertilisers,pesticides, fungicides and so on to let the plants look healthy but once purchased you will have to apply these chemicals until you are pretty sure that they are adapting to your preferred way of gardening. Once we were at a succulent nursery where the plants were covered with a blue layer caused by the application of copper sulphate.

Golden tip, which prevents you in at least 70 percent of such cases of ‘buying a cat in a bag’, is removing the soil around the neck of the plant. If the tissue is not soft(ening) but feels solid the plant might be healthy. This applies surely for all Aloes, Caudiciforms (especially adenium- adenia- and cyphostemma sp., Lithops, Cacti and cacti-like Euphorbias.

Almost at last but certainly not at least: Most nurseries sell their plants from under a roof or shade net. Advise (especially in Summer): Don’t put the plant right away under the sun, once at home. Let the plant slowly get adepted to the sun. This can be done by providing the plants with morning sun and afternoon shade for the first few days and let them gradually stay longer in the sun until, after a week or so, they are used to the sun. Some plants, amongst others Echinocactus crussonii (Golden Barrel Cactus or Mother’s in Law Seat) need sun protection for the first year until they are established. Keep the plant covered with a shade net (at least between 12 and 4 PM) from the second half of December to the second half of March. A good nursery with in-house knowledge will give you decent information. If the

Damage on a plant caused by snails and (scale-)insects are in general not terminal and can even give the plant a natural charm. In nature you won’t find that many plants (=relatively) which are looking perfect. On the contrary but these plants are strong with some build in resistance.

A few links

Today is ‘link day’.

There is a wide variety of succulent related websites on the Internet. Herewith a selection of some sites with relevance for South Africa.

The global main source for succulents is the Cactus Mall. Here you can find virtually every garden, nursery (etc.) of importance.

Than there is a Cactus and Succulent site and not to forget the site of the Cactus Museum. The Dutch have their own Succulenta with, amongst others, links to specialist nurseries and private collections. In South Africa there is also a less active succulent society with an own website which, by the way, is (too much?) related to one specific nursery in Gauteng.

Desert Tropicals of Philippe Faucon in Arizona (USA) contains an extensive plantlist with photo’s and brief descriptions (climate zones, cultivation, country of origine, etc.). Very worthwhile to bookmark.

For Caudiciforms from around the world there is a great website of a collector/hobbyist in Copenhagen. Bihrmann travels around the world and before any collection, garden or nursery is mentioned in his list he will have to approve it first on the spot.

In nearby McGregor one can admire the succulent collection of Andrew van Ginkel. Except for one he has all (approx. 2000) different lithop-species in his collection.

Our neighbour SHEILAM (also a nice garden) is a specialist nursery with approx. 2000 different succulent species, mainly under cover. Their core activity is the wholesale and export of seeds next to retail of plants. SHEILAM was founded in 1954 by Marthinus Malherbe and almost all large specimens in their garden are planted in that year. See the Soekershof website for pictures.

The largest succulent nursery in the world is Obesa Nursery in Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape. Their garden in the town centre, with a surface which equals the total nursery surface of our neighbours, is absolutely magnificent. Visitors are walking through a forest of cacti and other succulents. Outside town Obesa also has a huge nursery where they mainly grow some succulent species for the global pharmaceutical industry. The ‘hidden’ private collection of father Johan and son Anton Bouwer is stunning. Johan (an attorney by profession) started his succulent hobby in 1965 by buying plants here at Soekershof. We maintain a very good and (succulent related) passionate relationship with the Bouwers. Customers of this nursery can expect proper cultivation advise which, by the way, unfortunately is not always the case at other nurseries.

Other nurseries in South Africa, worthwhile to mention but no websites, are Selecta Succulents in Brackenfell and Grey Heron in Durbanville/Kraaifontein; both near Cape Town.