Crassula ovata - Cactus Club

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Crassula ovata

Plant of the Month > Species C to D

Crassula ovata
"Jade Plant"

March 2017

by Bruce Brethauer

        Crassula ovata, alias the "Jade Plant" is understandably one of the succulent plant essentials. It is easy to grow, attractive, reliable, and is always readily available. Where it is happy, plants are long lived. Bill Hendricks, president of the Midwest Cactus and Succulent Society grows a plant which he first acquired nearly 55 years ago; over the years, it has been repeatedly restarted because it outgrew its allotted space. In all, it has been restarted from a cutting on 5 (or is it 7?) separate occasions - each time, the "daughter" plant grew again to over 5 feet in height, and each time, a new daughter plant was started from a cutting. Bill is poised to start this process again. Every year, visitors to our show and sale share similar stories of a plant which had been passed down the family through the generations, sometimes with histories approaching 100 years. While I would stop short of saying that this plant is indestructible (or immortal), it comes close.

     Plants produce opposite pairs of highly succulent, oval, jade-green leaves (sometimes with somewhat reddish margins): typical leaves measure from 3/4 to about 1.5 inches in length, but in some varieties, may grow to as much as 3 inches long. Leaves are initially glossy, but will eventually become more dull with age, and are ultimately deciduous, revealing the thick, highly succulent trunks and branches. The stems are contrastingly colored in silvery-brown tones. Plants are branching, ramifying from the base, and from subsequent branching higher on the main stems. Plants ultimately become shrubs, to over 6 feet tall and branching to 3 feet of more wide. Plants typically take on a tree-like appearance, and are frequently hailed as natural bonsai; often featured in bonsai pots to accentuate this trait. While not generally acclaimed for their flowers, this species will produce cymes of small white to pink, star-like flowers with 5 petals. Many growers claim that their plants never flower, possibly indicating that plants must mature to good sized specimens before flowering - my literature is not clear on his point.

   Crassula ovata is native to South Africa (specifically, to regions of  the Northern, Western, and Eastern Cape, Northern and Eastern Transvaal, and KwaZulu/Natal). While plants are widely distributed, it is my understanding that populations are scattered, rarely occurring in masses. These regions typically receive a period of significant winter rainfall, and many plant species from these regions are obligate winter growers, but I have found this plant is a bit of an opportunist, and seems to produce growth whenever conditions are to its liking. Even so, plants seem to be hard-wired to produce some winter growth, and will typically produce their flowers at this time.

   My general guidelines for growing cacti and other succulents are a good starting point for this plant, but this link will provide a bit more information on the specifics for this species. As with most of the plants in my collection, this species responds especially well to life on the summer patio. Please remember that soaring summer temperatures may put this plant into dormancy, so if grown on the summer patio, it may be beneficial to provide a bit of shading through the mid day heat. While this plant may survive very brief exposure to light frost - always assume that any amount of frost will cause significant damage to this plant - always bring it indoors before the onset of freezing temperatures.

     The "Jade Plant" is an easy plant to locate in the trade; practically any mixed selection of succulents at any nursery will include several plants of this species. Over the years, a number of cultivars have proven to be popular, including plants with markedly pink flowers (rubriflora), nicely colored foliage (California Red Tip, and Sunset), variegated foliage,  (Tricolor), and others with curiously shaped leaves, (Gollum, Ripple Jade, and Hobbit).
Most of the "Big Box" stores will offer the species, and (from time to time) one or two interesting cultivars of this plant. Some of the mail order nurseries such as The Glasshouse Works, and San Marcos Growers offer good selections of these and additional choice cultivars.

     For those people who are interested in propagating this plant, it is especially easy to propagate from cuttings; even a single leaf can be used to propagate a plant. Always take cuttings when the plant is growing, and set these aside for a few days to two weeks to allow the cut ends to heal. Following this "healing time" leaves may be propped upright with the cut ends sitting on the soil surface. Stem cuttings should be inserted into the soil (to a depth of 1/2 to about an inch) and staked until roots are established. The soil should be kept barely moist at this time. It may take several weeks for roots to initiate, but once established, the cuttings should be watered well to encourage new growth. While it may take a little time for cuttings to show significant growth, once roots are established, these can be given the same care as established plants.

   If anything, the "Jade Plant" is perhaps too ubiquitous, or a bit too easy to grow; seasoned growers seldom give it a second look. This is unfortunate; a well grown plant with a bit of age to it deservedly commands attention. Its forgiving, adaptable nature and ease of care makes it a perfect succulent starter plant for new growers of all ages, but it is far more than a plant for beginners. I challenge everyone to give the "Jade Plant" a close inspection for time to time, to really appreciate what a great plant it is.


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