by Bruce Brethauer
Frerea indica is an unusual succulent plant from Western India, with succulent stems growing to about 1.5 inches in diameter, eventually producing mounded to scrambling plants with stems to about 20 inches in length. In habitat, plants will produce large (up to 3 inches in length) non-succulent leaves during the monsoon season; at this same time, plants will also produce smallish (to just over 1 inch), virtually flat, starfish-shaped flowers with maroon petals, decorated with irregular yellow streaks and splotches. The fertile portion of the flower, including the stigmatic slits and the pollinia are produced on a very small raised annulus at the center of the flower. During the dry season, the leaves are shed, and flowering virtually ceases. In cultivation, if plants are kept regularly watered, and kept warm year round, the leaves are more persistent, and the plants may flower virtually throughout the year - producing flowers on the newest growth. Plants in habitat typically grow on rocky crevices on steep hills and cliff sides. While plants are fairly readily available from a number of specialist nurseries, plants in habitat are extremely rare: the species is only know from 6 small localities with only a few plants recorded in each locality. This species was once listed by the IUCN as one of the 12 scarcest species in the world. One on-line source speculates that this plant became critically endangered as a result of the extinction of the insect which is responsible for the pollination of this species flowers - apparently wild plants are not know to set seed in habitat, although plants in cultivation are sometimes known to set viable seed, suggesting that some insect species in other regions will pollinate these plants. This plant is still classified as endangered, although conservation efforts, as well as efforts to propagate additional plants from the remaining populations has helped to bring this plant back from the brink of extinction in the wild.
I do not usually write about plants which are new to my collection - I prefer to grow my plants for a year or more to get a sense of how they respond to the changing cycles of weather, daylength, temperature, and exposure to sunlight. But I believe that my first impressions of this plant are very telling in illustrating how to grow this plant. First of all, this plant does not tolerate cold conditions very well - even the cool temperatures of my basement prior to the onset of cold weather stressed my plant to the point that it dropped leaves and flower buds - I quickly changed its location, bringing it upstairs under lights, where temperatures typically remain above 70, (with temperatures approaching 80 degrees when the lights are on) and this plant quickly recovered, and soon produced a new flush of leaves and flower buds. I suspect that sustained temperatures below 70 degrees will stress this plant, and anything below 60 degrees will result in leaf drop and flower loss. Sustained temperatures of 50 or below will probably kill this plant eventually - The Glasshouse Works (which is the source of my plant) will only ship this plant as an unrooted cutting during the cooler months as a precaution against rot. While I have no idea of its ultimate tolerance to warm temperatures, it is my feeling that this plant will thrive at very warm temperatures, and (kept moist) will probably continue to produce significant growth at temperatures approaching 100 degrees. It is also my guess that this plant will grow best under conditions of dapple shade, rather than full sun - I will determine this trait this summer, when I move my plant outdoors. Under favorable conditions, this plant can produce rapid growth, and could benefit from frequent applications of dilute fertilizer during its growing season - possibly as often a one application of fertilizer diluted to 1/4 strength with every other watering. Remember that this plant grows best when it is not subjected to extended drought, so a very freely draining growing medium is recommended - I have been growing my plant in a home-made blend of Moo-Nure and coir and/or peat moss. Ken Frieling of the Glasshouse Works suggests an orchid mix growing medium. Plants are easy to propagate from cuttings, and it is rumored that it is easy to germinate and grow plants from seed on those occasions when viable seeds are produced.
At present, my plant is still fairly small, and its growth is primarily upright, but I suspect that as the stems lengthen, they will become more scrambling, and possibly even pendulous. If this is the case, very old plants may be displayed to best advantage in a hanging basket. Flowers are produced on very short peduncles very close to the growing tips of the stems; the blooms tend to be ever so slightly turned downwards, so again, a hanging basket may show these off to best advantage. Even so, the flowers, while being nicely colored, are comparatively small, and may not be well suited for growers who prefer a more substantial bloom. As with the flowers of the huernias, I recommend keeping a hand lens nearby to more fully appreciate these fine flowers. Unlike the flowers of many of its other succulent cousins, these flowers do not have the scent of carrion. In fact, while photographing the flowers of my plants, I did not notice any significant perfume - either pleasant or otherwise - a real benefit if you plant must be maintained in shared spaces. The vegetative portions of this plant are not particularly remarkable, however, this plant does not produce spines, and it is most likely non toxic (one on-line source suggests that this plant had been occasionally consumed by the indigenous people in its distribution), making this plant suitable for households with children and pets. While not widely available in the trade, some sources carry this species frequently. I acquired my plant from The Glasshouse Works , but I believe that it has also been carried by Bob Smoley's Gardenworld.
This isn't a plant for all connoisseurs, but kept warm and moist, it is an easy plant to grow and maintain, and is easy to flower, with nicely colored flowers without some of the less endearing traits of some of the other succulent members of the milkweed family.