Huernia zebrina - Cactus Club

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Huernia zebrina

Plant of the Month > Species G to H

by Bruce Brethauer

      I believe that my first association with the Huernias dates back to the early 1970s – when I acquired a plant from one of Columbus’area nurseries. The Huernias are relatively small plants with low, mounding, and sprawling habits. Typically, the stems are either square, five sided, or round in cross section and bear numerous fleshy stipular prickles along their entire length. Flowers are typically smallish, shallowly cup-shaped, and are (usually) maroon colored. In my experience, flowers are produced opportunistically through the year, and are typically produced low on the stems – frequently at ground level. The Huernias are members of the greater milkweed family, and like their other succulent relatives, their flowers may tend to produce the foul scent of rotting flesh to attract carrion flies to pollinate their flowers. But in some species of Hueneria, this scent isn’t very pronounced. Depending upon the authority cited, there are between 30 and 60 species of Hueneria recognized – all are native to eastern and southern Africa. It has been my experience that these are easy plants to grow, and can produce significant growth each year, so long as growing conditions are to their liking.

      Plants of Huernia zebrina produce typical 4 and 5 angled stems, with stipular prickles along its ribs. The stems can grow to about 3 or 3.5 inches in length (frequently longer in cultivation), and produce numerous branches near its base to produce an irregular tufted or spreading plant. In time, plants will spread in this manner to several feet across, although their ultimate spread can be limited by a the size of the pot, and (if necessary) by occasional pruning. Typically the stems are of a greenish coloration, but when grown outdoors in full sum, will produce stems with more ruddy tones, which will also exhibit some nicely patterned markings. It is one of the most distinctive plants of this genus, with attractively marked and oddly shaped blooms.

     The flowers of this species have a distinctive, doughnut-shaped raised annulus, which is typically of a dark red to maroon coloration, although this trait can be somewhat variable- in some plants, the greater portion of the flowers will bear dark red stripes on a yellowish background. The annulus is smooth and glossy which really contributes to the illusion that these flowers are artificial and made of plastic. The flowers of this species are approximately 1.5 inches in diameter in most clones, but some of the more robust clones may produce larger flowers – up to nearly 3 inches in diameter. The “life saver” annulus is not unique to this species – a number of related species share this trait including Huernia confusa, H. gutatta  and H. humilis

       Huernia zebrina is a fairly easy plant to grow, presenting few challenges. It responds well to my general guidelines for growing succulents, with a few considerations. This species grows particularly well during the heat of summer, and should be grown outdoors at this time, it hates cold conditions, and should not be subjected to extended periods of chill (I have no absolute figures for its tolerance to cold, but I think that it is best to bring this plant indoors when temperatures approach 55 degrees Fahrenheit). Stressed plants are particularly susceptible to stem rot, which can quickly decimate a plant if it is left untreated – keep an eye out for soft dark spots on the stem, and cut away any diseased tissues before the pathogen has an opportunity to spread – which can proceed with devastating speed. This species seems to be especially attractive to mealy bugs, so be on the lookout for this pest when growing this species.

     The bizarre flowers of this plant are curiously attractive, and the plant itself is compact, growing to only a few inches in height. It is one of a relatively few of the succulent milkweeds that can fit comfortably in a bonsai pot or a small dish garden: its spread can be limited by the size of the container, although plants can be grown to larger sizes if desired. The prickles on this plant are mostly fleshy and are not particularly sharp, so these plants are good candidates for growers who are not interested in growing plants with spines. It is easy enough to grow for most beginners, and the distinctive flowers are so curiously attractive that they are of interest to even the most experienced growers. It remains a plant that is not easy to come by in the  trade, and seem to be available only through specialty mail order nurseries. It is easy to propagate plants from cuttings, so starts can frequently be found at shows and sales of cactus and succulent societies. If you ever encounter this plant at a nursery, or a plant show, by all means, give it a try - its distinctive flowers may get you hooked on growing some of the other exceptional huernia species.

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