One of my favourite plants is Crassula – succulent and spectacular.
When I was little, my mom propogated succulents (including Crassula) to earn “pin money”. She painted tin cans with black paint to sell them in. I love that “upcycling” wasn’t invented yet – it was just a way of life back then. I have no idea who she sold them to, or what the “pin” in pin money means – she just needed some money that was actually all her own. Imagine that. Anyway, as this newspaper cutting (a letter my mom wrote) suggests, she was growing some invasives! I wonder what they were?
Last week I visited Cumberland Nature Reserve and was delighted to see Crassula ovata flowering wonderfully in the wild. What a treasure Cumberland is – only R10 to spend a day exploring the cliffs and grasslands and with spectacular views of the the Mngeni River gorge. Must go back there soon.
Paul has a couple of splendid specimens in pots which are flowering profusely right now.
My picture of Crassula ovata was used in a Midlands Meander advert a few year ago to illustrate the traffic jams we have to contend with here! Cows do stop traffic, and I do wish people would go slow for frogs and grasshoppers and ants, but they don’t.
Common Names: Pink joy; Afrikaans: Beestebul; Sotho Thlakeni; Xhosa: umxhalagube
Crassula ovata occurs naturally in the valley thicket biome and on rocky hillsides on KZN, but is commonly grown in containers all over the country. A compact shrub with short stubby branches and glossy, succulent leaves often tinged red on older plants. During winter, the bush is covered with compact heads of pale pink star-shaped flowers with a sweet fragrance. The flowers attract bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and ants.
Crassulas have a special way of reducing water loss from their leaves without limiting their ability to photosynthesise, known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM. Most plants take in CO2 during daylight through pores in their leaves and lose water at the same time through these open pores. In Crassula, the pores are closed during the day but open at night when the CO2 taken in is stored in the form of organic crassulacean acids. During the day, these acids are broken down and the CO2 released is re-used in the photosynthetic process. In this way they lose much less water yet can photosyntesise normally during daylight hours. During extremely dry periods they won’t even open their pores at night, and will re-cycle the CO2 within the cells. They don’t grow at all but the cells will be kept healthy – this is known as CAM-idling. (Reference: PlantZAfrica.com.) Fascinating.
One Crassula which I do have in my garden is Crassula multicava – the fairy crassula. Afrikaans: Skaduplakkie; Zulu: umadinsane
A pretty little plant which prefers sheltered, frost free areas of KZN naturally, but seems perfectly happy in Midlands gardens too. Crassula multicava is a fast growing, evergreen, mat forming groundcover which does well in both sun and shade making it very popular with gardeners. It grows quickly, and propagates readily – seeding freely, rooting easily from fallen leaves and producing plantlets on the flowerhead that drop off and develop into independent plants. Small wonder then, that in parts of Australia and America it has become a problem invasive plant. Over 150 species of Crassula occur in South Africa.
In late winter and spring, a froth of tiny flowers is held above the round succulent leaves – a mass of pale pink stars which have given it the common name Fairy Crassula. The leaves contain hydathodes (water secreting pores), which rapidly absorb water from the leaf surface. Bees love the flowers and the larvae of some butterflies feed on Crassula leaves too. Infusions of the plant are sprinkled around the homestead as a protective charm against lightning and in traditional Zulu medicine it is used as a strong emetic.
In the wild this little Crassula is snuggled in warm, rocky places soaking up the winter sun at the moment. Not looking as splendid as those in pots but, interesting none the less. When the rain comes, the leaves turn bright green.
Crassula is an exceptionally rewarding plant to have in your garden.