One of my favourite plants is Crassula – succulent and spectacular.

crassula ant.res

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?

pin money cropped

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.

Cumberland crassula ovata res

Paul has a couple of splendid specimens in pots which are flowering  profusely right now.

fairy crassula res

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.

rush hour

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:  Fascinating.

One Crassula which I do have in my garden is Crassula multicava – the fairy crassula.  Afrikaans: Skaduplakkie; Zulu: umadinsane

fairy crassula.res

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.crassula multicava.res

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.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Char says:

    I’ve just spent this past Saturday potting slips of all the succulents I’ve been propagating, so really enjoyed reading your story. How nice it is to have a copy of something your mom wrote for the paper! Thanks Nikki, for always brightening our day, and teaching us something too 🙂


    1. Thanks Char, yes I am lucky that my mom was a ‘scrapbooker’ way ahead of her time, so I have all sorts of treasures like this. First birthday cards from people with fabulous names like Piley, Gladys and Myrtle! Actually, I wrote a story about her recipe book with old photos a while ago too –

      I find it interesting that she obviously liked writing, something I wasn’t really aware of as a teenager. So I like to think she would enjoy my blog too!


  2. desdesignsdot says:

    What a lovely mma ad!


    1. What a lovely designer!


  3. Meriel mitchell says:

    Lovely story on pin money mystery! Lovely pictures too of the Crassula family … I have filled in every open space in my garden, and done the same in my daughter’s garden and several friends’ gardens, with fairy Crassula and we are all enjoying the amazing mass of it’s pink whimsical winter display.


    1. I thought I better look up what pin money really was, rather than guess, and this is what I found:

      Small amounts of money for incidental expenses, as in Grandma usually gives the children some pin money whenever she visits . This expression originally signified money given by a husband to his wife for small personal expenditures such as pins, which were very costly items in centuries past. A will recorded at York in 1542 listed a bequest: “I give my said daughter Margarett my lease of the parsonage . . . to buy her pins.” [Early 1500s]

      Yay! For the Crassula invasion! Thank you Meriel for always commenting so enthusiastically about my stories – I really appreciate it.


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