Growing The Lifesaver Plant: How To Grow The Smelly Huernia Cactus

The Huernia plant (life saver plant) is one of the most unusual groups of succulents. The Huernia cactus produces alien-looking five-lobed flowers.

The genus Huernia includes about 45 species of plants and is closely related to the Stapelia plant genus.

As with the Stapeliads, the flowers of “Huernia Stapelia” plants produce unpleasant odors.

Luckily, the odor does not carry.

Flowers of Huernia succulent planlPin
The Red Lifesaver cactus grows well in full sun.

These plants are found throughout Southern Africa’s and the Mediterranean’s arid regions.

Huernia, pronounced [hew-ERN-ee-uh], is named after Justin Heurnius, a Dutch missionary who collected plants from South Africa in the 1600s. The genus is a misspelling of his name.

Similar to most succulents, Huernias are easy succulent plants to care for if you avoid overwatering and follow a few basic plant care suggestions.

Huernia Plant Care

Size and Growth

Most succulent Huernia varieties like Huernia zebrina are low-growing plants. The cucumber-like stems rarely grow more than four to five inches.

They also tend to grow outward before gently curving up toward the sky.

The thick succulent stems are ribbed and covered in small teeth.

Flowering and Fragrance

The flowers appear from balloon-like buds and feature five lobes. In some varieties, the center of each flower resembles a small donut.

The large flowers are attractive, but they also produce a rotten odor throughout the flowering season, which lasts between July and September.

While the flowers have an unpleasant smell, the odor doesn’t spread easily. You typically need to get really close to the flowers to detect the odor.

Light and Temperature

In the summer, these plants enjoy bright light and full sun.

The plant comes from the arid regions of South Africa and the Mediterranean and is used to warm temperatures and dry air.

For outdoor growth in full sun, most species of this genus are recommended for USDA hardiness zone 10.

In cooler areas, the plant is often kept indoors year-round. It grows well at regular room temperature.

Ensure temperatures don’t drop below 55° degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.

Watering and Feeding

Throughout the summer, water this succulent plant moderately.

As with most succulents, the plant can survive short droughts as it stores water in its thick leaves.

The more sunlight or full sun the plant receives, the more water it may require.

If the leaves start to collapse, it likely needs additional water.

In the winter, water sparingly to avoid overwatering.

Fertilizer isn’t necessary if the plant is repotted in fresh soil at the start of spring. Add some blood meal and bone meal to the fresh soil.

Soil and Transplanting

Use a cactus potting soil with added pumice for all varieties of Huernia.

As a small plant, it doesn’t need a very large pot, making it easier to transplant at the start of spring.

The plant should be repotted at the beginning of the spring growing season each year.

If possible, choose a shallow dish as the Huernia succulent plants have shallow roots that mostly grow sideways.

Grooming and Maintenance

Grooming is only needed in the spring when repotting the plant.

Remove the oldest stems from the plant to encourage new growth. This should help the plant last many years.

How to Propagate Huernia Cactus

The easiest way to propagate Huernia is with stem cuttings, which can also be sown by seed.

To use stem cuttings, follow these steps:

  • In the spring, cut a healthy stem near the base.
  • Allow the cutting to dry overnight.
  • Dip the tip of the stem in rooting hormone powder.
  • Plant the cutting in a cactus mix or regular potting soil with pumice.
  • Water sparingly until the cutting takes root.

To collect seeds, wait until the flowers start to dry out. Cut one or more flowers at the stalk and allow to dry thoroughly.

After drying, gather the seeds and sow in moist peat moss at the start of spring. A thin layer of the soil should cover the seeds.

The seeds germinate quickly, often sprouting within a week.

Lifesaver Plants Pests or Disease Problems

There are several issues to consider when cultivating varieties of Huernia plants.

  • First, ensure that the plant doesn’t get overwatered, leading to rot.
  • The rot typically starts at the base of the plant and spreads to the stems, causing them to collapse.
  • When this occurs, try to take cuttings from the healthiest stems for propagation and then discard the rest of the plant.

The next issue to worry about is the presence of flies.

  • The putrid odor of the flowers may attract flies, a necessary trait for ensuring pollination in the wild.
  • Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent this other than keeping the plant indoors and away from open windows.

Pay attention to signs of mealy bugs. They often attack the roots and stems.

Try to remove the pests with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. If this doesn’t work, treat the infestation with insecticide.

Suggested Huernia Uses

These attractive plants look great on their own or grouped with other succulents in a wide container.

When planting with other succulents, remember to give Huernia plants plenty of space as the stems and roots grow sideways.

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