Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata
Crassula vaginata Eckl. & Zeyh. subsp. vaginata
Common names: yellow stonecrop, yellow crassula (Eng.), uphuncuka (isiXhosa), umdumbukane, umakhulefingqana (isiZulu), erekisienyane (Sesotho)
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata is a rosette-forming succulent, that sprouts annually from a woody rootstock and is a rewarding addition to a grassland garden, with simply stunning, bright yellow flower-heads in summer.
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata is an unbranched, succulent, perennial herb that grows about 500 mm tall, with a tuberous rootstock, usually solitary or multiplying from the base to form small clumps. Stems are erect, sprouting annually from a fleshy to woody rootstock, dying back after flowering. Leaves in basal rosette, succulent, 5–250 x 3–20 mm, linear-lanceolate, sharp tipped, flat, hairy or smooth, margins fringed with transparent teeth, green to yellowish-green, base of leaves fused, sheathing at the base, in pairs along the stem, and old leaves remaining on the stem. Inflorescence ± 100 mm in diameter. Flowers are star-shaped, ± 8mm in diameter, with parts in fives, and appear in early summer to late autumn (September to May) arranged in flat-topped, terminal clusters. They are scented, bright yellow but may also be white.
This plant can be easily confused with Crassula alba. The two species may be distinguished by the following: in C. vaginata the sheaths of the lower leaves are usually more than 10 mm long, and the median and upper sheaths are distinctly developed; the sepals have a terminal obtuse papilla, margins are entire, rarely with a few vestigial papillae; petals white, yellow or cream. Whereas in C. alba the sheaths of the lower leaves are usually shorter than 10 mm, the median and upper sheaths are short or absent; the sepals do not have a distinct terminal papilla, margins are distinctly serrulate (with fine small teeth) to papillose-serrulate (with soft pimple-like bumps), the midrib sometimes with a few papillae; petals are white, or pink to deep red and sometimes yellow.
According to the Red List of South African Plants, the conservation status of this plant is assessed as Least Concern (LC), that means it is not considered to be threatened or is at low risk of extinction.
Distribution and habitat
A widespread species in damp grassland, on slopes, often among rocks, in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape in South Africa and also in Eswatini, throughout tropical Africa and in Arabia.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata was first described by Ecklon & Zeyher in 1837. The name Crassula is the diminutive of the Latin crassus, which means ‘thick or fat’, referring to the fleshy nature of the genus as a whole. The species name vaginata means ‘sheathed’ or ‘having a sheath, or covering’ and refers to the leaves sheathing the stem.
The genus Crassula is one of the most diverse succulent genera in the Crassulaceae family, with 210 accepted species, including herbs, shrubs and under shrubs. This family comprises of 36 genera and about 1 400 species that occur in temperate Europe, Asia, Australia, America and Africa. In South Africa 10 genera and about 350 species occur. This attractive family of succulents grows in hot, dry regions where a variety of form and easy vegetative reproduction have made crassulas, kalanchoes and cotyledons very popular with gardeners. Fleshy leaves are a feature of the group together with flowers which consist of a set number of essentially separate parts.
The bright yellow, scented flowers attract insects, such as cetoniine beetles, which feed on the pollen and nectar or on the petals, as well as nectar loving insects such as honeybees and butterflies, as the flat-topped flower heads offer a comfortable landing-strip. The seeds of Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata are very fine and easily dispersed by wind in autumn and can be carried some distance away from the parent plant.
This plant dies back after flowering and grows again from the base at the beginning of the following growing season. This survival mechanism allows it to survive the cold, dry winter conditions and the many fires that burn across this ecosystem, the plants re-sprouting in the spring. Crassulas are such efficient drought-busters due to their metabolism that allows them to photosynthesize normally without losing much water through their leaves, known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM. This adaptation allows them to photosynthesize during the day without having to open their stomata to let air in and water out, but only exchange gases at night to reduce evapotranspiration.
Ground roots in sour milk are used as famine food by Zulu people. It is also used traditionally to treat earache, bruises and as a love charm.
Growing Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata is a striking plant that blooms in the summer, displaying large, showy heads of bright yellow flowers. It is a nice addition to a collection of grassland plants, is also suitable for containers and when mass planted makes a useful ground cover because of their dwarf growth habit, the ease with which they establish themselves and their rapid growth rate. Plants need a warm climate and strong light, when planting in a garden make sure it gets full sunlight. It is better grown as an outdoor rather than indoor plant. However, if you live in a cold area, it is better to plant Yellow Crassula in an indoor environment. As long as it gets enough sunlight, the plant will grow happily.
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata does not require repotting often. Of course, the first-time repotting is essential if your plant is bought from a retail nursery. Like most other succulent plants, a well-drained soil mixture is essential. This succulent needs typical watering as formost succulents. The watering method is very important to keep your Yellow Crassula healthy. It should not sit in water, i.e. the water must be able to drain away freely, and an excess amount of water should be avoided. The best way of watering is to soak the pot and then let it dry out before watering again. Take care to avoid overwatering.
Crassula vaginata subsp. vaginata can be easily propagated by seeds, stem and leaf cuttings, or basal offsets. Take cuttings or remove offsets in spring. Take stem cuttings and plant them in a well-drained soil mixture, in bright filtered light. Leaf cuttings can be left a day or two to callus (the cut surface thickens) before potting. Treat the cuts with a fungicide. Insert into pots filled to three-quarters depth with a well-drained soil. Do not cover. Place in warm position with good light. Keep the soil mixture just slightly moist. The seeds are very fine and must be harvested as soon the flower turns brown and as the fruits ripen. Sow seeds in spring, in a mixture of river sand and potting soil. Avoid over watering to prevent damping off.
Repot plants when necessary, preferably during the warm season. Repot your crassula when the soil is dry, gently remove the pot, and knock the plant so that the old soil falls away from the roots, remove any rotted or dead roots and repot the plant in its new pot with fresh potting soil, spreading the roots out as you repot. Keep the plant dry for a week or so, then water lightly, this reduces the risk of root rot.
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KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: images by Geoff Nichols and Martin von Fintel
Plant Type: Perennial, Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer, Autumn
Flower colour: White, Cream, Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy