Gasteria visseri van Jaarsv.
Common names: Visser’s ox-tongue (Eng.); Visser-beestong (Afr.).
Gasteria visseri is a compact, slow-growing succulent, with dark green, spreading to recurved leaves in a tight rosette, proliferating from the base and forming rounded clusters. The raceme of attractive, orange-pink, pendent flowers appears in spring. Easily grown from leaf cuttings and best for containers.
Fig. 1. Gasteria visseri drawn by Marieta Visagie from a plant in the succulent collection at Babylonstoren Farm in the Western Cape.
Plants are stemless, the rosettes up to 40 mm tall, proliferating from the base and forming rounded clusters, with up to 8 heads, up to about 300 mm in diameter. The roots are succulent, up to 2–4 mm in diameter. The leaves in a dense rosette of up to 10 leaves; leaves triangular spear-shaped, 90–110 mm long, 40–50 mm broad at base, succulent, sickle-shaped, at first, ascending becoming ascending spreading and recurved later. The upper surface flat to shallowly channelled, plain, rounded towards the apex, dark green becoming reddish with drought, smooth, with translucent dots. The lower surface green, with smooth epidermis; the margin leathery about 2 mm broad, with minute rounded teeth to almost entire, somewhat wrinkled at the base, shiny and semi-translucent. The leaf end dagger-shaped, acute with a distinct sharp point (mucro). The juvenile leaves in opposite rows (distichous), tongue-shaped (lorate), flat to ascending; the surface asperulous; the leaf end rounded but ending also in a short, sharp point. The inflorescence is an ascending spreading raceme, 630–760 mm long, sometimes with a pair of side branches in upper half. The flowers are pendent arranged on one plane (secund) and opening in succession. The inflorescence stalk (scape) 210–220 mm long and 7–8 mm broad at base, flattened. The raceme 440–470 mm long carrying up to 50 flowers; the floral bracts 7–8 × 3.5–4.0 mm; the flower stalks are pendent, 12 mm long, orange-pink. The flowers (perianth) 30–32 mm long, subcylindrical, curved in upper half, swollen at the base (gasteriform), bearing a short stipe 3 mm long. The floral segments are fused for their greater length (except the perianth ends and margins of the inner 3 segments), subcylindrical, curved in the upper third. The base of the perianth is inflated to about 6–7 mm, orange-pink, upper half white with green striations; the tepal ends erect, becoming erectly spreading, and blunt. The stamens 25–26 mm long; anthers 4 × 2 mm long, included. The female portion (ovary) 8 mm long, 3 mm in diameter, green, the style 16 mm long, stigma included, minute. The fruiting capsule is oblong, 18–25 mm long, triangular in cross section, blunt at apex, 7– 8 mm in diameter. Seeds 4–5 × 2 mm, blackish.
Flowering time is in late spring to early summer.
Plants are only presently known from cultivation and until its precise location and population are examined, its conservation status cannot be determined.
Distribution and habitat
Gasteria visseri is known only from the Eastern Cape. According to its discoverer, Peter Berend, his plants were gathered from the Keiskamma region in the Eastern Cape (west of East London). Judging from the growth behaviour of Gasteria visseri in cultivation, it is likely to be a cliff-dweller. The globose growth clusters, dark green, immaculate leaves, with minute translucent spots and semi-translucent cartilaginous margin, is well adapted to a cliff-dwelling habitat. Plants can grow without the disturbances of large herbivores. It would be classified a cliff-hugger.
The vegetation along the Keiskamma and Great Fish River consists of Buffels Thicket (Mucina et al. 2006). This vegetation is rich in succulents with important species such as Aloe ferox and A. pluridens, Euphorbia grandidens, E. triangularis and E. tetragona, Sarcostemma viminale, Sansevieria hyacinthoides, and many species of Crassula. The geology of the cliffs consists of mudstones and sandstones of the Beaufort Group of the Karoo Supergoup. The climate of the region is mild without frost. Rainfall is approximately between 500 and 800 mm per annum. Precipitation occurs mainly in summer but rainfall at other times is occasionally experienced. Summers are hot and winters cooler, but with frost absent.
Fig.2. Gasteria visseri in the collection on Babylonstoren Farm, Simondium, Western Cape.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Gasteria visserii was recently named in Bradleya (Van Jaarsveld 2020) the magazine of the British Cactus and Succulent Society. It was first collected by Dr Peter Berend, radiologist from Stellenbosch and keen plantsman, who collected this species as a young boy, whilst on a cycad exploring expedition accompanying his father, a cycad enthusiast. Peter kept the plants through the years growing them in his greenhouse near Stellenbosch, where the plants was spotted by the author. This collection was also grown in the succulent house of the Babylonstoren Farm, between Simondium and Klapmuts, and plants grown on and the species later named when they came into flower.
Gasteria visserii honours Dr Gerrit Visser, a medical practitioner who made a large contribution to our knowledge of Gasteria. Gerrit, throughout the past 25 years, not only collecting almost all the species, but also investigating and making several collections of each species within their distribution range. For some of them, he extended our knowledge of their distribution range. He also saved some variants whose habitat was destroyed by urban expansion. Gerrit carefully documented all the collections, of which he donated a duplicate set to Babylonstoren Farm. He grows the live plants in containers at his home in Bellville, on a well-drained slope. Gerrit is also a trophy hunter and travelled Africa and the world hunting trophies. It was also Gerrit’s interest in Gasteria which led to a near-tragic event in 2008, when Gerrit got shot by 2 youngster thugs below the Jozini Dam, in northern KwaZulu-Natal whilst he was looking through his binoculars to see if he could see Gasteria batesiana ‘Jozini’ plants on the cliff below the dam wall. The resilient Gerrit survived the attack thanks to the rapid response of his wife, Dr Elmien Steyn, who ensured his rapid transport by helicopter to Stanger Hospital.
The meaning of Keiskamma River according to Nienaber & Raper (1983) is translated as ‘puff adder river’.
Gasteria visseri is one of about 30 species of Gasteria endemic to southern Africa. They are aloe-like, with succulent leaves in a tight rosette, often proliferating from the base and cluster-forming. They are closely related to aloes, and range in size from the smallest, the Liliput Ox-tongue (Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana) a few cm in diameter, to the large Regal Ox-tongue (Gasteria excelsa) and the Coast Ox-tongue (Gasteria acinacifolia) bearing rosettes of up to 60 cm in diameter. They differ from aloes by their brittle, usually mottled leaves and pendent pedicles and tubular flowers, swollen at the base almost like a belly (gaster is Greek for belly) (Clark & Charters 2016). The leaves will root when becoming detached and lying on the ground forming new plantlets. Unlike aloes, most gasterias grows in dappled shade and the greatest diversity can be found in the southern part of the Eastern Cape. Most gasterias are ornamental, and often grown by succulent enthusiasts.
The leaves when becoming detached from the mother plant, will root, forming plantlets, which is typical of the genus Gasteria, an adaptation known as passive resistance. When a fragment falls to the ground or lands in a crevice, it will root (vegetative reproduction back-up). The rounded compact succulent clusters are typical of many cliff-dwelling Gasteria species and a typical cliff hugger. The absence of herbivores in the cliff habitat allows the plants to grow undisturbed, and consequently the relaxation in camouflage, and, G. visseri is without camouflage. Many Gasteria species growing in the adjacent dense thicket vegetation, have mottled leaves, a characteristic of many Gasteria. The minute translucent dots (micro windows) and semi-translucent, broad, cartilaginous leaf margin allows for infrared light penetration in shady south-facing cliffs.
Gasteria visserii plants when in flower at the Babylonstoren succulent house plant collection, are pollinated by local sunbirds such as the Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina fomosa) as well as the Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus), and set seed regularly.
It is not known whether this particular species is used medicinally.
Growing Gasteria visseri
Gasteria visseri is well suited for dry Mediterranean climate gardens, where frost is not severe. Best grown in thicket gardens in well-drained, partially shaded sites, such as a rockery or steep embankments. It also grows very well in containers. The soil should be well-drained, sandy and plants fed with an organic fertilizer or compost. I suggest a soil mixture of 2 parts sand or gravel, 1 part compost and 1 part garden loam. Plants grow very slowly like most species of Gasteria and lots of patience is necessary, but the long term effect is very rewarding when they grow, flower and adapt to its particular container or region in the garden. The plants are drought tolerant, the leaves becoming a beautifully reddish colour when water is withheld for some time or during dry times of the year.
Plants can be propagated from seed or leaf cuttings in autumn. Carefully remove a lower leaf, allow the wound to callus, by placing it in a shady spot for 3 weeks. The leaf can be dusted with Sulphur which would guard against fungal infection. The base of the leaf cutting can then be planted in sand. Rooting takes place within a month or two, but forming of young plants at least 6 months. Allow the young plants to grow strongly and once large enough to handle, the young plants can be transferred to individual containers. Sow seed in autumn or winter in a sandy medium. Cover with a thin layer of sand and keep moist. Germination is usually within 3 weeks. Allow plants to reach a size when easily handled, before planting out in individual containers.
- Clarke, H. & Charters, M. 2016. The illustrated dictionary of southern African plant names. Flora & Fauna Publications Trust, Jacana, Johannesburg.
- Mucina, L. & Rutherford, M.C. (eds) 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Nienaber, G.S. & Raper, P.E. 1983. Hottentot (Hhoekhoen). Place names of southern Africa. Onomastic Research Centre, Butterworth Publishers, Durban/ Pretoria.
- Van Jaarsveld, E.J. 1994. Gasterias of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
- Van Jaarsveld, E.J. 2020. Gasteria visserii, a new species from the Eastern Cape. Bradleya 38: 26–29.
Ernst van Jaarsveld
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (Retired 2015)
Extraordinary senior lecturer and researcher,
Department of Biodiversity and Conservation, University of the Western Cape
Plant Type: Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Pink, Orange
Aspect: Shade, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy