Kalanchoe thyrsiflora Harv.
Common names: white lady, bird's brandy (Eng.); geelplakkie, meelplakkie, plakkie, voëlbrandewyn (Afr.); serilile (Southern Sotho), utshwala benyoni (Zulu), utywala bentaka (Xhosa)
The Afrikaans name meelplakkie is most appropriate for this plant as it does indeed look as if the whole plant has been liberally dusted with flour (meel). Being a succulent perennial, it does not require much attention in sunny dry gardens. Plants take about 3-4 years to mature, but flowers may appear from the second year and remain for another year before seeds are dispersed. These plants are ideal for sunny areas and, being perennials, they can be used as semi-permanent features in beds of annuals or bedding plants.
Like most of the southern African Kalanchoe species, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora forms a basal rosette of large rounded, fleshy leaves, which are grayish cream with red margins. Plants reach about 600 mm, and the erect, upward-facing, tightly arranged leaves are without petioles. The rosettes send up dense inflorescences to 1-1.3 m tall, which are coated with a white powder. On the inflorescence the lower leaves are rounded and become smaller as they ascend along the flowering stem.
The dense inflorescence has small tubular flowers approximately 15 mm long. The flowers are greenish with yellow recurved lobes and appear from mid summer to mid winter (from February to June). They are sweetly scented. The flowering may persist for a long time on the plant until the whole plant eventually dies.
Least Concern (LC). Kalanchoe thyrsiflora is not endangered. Due to its free seeding nature and perennial life cycle, it is abundant in certain habitats from the Eastern Cape to the Lowveld.
Distribution and habitat
The genus Kalanchoe occurs throughout Africa, Madagascar, Cyprus, Indochina and Malaysia. It is a very well-known group and has become famous for certain attractive cultivars. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora occurs in the Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West Provinces of South Africa, and in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is found from the central to the southern escarpment and foothills of the Drakensberg and in in bushveld habitats, usually in open rocky situations or exposed hilltops.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Adanson, who derived the name from the Chinese epithet for one of the species, described the genus Kalanchoe in 1763. The species name thyrsiflora refers to the inflorescence, which is a thyrse or many-flowered type of inflorescence.
Widespread over Asia and Africa, the genus is distinguished by its flowers, which have their parts in fours, the stamens being in 2 whorls of 4. In species of Kalanchoe occurring in southern Africa, the plants mostly have erect flowers. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, first described by Harvey, is one of 6 species of Kalanchoe listed in Flora Capensis, which was published in 1861. It was also the first Kalanchoe to be illustrated in The Flowering Plants of South Africa. Kalanchoe is one of 6 genera found in the family Crassulaceae. The related genera include Cotyledon, Adromischus, Tylecodon, Bryophyllum, and Crassula. The family name Crassulaceae means thick fleshy leaves which are characteristic of the plants in the family.
In their natural habitat, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora plants are sometimes exposed to harsh temperatures and over many years have adapted to survive. Besides being succulent, the erect leaves are pointed upwards towards the sun in order to minimise the surface area that is exposed to the sun, thus assisting the plant to conserve moisture. The pale colour of the leaves also helps to reduce the effect of heat. The white floury coating on the leaves and inflorescence helps to reflect the sun away, thus aiding in keeping the plant cool. It is a little like wearing a white T-shirt instead of black on a hot day. Other succulents like Cotyledon orbiculata and Aloidendron dichotomum use the same technique. Ants, bees and other flying insects which visit the flower in the middle of the day are responsible for pollinating Kalanchoe. The fertilised flowers may persist on the plants for a long time, and the very small seeds are effectively dispersed by the wind.
This plant is used in traditional medicine. The Sothos use it as a charm to smooth away difficulties, and sometimes in medicine given to pregnant women who don't feel well. the Xhosas use it to treat earache and colds. It is also used to make anthelmintic enemas. Please not that this plant is toxic to sheep and can have harmful effects on people, and should be used with caution.
Horticulturally the plants are very popular in rock gardens, on rocky embankments, and as container plants. They make beautiful displays when planted en masse, and their red leaf margins are particularly attractive.
Growing Kalanchoe thyrsiflora
It is possible to grow these plants vegetatively as well as sexually. For quick results, leaf cuttings can be taken from mature plants. When making cuttings it is important to ensure that a small piece of stem is attached to the leaf. Make cuttings during the warmer months. Place in coarse river sand in an area with air movement, and shade of about 40%. Cuttings must be kept moist especially after roots appear which normally occurs within a few days after the cuttings are taken. Alternatively the seeds. which are light brown and very fine, can be sown on a sandy medium and then lightly covered. The following medium usually works well with most succulents:
- 4 parts coarse river sand
- 4 parts fine river sand
- 1 part sieved well-rotted compost
- 1 part perlite
- 1 part vermiculite
Always treat seeds with a pre-emergence fungicide as seedlings often suffer from fungal diseases and may die rapidly after germination.
Remember that these plants are from rocky areas and prefer a similar garden habitat with plenty of direct sunlight in order to thrive.
- Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds) 2003. Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A.B. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants: an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Kalanchoe thyrsiflora in Flowering Plants of South Africa. 1929. Vol.9: pl.341
- Oliver, I.B. 1993. Grow succulents. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
updated October 2017
Plant Type: Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Late Summer
PH: Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Flower colour: Green, Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy