Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley (= Haworthia limifolia Marloth)
Common names: file-leaf haworthiopsis (Eng.); isihlalakahle, omathithibala, umathithibala (isiZulu)
Haworthiopsis limifolia is a small, compact, rosulate, leafy succulent that grows singly or in groups. This species is commonly known as umathithibala and is a very popular plant in the muthi plant market. The high demand for this species has resulted in over-exploitation of the wild population and it is now an endangered species.
Haworthiopsis limifolia is a tough succulent plant that forms compact, stemless rosettes up to 12 mm in diameter, often producing basal suckers and forming clumps of up to 20 rosettes. It has light to dark green leaves, 30–100 mm long, 20–40 mm broad, up to 6 mm thick, with transverse ridges of raised tubercles. The rosettes produce 12–30 broad, triangular leaves, giving them a characteristic pinwheel-like shape. Young leaves are erect and matured leaves are spreading. The flowers are tubular, 2-lipped, white to pink, produced in a thin, wiry, racemose inflorescence, on a stalk up to 200 mm long, arising from the centre of the rosette. They can be produced at any time of the year, however flowering is mainly in winter. The seeds are black and flaky, in shape and texture.
Haworthiopsis limifolia is Red Listed as Vulnerable (VU) in South Africa.
According to the Red List of South African plants website, this species is very popular in the medicinal plant trade and remains the preferred mathithibala species, despite the existence of substitute species and being cultivated by healers and traders. The long-term protection of the plants in the wild, even in protected sites, is thus not assured. Large numbers of mature plants have been removed from the wild in South African and in Eswatini, causing an estimated decline of over 30% in the last 60 years. The main threats to this species are medicinal plant harvesting, collection of mature individuals from the wild by succulent collectors, habitat destruction from urban and industrial expansion, overgrazing and competition from alien invasive plants.
Distribution and habitat
Haworthiopsis limifolia occurs naturally in Vryheid, Louwsberg, Mtubatuba and Pongola in northern KwaZulu-Natal, in Hectorspruit and Barberton in Mpumalanga and through the Lebombo Mountains in Eswatini. They grow mainly on the northwestern aspect of the slopes or on top in the Ubombo Mountains, at an altitude of 300 to 800 m. The habitat receives rainfall of about 800–1 400 mm per annum. The climate is hot and humid in summer and cold in winter. It grows in elevated grasslands along the tops of hills and ridges, often camouflaged amongst small stones and clumps of grass. On the upper region of the mountain the plants are protected by scattered stones and rocks, often with another rock partially overlapping and providing shade. At higher altitudes the plants are found on the edges of the mist belts, and this extra moisture results in the plants being slightly different to those growing in the lower regions.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Haworthiopsis means ‘like the genus Haworthia’, alluding to the similar appearance of these species to those of Haworthia and also to the fact that these species were previously included in the latter genus, the ending opsis meaning ‘appearance’ (Greek). The specific epithet limifolia means ‘file- like leaves’ and refers to the hard, rough, ridged leaves. The specific epithet is made up of two Latin words, the verb limes, meaning ‘file down or sharpen’, and the noun folia meaning ‘leaf’.
Haworthiopsis was established in 2013 to accommodate the species formerly classified under the subgenus Hexangularis of the genus Haworthia. This new genus is near-endemic to South Africa and is found in most provinces around the country except Gauteng. It is also known from southern Namibia, Eswatini and possibly Mozambique. There are 18 species currently recognized. Members of the genus Haworthiopsis are characterized by their small rosettes of succulent leaves that are generally harder and tougher, with a thicker epidermis, than those of species of Haworthia.
There are 5 recognised varieties of Haworthiopsis limifolia namely:
Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley var. arcana (Gideon F.Sm. & N.R.Crouch) G.D.Rowley
Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley var. gigantea (M.B.Bayer) G.D.Rowley
Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley var. glaucophylla (M.B.Bayer) G.D.Rowley
Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley var. limifolia
Haworthiopsis limifolia var. ubomboensis is also a recognised variety of H. limifolia that has only been recorded in one locality in Swaziland and is thus not listed among the South African taxa on the Red List.
The small flowers are pollinated by proboscid flies or bees. In nature, plants of this genus are often browsed by porcupines, tortoises, rock hyraxes and by grasshoppers and crickets (Klopper & Gildenhuys 2018). The succulent nature of this species allows them to survive long periods of drought and to withstand fires. Although these plants are quite fire-resistant, they also favour very rocky areas which have less plant growth and this further helps them to avoid fires.
Haworthiopsis limifolia is a very popular and important plant in traditional medicine. The leaves, roots and whole plants are used as herbal medicines for fertility problems, sores, purifying blood, cough, skin rashes, sun burn, burns and gastro-intestinal problems. Studies show that plant extracts contain compounds that exhibit antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, wound healing, hemagglutinating, agglutination and cytotoxic activity.
This species is used as a protective charm in KwaZulu-Natal, it is grown in old containers or pots and suspended from the roof adjacent to the kitchen door, or placed on poles at the front door, as protection against evil spirits, lighting and storms.
Haworthiopsis limifolia is also a is a popular ornamental plant in horticulture, and is grown in the garden or as a pot plant.
Growing Haworthiopsis limifolia
Haworthiopsis limifolia grows best in a semi-shaded position, under big succulent plants, like Aloe or Euphorbia, or planted in a rock garden in between rocks, where they will form a clumps over time. Direct sun causes sunburn and may result in leaves turning white or yellow.
Haworthiopsis limifoila is a drought-tolerant plant, it will grow in frost-free, arid areas and is sensitive to overwatering. Damping off can occur if plants are overwatered or the soil medium is waterlogged. Soil must be well-drained, sandy, with a lot of organic matter. Geoff Nichols recommends using 1:1 mixture of river sand and compost. In the beginning of spring, use a sprinkling of hoof and horn fertiliser on the soil surface. In the summer months, from the beginning of September to the end of March, feed the plants weekly with a liquid fertiliser. As a pot plant indoor, place the plant in a position that allows it to get lots of light throughout the day, without constant direct sunlight.
Haworthiopsis limifolia can be propagated using three methods: seeds, division and leaf cuttings. Seed are sown in spring in well-drained soil and covered lightly. For quick germination, place the seeds on a mist bed with bottom heat at 25ºC. Seeds will germinate after about 5 to 10 days and initially grow quite slowly. After about a month, the leaves are produced. According to Geoff Nichols H. limifoila has recalcitrant seeds and should be sown as soon as possible, after 3 weeks the viability of the seed will drop considerably. Seeds should be planted as soon as the capsule turns a straw colour and begins to split. One can speed up the process by manually splitting the capsules to release the seeds.
Small offsets appear naturally around the base of the mother plant, these offsets can be removed when they are large enough to handle, in spring or summer. Allow these offsets to dry for 1 or 2 days, before replanting in individual pots, into a well-drained mixture of river sand and bark.
To propagate from leaf cuttings, remove leaves from the main plant by gently twisting the leaf from the stem. Allow the leaf to dry for several days to form a callus over the wound, and plant them in moist sand.
There are no major pests of diseases recorded for this species, however if plants are potted into too large a container, the soil will become sour and, owing to too much moisture being retained in the soil, the roots will rot off. Species in this genus like to dry out between watering. If the plants lose vigour, mealy bug will attack the young roots and soft tissue at the base of each leaf. Soaking the plant in a Malathion bath is the best treatment (Nichols 2005).
- Gildenhuys, S.D. & Klopper, R.R. 2016. A synoptic review and new infrageneric classification for the genus Haworthiopsis (Xanthorrhoeaceae: Asphodelaceae). Phytotaxa 265(1): 1–26. http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.265.1.1
- Klopper, R.R. & Gildenhuys, S.D. 2018. Haworthiopsis (Asphodelaceae). PlantZAfrica. Online. http://pza.sanbi.org/haworthiopsis
- Maroyi, A. 2019. Haworthiopsis limifolia (Asphodelaceae): medicinal uses, phytochemistry and biological activities. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research 11(9): 3366-3371.
- Nichols, G. 2005. Growing rare plants: a practical handbook on propagating the threatened plants of southern Africa. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 36.
- Scott, C.L. 1985. The genus Haworthia, a taxonomic revision. Aloe Books, Johannesburg.
- Williams, V.L., Raimondo, D., Crouch, N.R., Cunningham, A.B., Scott-Shaw, C.R., Lötter, M. & Ngwenya, A.M. 2014. Haworthiopsis limifolia (Marloth) G.D.Rowley. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants v.2020.1. Accessed 2022/03/04
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: the author thanks Geoff Nichols for providing the images.
Plant Type: Ground Cover, Succulent
SA Distribution: KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
Flower colour: Green, White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy