Huernia (2015)

PhotoBy Eric Driskill (April 2015)

The genus Huernia is in the family Asclepiadaceae. The name honors Dutch missionary Justin Heurnius (1587-1652), an early collector of South African Cape plants.

In Lexicon of Succulent Plants, Jacobsen references White and Sloan’s division of the genus into five groups. To date there are about Huernia 90 species with 12 infra-specific taxa. The plants are found in southern, eastern and western Africa, as well as the Arabian Peninsula.

The plants are low stem succulent perennials with angular stems often lined with large teeth. Huernias branch from their bases, which develop large clumps over time.

The stems usually have four to seven angles, and vary in their teeth from wispy to large. Stems are green to gray-green, and often get a tinge of red if given enough sunlight. Overall, the stems are nondescript, but then again, it’s usually not for the love of stem variation that you find them in succulent collections. The flowers, however, are a different story!

Produced freely in the summer and autumn, the flowers are five-lobed and usually somewhat funnel- or bell-shaped, only 2 to 3 centimeters in diameter. The flowers also have a characteristic lobe in the angle between the main lobes. Huernias are fragrant, with most species producing a “road kill” carrion bouquet like some other plants, attracting flies to aid in pollination.

With that said, why would anyone cultivate such a plant? The answer lies in the whimsy of those small, foul-smelling flowers. The flowers are often found in vividly contrasting colors or tones. They can be striped, spotted or mottled, with some glossy, others matte and wrinkled. Some flowers are so bizarre, they don’t even look real, yet logic assures us that painters couldn’t have concocted the color schemes found in many species.

For such small flowers they achieve much. Some are ominous-looking, some are playful, and others resemble the most peculiar sea creatures or something the pulp fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs would have created to include in his “Barsoom” series of tales set in a fictional representation of the planet Mars. An Internet search will certainly produce enough evidence to not only confirm these claims, but also entertain you for a while.

With these plants being small, you can have a small sampling of the genus without sacrificing much bench space. You will want to assure your soil is chunky, free-draining and allowed to dry between waterings. Most Huernia species are easy to grow, although they vary in their susceptibility to rot. When it’s warm, and plants are growing, they need plenty of water. Adding a light fertilizer will aid in flower production.

Stem and root mealy bugs are most often the reason these plants succumb to fungal attack and die. It’s a good idea to periodically take a stem cutting, which if left to dry will typically root without fuss.