Plant and Garden

Life Saver Cactus (Huernia insigniflora) Care and information

Life Saver Cactus (Huernia insigniflora) is a remarkable perennial succulent species native to deserts from Southern and East Africa to Arabia.

The plant is named in honor of Justin Heurnius (1587–1652) a Dutch missionary who is reputed to have been the first collector of South African cape plants. According to Wikipedia, his name was actually misspelled by the collector.

Various species of Huernia are considered famine food by the inhabitants of Konso special woreda in Southern Ethiopia. The local inhabitants, who call the native species of this genus baqibaqa indiscriminately, eat it with prepared balls of sorghum.

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They note that baqibaqa tastes relatively good and has no unpleasant side-effects when boiled and consumed.

As a result, local farmers encouraged it to grow on stone walls forming the terraces, where it does not compete with other crops.

In Konso, farmers differentiate three varieties of baqibaqa for which they have no specific names. The first variety is of brown color and reaches up to 25cm in length, the second is green and slightly longer, the third is grey, short and thick (approx. 10cm). Farmers explained that baqibaqa tastes relatively good without unpleasant side-effects when boiled and consumed. In Konso it is mostly eaten together with kurkufa (in Konso language), locally prepared sorghum balls.

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Lifesaver plants are actually not members of the cactus family, although the tubercles warty bumps that line the stem ridges can resemble the fierce spines that protect cacti.

Ultimately, Lifesaver plants belong to the genus Huernia, low-growing succulents that are part of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae).

Growing Lifesaver Cactus…

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Lifesaver plants prefer bright light or partial shade. In nature, they grow underneath shrubs or other plants.

Too much sun causes stems to develop protective reddish or purple pigmentation and can actually scald the stems.

Too little light leads to weak, thin growth with decreased flower production.

Plant enthusiasts worldwide grow Huernias indoors because of their interesting stem shapes and colors.

Lifesaver plants can be grown as intriguing indoor, greenhouse or summer patio container plants almost anywhere. Huernias require a potting mix with excellent drainage.

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Species such as Huernia zebrina, H. pillansii, H. keniensis and H. primulina can be grown in outdoor landscapes in warm-winter and Mediterranean climates.

Protect outdoor plants from frost and rain during winter and full sun in summer.


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Huernias grow best between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Protect them from freezing weather. They can tolerate down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit when dormant if they are kept dry.

On the other hand, they can handle temperatures over 100 degrees. Protect outdoor plants from frost and rain during winter and full sun in summer.

Less Light = Less Water

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Plants should be kept dry during the winter dormant season. When Huernias are actively growing, they need to be watered. Allow the soil to dry out one inch down the container between waterings.

During the growing season, high-phosphorous, low nitrogen fertilizers can be applied at half-strength once a month. Alternatively, blood meal and bone meal can be mixed into potting soil in small amounts at the beginning of the growing season.

No fertilizers should be given during the dormant season

Blooming Lifesaver Cactus…

The Lifesaver cactus bloom appears October to March. Up to 1.4 inches (3.5 cm) in diameter, the star-shaped flowers have a distinct, liver-colored raised ring or annulus at the center.

The flower’s texture is rubbery and the coloring is absolutely extraordinary with its spotted and striped presentation and the flower’s points.

Lifesaver Cactus Problems…

The Lifesaver cactus can get diseases such as Rhizoctonia solani (Rhizoctonia solani) Root rot (Botrytis, Rhizoctonia, Phytophthora) Black root rot (Helminthosporium sp) Black Root Rot (Thielaviopsis basicola)

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However, pests such as Mealybugs are the most serious threat to plant health. These insects suck the sap from the plant stems and roots and can seriously weaken or kill the lifesaver plants. Control the mealybugs with systemic insecticides.

Examine plants weekly for signs of infestation and treat promptly. Keep plants from becoming too crowded so stems can be easily seen.

A Yellow Lifesaver Cactus?…

Even though the plant sounds like candy… it should not be all colors of the rainbow. Over-watering is the most common cause of yellowing leaves on a succulent plant. Constantly wet soil can rot the plant’s roots, interfering with its ability to take up water and nutrients from the soil. Check your plant’s soil with your fingertip and, if it feels wet, over-watering is a likely cause.

Lifesaver cactus can take on a yellowish color when exposed to too much light. While numerous species of cacti thrive in light, intense light can cause major health problems. It is important when growing cacti to be able to diagnose the signs of too much light exposure to provide the best growing environment for your cacti.

Propgating Lifesaver Cactus…

Propagating the Lifesaver cactus is very easy. Division is the easiest form of multiplication. It is not only easy on you but also on the plant. Division is not an extreme form of reproduction. Done gently, it’s an operation that is only slightly more traumatic than transplanting.

Division of indoor plants can take place at any time, but it is especially successful from the plant’s point of view if done during the winter when the plant is at rest.

The Lifesaver cactus really needs a dry environment. Start by placing 1/2 to 1 inch of pebbles into the bottom of a clay pot. Add an inch of cactus soil. We recommend Miricle Grow brand.

Place your Lifesaver plant into the pot, and add more cactus soil. Do not bury the plant too deeply. Place the pot in a window with indirect, bright light. A south-facing window may be too bright.

Water the plant only when the soil is completely dry. Water even less often if it is in the winter months.  Move the cactus farther from windows during the winter to protect it from cold drafts. Maintain the temperature at no lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

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