by Ram Gandhi
Ever since I first started collecting succulent plants, Haworthias have held a special place in my heart. I cannot explain why these small sized succulents fascinate me as they do. Their leaf formations appear flower like to me and therefore seem to be perpetual ‘flowers’. Haworthias earlier belonged to the Lilly family, along with Aloes, Gasterias, Bulbines etc. and were also thought to be part of the genus Aloe; both being leaf succulents from South Africa with a few shared characteristics. It was separated from the genus by the setting up of the genus Haworthia by Duval in 1809.
Though easily identified as Haworthias, these plants are a taxonomist’s ( scientific plant classifier) nightmare. Dr. M. B. Bayer considered as the foremost world authority on the subject has written three books on it in 1976, 1982 and 1999. While certain species have maintained their distinct identity, a majority have puzzled him as regards their inter- relationship. This has caused a lot of name changing and a certain amount of confusion. Adding to all this is the ongoing discovery of new species and varieties.
The latest classification follows the order in which specimens are housed in the Compton Herbarium at the National Botanical Institute, Kirstenbosch, RSA.
Leaving experts and the name game apart, everyone can enjoy the beauty of Haworthias. My love affair with Haworthias began with the ‘ common’ rarities, H. turncata and H. maughanii and their distinctly cut leaf tips aroused my fascination. In 1985, my sister who was returning from the USA bought them for me at the exorbitant price of $10 each! Later when I asked around, I was told that I had wasted my money as they would not survive here in our climate. I then met the late Dr. Sarkaria, considered an expert on Haworthias in India, by chance. In the middle of a busy schedule and not knowing me from Adam, all he said was ‘ Grow them in an air conditioned room’! Happily, both plants are thriving with me today and without an air conditioner. Later I was able to procure a number of varieties from his propagations at very reasonable prices. Since then I have been the beneficiary of several collectors worldwide, who have been very generous in sharing their plants with me.
The beauty of Haworthias is of course in their leaves. Flowers are pretty but very small and do not contribute to the attraction of growing them. Their leaves can be thick or thin, hard or soft and can be in curving, re- curved or even flat topped. The leaf edges can be smooth or with teeth or even hairy. The surface can be smooth or rough and colour varies from pale green to dark green often with red/ pink hues. In good sunlight the entire plants tend to get tanned to beautiful shades of cream, pink and maroon. With so much to choose from, it is very difficult to select favourites.
For the ease of collectors it might be easier to think of two major divisions in Haworthias – soft leaved and hard leaved.
Varieties of Soft leaved Haworthias include
Haworthia venosa var. Tessellata.
Examples of Hard leaved Haworthias are
In general I find the hard leaved varieties easier to grow in our weather conditions. As they clump and can easily be propagated; they also tend to be more easily available.
Haworthias are not fussy plants. One of their greatest assets is that they are relatively disease free and do not require much tending. They are winter growers in our climate enjoying full sunshine during this period. They also require regulated watering during this time in order to develop beautiful red/ pink hued leaves.
Haworthias grow well in a good nutritious soil mixture that is porous and slightly acidic. According to Steve Hammer, an experienced grower in the US, the ideal watering schedule would be when the soil mix remains wet for a day or so, going on to moist the next few days before receiving its next watering. The soil mix should never be allowed to completely dry out.
As they are semi – dormant in summer they require protection from our harsh summer sun. During this period of semi – dormancy they might suffer from root loss due to root die back, a natural phenomenon even in their natural habitat. Spraying them is more helpful at this time, as their watering has to be considerable reduced. Later in autumn, they start to regenerate their roots and watering must be resumed, but gradually, as too much water too soon can result in the loss of the plant. During their growth period in winters, they should be given weak feeds of NPK occasionally supplemented with trace elements.
Most clumping varieties can be propagated easily by the removal of offsets. It is the choice varieties that cause a problem. A majority of them tend to remain solitary and those that do offset, do so very reluctantly. Of these, the thick leaved varieties can, with a little patience and persistence, be made to produce offsets by gently easing off a good leaf from the mother plant, allowing it to dry for a few days and then placing it on soft porous mix to root and produce pups. They should be sprayed and not watered. The thin leaved ones can be propagated from seed or if you are an expert, by bisecting the plant, keeping roots intact, and then drying for a few days and planting the bisected portions.