Cephallophyllum alstonii is a creeping perennial succulent, ideal as a groundcover, or as a potplant on a patio. The spectacular, brightly coloured blood-red flowers attract insects when the flowers open.
Cephalophyllum alstonii is a creeping perennial succulent, the leaves are triangular, about 60-120 mm long, greenish, erect, and the surface is smooth throughout. Attractive, large, blood-red, flower clusters occur in winter (June-September). The fruit capsules have between 10-24 locules that contain small, pear-shaped brown seeds.
Distribution and habitat
This species occurs in the Ceres Karoo area and receive 100 to 350 mm rainfall per year, mainly in winter. It cannot tolerate heavy frost and does best in areas of low rainfall.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name is derived from the Greek words cephalos, head, and phyllon, leaf, and refers to the compact heads of leaves. The genus has 33 species, and Cephalophyllum pillansii, a commonly cultivated creeper, whose yellow flowers have cherry red centres, is another noteworthy member.
The spectacular bright red flowers open mainly at midday and in the afternoon to attract insect pollinators. In this genus, dispersal of seed is closely related to the opening of the capsule through moisture. The seeds are expelled from the locules, triggered by rain, when conditions for germination of seedlings are favourable.
Uses and cultural aspects
This popular, water-wise garden plant is successfully used to prevent soil erosion, thus stabilizing the exposed ground. On farms, the leaves serve as a source of food for sheep.
Growing Cephalophyllum alstonii
In the garden this plant is used best with other succulents such as Cotyledon orbiculata (pig's ears), Dorotheanthus bellidiformis (bokbaai vygies) and Cheiridopsis acuminata, which makes a striking display.
Propagation can be done by means of seed and cuttings. Sow seed in April or May (winter). Prepare shallow seed trays containing well-drained, coarse river sand. First water the tray with a fine rose spray before sowing. The seed should be sown evenly on the medium and covered with a thin layer of sand of about 1mm deep. Keep seed tray moist, not wet. Transplant seedlings in September or October (spring) in a 1 pint bag in a well-drained mixture of 4 parts fine river sand : 2 parts coarse river sand : 4 parts well-rotted compost : 2 parts perlite : 1 part vermiculite.
Cuttings can also be taken in April or May (winter) with a sharp knife. To enhance rooting success use a rooting hormone powder. Long trailing pieces of the plant can be cut and layered in a coarse sandy mixture, resulting in many small plantlets.
White scale insects are sometimes found on the leaves of the plant. Careful monitoring of the plant for this pest on a weekly basis is very important.
References and further reading
- Oliver, I.B. Grow succulents. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Smith, G.F., Chesselet, P., Van Jaarsveld, E.J., Hartmann, H., Hammer, S., Van Wyk, B-E., Burgoyne, P., Klak, C. & Hubert, K. 1998. Mesembs of the world. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
Karoo Desert NBG