Hiking up Table Mountain in midsummer to find the red disa Disa
uniflora in flower, one is sure to see the brilliant red Crassula
coccinea hanging from the cliffs. If lucky, and patient, one
will also see the mountain pride butterfly Meneris tulbaghia,
which pollinates both. This large butterfly with chocolate brown
wings has the unique behavior of being drawn to the colour red.
With its long proboscis or tongue, the mountain pride butterfly
is able to reach for nectar in the narrow flowers of Crassula
coccinea and other species with large red flowers such as the
cluster disa Disa ferruginea, the Guernsey lily Nerine
sarniensis and the iris Tritoniopsis triticea.
coccinea occurs naturally in the Western Cape where it grows
on the quartzitic sandstone mountains on bare rocks or shrubby slopes
usually at altitudes of 800 metre and higher. A small succulent
shrublet about 400mm high, it has a few stems that branch from the
base. As the plants get older the bottom of the stems turn brown
and dry with the bright, new leaves at the ends. The succulent leaves
are flat, oval shaped and arranged to overlapping each other along
the stems. In midsummer (January - March) the striking flowers are
formed in a dense flat-topped head at the tip of the stems. The
long tubular flowers are fragrant and brilliant red, especially
botanist, Rudolph Marloth explains in his description of Crassula
coccinea published in Flora of South Africa (1913-1932)
as follows " This dazzling brightness of the flower is principally
due to the dome-shaped form of the epidermal cells, each acting
like a combination of a convex lens with a concave reflector."
Growing Crassula coccinea
Crassula coccinea are easy to grow and flower in the garden
where they look good in a rockery, pots or planted in a bed. This
is an excellent waterwise plant that needs full sun and good drainage.
The plants grow fast and can flower in their first year. They get
untidy after a few years and are best replaced after about 3 years.
Plants are subject to rust, but sensitive to fungal sprays.
coccinea can be propagated from seed or cuttings. The seed is
best sown during autumn in shallow trays filled with a sandy mixture.
Germination is usually very good and within about 3 weeks. The seedlings
can be planted out as soon as they are big enough to handle into
small containers and grown on. Cuttings root well in any sandy mixture.
There are about 200 species of Crassula found predominantly
in the southern hemisphere and mainly southern Africa.
Ernst van Jaarsveld & Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden