Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana is a rare, dwarf
succulent perennial with leaves in a rosette. It is one of the smallest
of the gasterias, each rosette reaching only about 25 mm in height.
Some of its larger siblings like Gasteria exelsa can grow
70 mm tall and 1 m in diameter.
Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana proliferates from
the base forming dense groups of up to ten or more individuals.
The leaves are 15-100 mm long and 8-14 mm broad, tapering, strap-shaped
with a rounded or acute top and a smooth, mottled epidermis. The
leaves of young plants are distichous (arranged in two opposite
ranks) and look quite different to the adult leaves.
Flowers can be produced at any time of the year, but peak flowering
time is in midwinter to spring. The inflorescence is a simple, elongated
raceme, much taller than the leaves, reaching 160-400 mm in height.
The flowers are 12-15 mm long, pendulous, tubular, and reddish pink
in colour. They are rich in nectar and are pollinated by various
sunbirds. The seed capsule is 12-14 mm long and contains small,
black seeds 2-3 mm in diameter, with a wing for wind dispersal.
Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana is a rare endemic
of Eastern Cape thickets occurring along the Grahamstown quartzitic
sandstone mountain range. The plants grow in shallow soil in the
shade of thorny thickets dominated by succulent plants. Its habitat
is often rocky. Here the climate is dry and hot and frost is very
light or absent. Rainfall is mainly during the warmer summer months
ranging between 500-600 mm per annum and winters are dry but there
are occasional cold fronts that bring ample rains in winter. Rainfall
is variable, even in summer, and this gasteria is able to survive
periods of drought.
Eastern Cape is also home to many animals, large and small, like
elephant, buffalo, rhino, dassie, leopard, tortoise, bushpig and
porcupine. Gasterias grow in the shade of other plants, so the mottled
appearance of their leaves camouflages them in the dense vegetation,
thus giving them some protection from grazers, but not necessarily
from being trampled. Nevertheless, if they are disturbed, grazed
or trampled, their brittle leaves will break and the parts broken
off will spontaneously root on the ground. They have thus become
very well adapted to 'bad handling', so well in fact that it even
appears to be beneficial to the plant in that it generates young
and vigorous plants and increases the population. Many other succulent
plants that share their habitat have become similarly adapted to
Gasterias are used in various traditional medicines. Plants of
Gasteria excelsa and G. croucheri are sometimes placed
on the roofs of dwellings in Eastern Cape, in the belief that they
prevent lightning from striking the house. Others use parts of the
plants during faction fighting, believing that the plant will make
them partly camouflaged so that the enemy will not see them.
The generic name Gasteria was established by Duval in 1809.
It is derived from the Greek word gaster meaning belly and refers
to the swollen base of the flowers, which makes them look belly-shaped
(or like a diagram of a stomach in a biology book!) There are 19
known species of Gasteria, and most of them occur in the south-eastern
part of South Africa. Gasteria belongs in the Aloe family. Other
members of this family include Aloe, Haworthia, Astroloba
Growing Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana
All gasterias thrive in cultivation and are suited to both indoor
and outdoor cultivation. Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana
can be used as a pot plant on window sills,verandas, in a miniature
succulent garden where they are happy to share their habitat with
other smaller succulent plants, or in outdoor rockeries. They are
tolerant of a wide range of soils and habitats, but care must be
taken in areas where rainfall is high or frost is frequent. They
prefer partial or dappled shade and outdoors are best planted on
the shady side of a rock, or in the shade of other plants. This
plant is drought tolerant and will grow well in the gardens of the
winter rainfall Western Cape, provided it is planted in well-drained
soil and is occasionally moistened during the dry summer months.
As with many other succulent plants, leaves may turn red if the
plant is stressed. It is not shy to flower and will flourish if
fed with liquid organic fertiliser.
Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana is easily propagated
from division, leaf cuttings or seed. To get seed from gasterias
in cultivation, they must be cross pollinated. To pollinate, mimic
the action of a sunbird, i.e. find a small stick, like a matchstick,
gently insert it into a flower on one plant, then transfer the pollen
that rubbed off onto the stick, onto the stigma of a flower on another
plant. Capsules abort very soon if the flowers are not pollinated.
Seed should be sown during spring or summer, in a sandy, well-drained
potting soil, covered with a thin layer of sand (1-2 mm), placed
in a warm shady position and kept moist. Germination occurs within
3 weeks and the seedlings are slow growing. The seedlings can be
planted out in individual bags as soon as they are large enough
to handle. First flowering can be within 3-4 years. To propagate
by leaf cuttings, remove a leaf and let it lie for about one month,
giving the wound time to heal. Then lay the leaf on its side with
the basal part buried in the soil. This leaf should root within
a month or two, and small plants will form at the leaf base. These
can be removed and potted up as soon as they are large and firm
enough to handle. A clump of Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana
can be divided at any time of the year.
VAN JAARSVELD, E.J. 1994. Gasterias of South Africa. Fernwood Press,
Vlaeberg, Cape Town.
Ernst van Jaarsveld
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden