Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana (V.Poelln.) Van Jaarsv.

Family: Aloaceae (Aloe family)
Common name:
dwarf gasteria, klein-beestongopcell

Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana

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 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 'bad handling'.

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 and Poellnitzia.

Stressed plants displaying red leaves.

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.

References
VAN JAARSVELD, E.J. 1994. Gasterias of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.


Ernst van Jaarsveld
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
September 2002



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