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Huernia Zebrina: How to Grow the Incredible Lifesaver Cactus

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The lifesaver cactus, or Huernia zebrina, has unexpectedly become one of my favorite succulents. It is in fact not a cactus despite its common name!

I’ve also seen this plant listed as Huernia confusa and also Huernia insigniflora, but regardless what the proper scientific name is, it is an easy care succulent with incredible flowers.

lifesaver-plant

It is easy to see where name lifesaver comes from because the central part of the flower looks like a lifesaver candy (or one could argue, a chocolate glazed donut!) and surrounded by 5 points with zebra-like stripes.

LIFESAVER PLANT / HUERNIA ZEBRINA CARE

LIGHT

It is important to get the light right for this plant. These low-growing perennial succulent plants are native to low-altitude areas of eastern and southern Africa, and grow underneath other shrubs. They are actually in the milkweed family of plants.

Keeping this information in mind, you need to strike a balance with the light that you give your indoor Huernia. You need enough light to produce strong growth and flowering, but not too much light that can cause scalding.

Inside the home, the ideal location would be right in front of an Eastern facing window (morning sun) or a Western facing window (afternoon sun).

My own plant has been growing well and flowering in front of my Eastern window. Of course every window is different and you’ll have to experiment.

lifesaver-cactus-plant

Some indications of not enough light include weak growth and no flowering. On the other end, too much sun can start to produce reddish or purple coloring in your plant. If you see this, you may want to decrease the amount of direct sun just a bit.

A few hours of direct sun inside are necessary for good growth and flowering, but avoid harsh sun during mid-day.

TEMPERATURE

To be safe don’t let your lifesaver cactus plant go below 50F (10C). If you move your plant outside during the warmer months, be sure to return it indoors before temperatures dip below this.

50-80F (10-27C) is a great growing range for this plant. Huernias can take down to 40F (4.5C) as long as they are kept dry and up to 100F (38C) as long as they’re not in full sun. These extremes are not ideal for long periods of time though so try and avoid them.

POTTING MIX

All Huernias require very sharp drainage. There is no magic blend, as long as you have excellent drainage. The mix below is what I’ve been using and my plant is loving it!

I used 2 parts succulent/cactus soil with 1 part 1/4″ pumice. Mix it up together, and it is a fantastic and very quickly draining medium for your lifesaver plant or ANY succulent!

As far as pots go I prefer terra cotta pots for many reasons. They are heavier and make it less likely to knock over since the plants can be top heavy, and they will dry out more quickly than plastic pots.

Also, avoid pots that are unusually deep. Huernia roots experience root dieback during their cool season dormant period. If the pot is too deep, it will cause issues because the soil will take too long to dry out.

If you can find shallow pots, these would be ideal, but mine has been doing just fine in a standard, small terra cotta pot.

huernia-zebrina
A spent Huernia flower

WATERING

I follow my standard watering for succulents. Water thoroughly, allow excess water to exit the drainage hole and wait until at least the top inch or two of soil is dry before watering again during the growing season.

You can (and I usually do) let the soil go completely dry during the growing season and this is fine as long as you don’t let it stay completely dry for too long. Again, this is during the active growing season.

During active growth, as soon as the soil is completely dry, give it a good soaking, let it dry out again, and repeat.

During the winter time, you can keep the soil drier for longer periods of time.

FERTILIZING

As with succulents in general, avoid high nitrogen fertilizers and use ones that are low-nitrogen but high-phosphorus like Schultz Cactus Plus. Avoid fertilizing during the winter time.

If you prefer non-synthetic fertilizers, you can choose to mix in some blood meal or bone meal into the soil in the Spring.

PESTS and PROBLEMS

The most common pest that you may encounter are mealybugs. As with any pests, early detection is key to controlling them. The easiest and best method to treat mealy bugs on your lifesaver cactus is to manually remove the mealybugs that are visible, and then treat with a systemic houseplant insecticide.

This is a softer succulent, so be especially careful of conditions that can produce stem rot, including long periods of cool temperatures, especially if combined with wet soil.

If you notice any soft, dark spots on the stems, cut these areas off your plant.

FLOWERS

When my Huernia first bloomed, I was surprised because I was expecting bigger flowers. The flower are only about an inch in diameter or a little less.

lifesaver-cactus-flower

When the buds first appear, they’ll look like the one in the photo below.

lifesaver-flower-bud

I’ve read some sources that say that the flowers sometimes produce a very foul scent similar to rotting flesh! Fortunately, I’ve never noticed this odor in my plant.

They are related to the Stapelia genus of plants, or Carrion Flower, and these DO have horrendously smelling flowers.

PROPAGATION

I propagated my own plant from a small one inch cutting that a friend sent me in the mail. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever propagated.

The original cutting was the vertical stem shown in the photo below.

lifesaver-cactus-propagation

All you have to do is cut off a portion of the stem, allow the end to dry and callous over for 3 or 4 days or so, and then simply insert it into a small pot of soil. It’s as simple as that.

(You want to dry or callous the end in order to help prevent rotting.)

Water the pot, and wait until the surface dries out and keep repeating. Before you know it, you will see growth. My own plant took about 2 years before it bloomed, and this was all from a small 1 inch cutting.

Looking to purchase a Lifesaver Cactus? One of my favorite and most convenient one-stop-shops to buy practically any plant is Etsy. Check out the Lifesaver Cactus selection (link to Etsy) today!

Do you have a Huernia zebrina or lifesaver plant? Comment below. I’d love to hear!

Please do me a favor and share this post to social media because it will help me spread the Ohio Tropics houseplant care tips to the masses! Also, check out my shop on Amazon for all your houseplant care needs:

OHIO TROPICS PLANT CARE STOREFRONT

Mae

Sunday 31st of July 2022

When my lifesaver cactus first bloomed it looked like a lifesaver. Now the whole bloom is brown? I miss seeing my little life savers. What causes this? Is it fertilizer or not getting enough sun. I miss seeing my lifesaver blooms. I have a lot of them in different pots but not many blooms and when they do bloom the bloom is all brown.

Raffaele

Tuesday 2nd of August 2022

Hm....that's interesting. I'm really not sure. I'd have to see a photo to try and help, but that sounds unusual.

Graham Whitman

Wednesday 13th of July 2022

I enjoyed reading about your journey with your Huernia Zebrina. I bought a variegated one and was looking for tips on how to care it, that's how I came across your article.

Raffaele

Wednesday 13th of July 2022

They're fun plants for sure, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article :-). I recently chopped my plant up and am propagating to form larger plants now. I need to update the post. A variegated one sounds lovely!!! Good luck with your plant.

Kathy

Tuesday 12th of July 2022

I'm having flowering issues and not much growth. I think it's not getting enough light so I'll try moving it. Thanks for the info!

Raffaele

Tuesday 12th of July 2022

You're very welcome, and good luck Kathy!

Amy Smith

Sunday 22nd of May 2022

I have had a Lifesaver Cactus for two years now. I had a piece break off and tried to propagate, but it never took off. I didn't know about letting it callous first! I have had only one bloom which was when my plant was in a west window. I moved it to a south window and haven't seen one since. I'll move it back after reading this. I also don't think I water it enough although it looks good other than not blooming. I'll try and see between moving it and watering more if I can encourage some new blooms. Thanks!

Raffaele

Monday 23rd of May 2022

You're very welcome Amy!

Shauna Pullen

Saturday 9th of April 2022

I was given a lifesaver plant. Root rot nearly killed the whole thing due to cold temps and too-wet soil. I cut off a few pieces that I could save 😭. I got a new pot with better drainage and did a soil mix of cactus soil, perlite and desert sand. The snippets have calloused and are in soil, but I’m afraid to water it now. It’s in a warmer room with a grow light. Any advice? It was a gift from a dear friend, and I really want to keep it.

Raffaele

Sunday 10th of April 2022

Don't be afraid to water it. It needs moisture to root. If you have nice, bright conditions and warm temps, you should be ok. Water but let the surface dry out before watering again.