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Fairy Crassula

Crassula multicava; Fairy Crassula; Skaduplakkie, Feetjie-crassula (Afrikaans); umadinsane (Zulu)

Here is another of those ubiquitous local plants that seems to be in every garden in our part of the world, both on the coast and inland. It is literally creeping into the gardens of the southern & western Cape, plus up into the Highveld, where there a few million humans are changing the natural habitat into one of the larger human-created urban forests in Africa.

This succulent species’ natural distribution in South Africa is from southern KwaZulu-Natal down into the Eastern Cape to about Grahamstown. It lives in the forested krantzes and forest edges in the region. It does not go too far inland, but the early gardeners noted its resilience and have spread it about beyond its natural range. We now have a resurgence of its popularity mainly due to the fact that the horticultural industry is trying to grow plants that are indestructible in these days of instant gratification where generally, clients want landscapes that look good all year round without any real effort or expertise.

I have noticed over the years that there are three forms in cultivation. The first two are the real Crassula multicava subsp. multicava from the eastern Cape that have pink or white flowers. Of these two, the normal form has the green underside to the leaves, whilst the southern-most form has a red underside to its leaves. (The latter one is now being misidentified in the nursery trade as Crassula streyi. C.streyi, which is an endemic to the sandstone cliffs of Southern KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei where it grows in damp, deep shade on the ledges of the many river gorges that cut through the landscape.)

The other subspecies is Crassula multicava subsp. floribunda, which occurs on the krantzes around Durban and down into the Transkei, according to David Styles and Ernst van Jaarsveld, two intrepid plant explorers who observed this subspecies alongside the normal form in the Transkei. This is a more robust, upright plant that has white flowers and seems not to flower too often, but the plant remains looking spectacular for the whole year. 

The Fairy Crassula, like fairies worldwide, pops up in the most unexpected places and these plants will grow under most conditions. They prefer semi-shade but will survive in full sun, hence their popularity with the landscape industry that needs plants that will survive under the most basic of plant-growing conditions. 

When in flower, the tiny pink or white flowers, borne on loose, pink-stemmed flower heads, make a spectacular show in any garden or container and are a real boon to the insects of our gardens. A large bedding layout of this species will attract many thousands of insects in every form you can imagine, from pollinators to predators of other insects. 

When flowering is over, the flower heads begin to develop little plantlets that look like tiny shields on the old flower stems, and once the flower stem dries off, the miniature replica of its parent drops to the forest floor and begins its own way in the world. This, and simple division of stems, is the main method of propagation for this plant. Like most of the Crassula family, each leaf that drops will form roots and then new plants.

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