Lifesaver Cactus Care ~ Astonishing Blooms (Huernia zebrina)

The Lifesaver cactus (Huernia zebrina) is a beautiful and unusual desert plant native to the Southern and East African deserts. Although the plant has an adorable appearance, its smell, when in bloom, can be quite overpowering.

Despite the smell, this succulent is beloved by gardeners because of its many other qualities. It can thrive in desert-like conditions, is relatively easy to care for, and requires little maintenance. It’s a perfect plant for beginners, or people who have limited time to tend their houseplants.

The Lifesaver plant still needs attention, particularly watering, lighting, and temperature. We’ll cover everything you need to know in this guide, starting with how the plant was discovered by a Dutch missionary.

Origin: Africa, Dutch Missionary & Common Misconception 

This perennial plant belongs to the genus Huernia and is sometimes referred to as the Penwiper plant or Huernia zebrina. It gets its name from the elevated brightly-colored ring resting on the star-shaped flower, which looks like a lifesaver candy.

The common name, Lifesaver cactus name may be misleading – the plant is not a type of cactus but rather a succulent. It has thick leaves or stems that store water and can thrive in hot, dry environments.

This cactus plant is rare as it is less common than most other cactus plants. Most other cactus species are native to Northern and South America, Mexico, or Australia.

Justin Heurnius was a Dutch missionary and the first collector of the plant in southern Africa. In honor of Heurnius, the plant was also named Huernia zebrina, a misspelling of his name that has endured.

It’s All About The Bloom (And Smell)

closeup of Huernia zebrina flower in bloom.

The plant typically blooms from late spring through summer, and as the flowers bloom, so does the odor. The smell that this succulent plant emits is often described as being similar to rotting meat or garbage.

Despite this, it still naturally attracts pollinators such as insects and birds that spread the plant’s pollen.

If the Huernia cactus is one of your houseplants and you can’t stand the smell, keep the plant away from common areas in your home. You can also place it near a window with good airflow to help minimize the odor.

The bud forms and grows larger during the blooming season until it finally opens. Too little sunlight can delay the blooming process, but too much sunlight can wither the buds and cause them to become damaged.

As a general rule, they require filtered sunlight and plenty of airflow to thrive. It does not need a lot of water and can survive in dry conditions for long periods, but it does need regular watering.

How to Get Your Huernia zebrina to Flower

Blooming is a natural process for the Huernia cactus and is not something you need to force. However, bad practices such as poor lighting, irregular watering, and too much fertilizer can cause the plant to have fewer flowers.

One of the most important things to do is to give your Lifesaver cactus the right amount of water, excellent drainage, and light.

The plant thrives in bright, indirect, or filtered sunlight. To prevent blooming issues, ensure your plant is placed in a spot with plenty of indirect sunlight.

This plant can survive for long periods with little water, but if it’s grown in consistently dry conditions, it may not bloom at all. Keep the soil lightly damp and check for signs of overwatering, such as soft or soggy leaves.

Remember that it takes years of growth for the plant to reach maturity and bloom, so keep going even if yours does not bloom right away. All you need to do is provide it with optimal conditions and give it plenty of time to grow.

The blooms can vary in color, but typically they are bright red or pink. And as it grows larger, the Lifesaver cactus will develop more flowers and clusters of buds. Keep your plant in a room with good air circulation for the best results.

Lifesaver Cactus Care Guide

This rare cactus succulent may not require much care, but if you want to maximize its growth and blooming potential, you must give it the right conditions.

Plant Size

The plant typically grows between 6 and 8 inches in height and about 6 inches wide, making it a relatively small succulent. As a result, it’s the perfect plant for small spaces and indoor gardening.

Lighting Needs

This is an understory plant and prefers to be kept in a spot with filtered sunlight. Too much direct sunlight can damage the plant, so avoid bright, full sun locations.

Consider growing the plant indoors if you live in a hot, sunny climate with no partial shade or clouds. This will help protect it from direct sunlight and heat, allowing it to grow at its best.

The best spot indoors is a spot receiving light from an eastern or western window. The reason is that these spots receive direct sunlight in the morning and balanced light throughout the day.

You can use a grow light to compensate for low light levels or if you live in a location with limited access to sunlight. Use grow lights sparingly, as they can be very bright and may damage your plant.

Note that grow lights are generally unnecessary for the Lifesaver cactus. If you must use it, ensure that the lights are placed several inches away from the plant’s leaves and only run them for 8-10 hours per day.

Soil Requirements

Huernia zebrina prefer a well-draining soil mix, so choose a potting medium that allows for adequate drainage. You can use a standard specialized cactus mix or make yours with peat moss, sand, pumice, or perlite.

The pH level of your soil should be mildly acidic, so aim for a pH between 5.5 and 6.0. You can use less alkaline potting mixes as long as they contain no fertilizer or lime.

Water Needs

Lifesaver succulents can tolerate periods of drought as long as they are not prolonged. Aim to water your plant about once every one to two weeks or whenever the soil is dry.

As for the moisture level, this plant prefers slightly dry soil and can tolerate short periods of drought. Use your fingertip to gauge the moisture level of your soil; if it’s dry up to an inch below the surface, water the plant.

Alternatively, you may invest in a moisture meter. This device will help you monitor the soil moisture levels and ensure your plant gets the right amount of water.

If you notice that your cactus plants have dried out completely and the leaves are wilting, you may need to water them more frequently. However, be careful not to overwater, as this can lead to root rot and other plant problems.

Remove excess water from the pot once you’re done watering and allow it to drain completely.

Generally, these plants need more water in the summer, while the dormant winter months requires less. If you live in a hot climate, keep an eye on your plants and water them as needed.

Underwatering Signs & Symptoms

Underwatering your plant can lead to shriveled leaves, a slow growth rate, and death. Signs that your plant is not receiving enough water may include the following:

  • Brown and dry leaves
  • Small white spots on the surface
  • Wilting
  • Damaged roots

If you notice these signs, try watering more frequently and deeply. To prevent this from happening in the future, invest in a moisture meter and monitor soil moisture levels. Also, avoid direct sunlight as much as possible.

Overwatering Signs & Symptoms

Overwatering can also be a problem. Remember, you should avoid watering your plant too frequently, especially in winter. Signs that your cactus is receiving too much water may include:

  • Soft roots
  • Fungal growth on the leaf surface and base of the plant
  • Leaf discoloration
  • Soggy or mushy leaves

If you notice these signs, immediately remove excess water from the pot and allow your plant to dry out. To prevent this from happening in the future, only water the plant when necessary.

Temperature

These plants prefer a moderate environment, and the best temperature range is 50-80°F. They do not tolerate excessive heat and may become weak or die if exposed to temperatures above 85°F for too long.

Will a Lifesaver Cactus Grow Outdoors?

Yes, these plants can grow outdoors. Although, protect it from rain and prevent frosting in winter; also, from the full exposure of the afternoon sun. Also, you must water more frequently when growing Life saver cactus outside.

How to Protect From Cold Weather

To protect your Lifesaver succulent from cold weather, you may need to bring it inside during winter. Alternatively, you can wrap your plant in a frost fabric or other insulating material to help protect it from the cold and keep it warm.

Leave the covering on for a short time because your plant will need access to air circulation and sunlight to thrive.

Fertilizer

Your plant will welcome a little fertilizer once every month in the growing season. Choose a low-nitrogen and high-phosphorus fertilizer, and follow the instructions on the packaging carefully.

Avoid feeding your plant during the winter months, as it may not require additional nutrients at this time. Besides, the plant goes into dormancy at this time so extra fertilizer can harm its health.

What About Pruning?

Pruning is not necessary, though you may wish to remove any dead leaves or stems from time to time to keep the plant tidy. And if you want a smaller plant, you can prune it to control its size.

Potting & Repotting

Don’t be surprised if the plant does not outgrow its pot; that’s expected. Don’t worry if the plant tightly fills the pot – the pot will limit its growth and give it a nice compact look.

You may also need to rotate the pot every few weeks to promote even growth and prevent legginess. And repotting is only necessary once the plant outgrows its current container (rare); you should, however, change the potting soil every two years.

The best pot size is one that can contain a full-grown plant, 6-8 inches in height and 6 inches wide. The pot should have drainage holes at the bottom to prevent overwatering.

Terra cotta pots are one of the best options. They are sturdy and dry out faster than plastic or ceramic pots, making them perfect for growing cacti and succulents.

How to Propagate Lifesaver Cactus

You can propagate Lifesaver cactus by taking stem cuttings and leaving them to dry for a few days before planting in a soil mix.

Choose a pot, pour the fresh potting soil in, and gently place the cutting on top of it. Add more cactus soil but don’t bury the stem too deep.

To help your plant establish its roots more quickly, you can apply a rooting hormone or place a plastic bag over the cutting to create a humid environment. As your plant grows, gradually remove the bag and continue watering it as needed.

Remember to observe the recommended lighting and watering requirements if you want your new plant to thrive. With adequate care, it will grow into a beautiful and healthy houseplant or outdoor garden plant.

Alternative Propagation Methods 

There are other ways to propagate your plant, and these alternative methods may be preferable, especially if you can’t wait for the stem cuttings to dry.

Propagation Using Glue

  • Get wood glue from your local home improvement store
  • Pour some of it into a container
  • Make a potting mix of peat moss and perlite
  • Take bits of Lifesaver stem cuttings
  • Deep the base in the glue
  • Place the Lifesaver cuttings inside the soil mix

You just propagated your Lifesaver plant using glue!

You don’t have to wait for the stem cuttings to dry, and your plant will take root in a week. Avoid watering for eight days.

Separation Propagation Method

This propagation approach entails removing the entire soil mix with the plant, separating the parts of the plants, and placing them in new pots with the soil mix. The steps:

  • Remove the entire plant with the dry soil from the pot
  • Gently pull the plant apart into multiple parts
  • Place each separated bunch in a new pot
  • You have successfully propagated Lifesaver cactus!

Water the plant after two weeks.

Common Problems

Like other plants, the Lifesaver cactus is susceptible to common houseplant problems, including root rot, fungal infections, and pest infestations.

Pests 

These plants attract common pests, including mealybugs, scale insects, and spider mites. These bugs can cause problems for your plant by sucking the sap out, resulting in yellowing or brown spots on the leaves and overall drooping.

You can control these pests by regularly inspecting your plant for signs of an infestation. If you spot any bugs, manually remove them and use a systemic insecticide spray.

To prevent future infestations, properly clean and maintain your plant.

Diseases

In addition to pests, watch for diseases like Rhizoctonia solani. A fungal disease that causes damping off and other pathogenic conditions to plants.

The pathogen prefers warmer, wet climates for infection and growth, so you should avoid overwatering your plant and give it the best lighting conditions possible. Also, improve soil aeration and water drainage.

If your plant shows severe signs of disease, remove the affected leaves and stems immediately and apply a fungicide spray to help control the spread of infection.

Root Rot

Root rot usually results from overwatering and poor soil drainage. Water properly, ensuring that the pot has good drainage holes and the plant is not sitting in water.

If your plant develops root rot, you will notice yellow or brown leaves and drooping or wilting stems. To treat, repot your plant in fresh soil, improve the pot’s drainage, and reduce watering. You may also need to apply a fungicide spray or other treatment to eliminate the fungus.

Turning Yellow

There are several potential causes for a Lifesaver cactus turning yellow. They include:

  • Too much light
  • Wrong soil or potting mix
  • Underwatering or overwatering
  • Poor drainage
  • Fungal infections or pests

Turning Purple

The most likely cause of a Lifesaver cactus turning purple is exposure to high levels of sunlight, root rot, nutrition deficiency, or any stress to the plant, such as temperature fluctuations or insect damage.

Provide proper lighting, water, and soil conditions. Also, minimize stress on the plant.

A Shrinking Lifesaver Cactus

A shrinking Lifesaver cactus plant means that it is undernourished. Most likely caused by a combination of overwatering, poor soil quality, and insufficient sunlight. 

Apply the best practices for caring for cactus plants, and your plant will rejuvenate.

FAQs

Do Lifesaver plants smell?

Yes, Lifesaver plants have a pungent smell, but you won’t notice it until the plant blooms. The smell comes from the flowers of the plant.

Are these plants toxic or poisonous?

Yes, the Lifesaver cactus is poisonous to humans and animals, so handle the plant carefully and keep it away from pets and children. Avoid ingesting or allowing the white latex to get into your eyes – it can cause severe irritation.

Is it prickly?

Yes, it’s covered in small green and prickly spines. They are not too sharp to the touch but be careful when handling the plant; wearing gloves can offer extra protection.

Is the Lifesaver cactus easy to grow?

Yes, it’s relatively easy plant to grow and care for. It doesn’t need a lot of light or water and is fairly resilient to pests and diseases. However, give it the right growing conditions to keep your plant healthy and thriving.

Is the Lifesaver plant a cactus or succulent?

Huernia zebrina is a succulent, but you may also find it referred to as a “cactus.” Being a succulent, it has thick leaves or stems that store water and can thrive in hot, dry environments.

Where can I buy a Lifesaver cactus?

You can find these plants for sale at most gardening centers and nurseries, local markets and greenhouses, and online shops. Amazon, Etsy, and Walmart are all good options. You can also find seeds and cuttings. 

Finally: Should You Buy One?

The Lifesaver cactus is a beautiful and resilient plant that can greatly add to any home or garden. The flowers are stunning, and the plant is easy to care for, making it an excellent choice for any gardener or plant lover.

However, handle the plant carefully and provide it with the right growing conditions to keep it healthy. And if you notice any signs of yellowing, purple leaves, or shrinking, take action immediately to prevent further damage and get your plant back on track.

With the right care and attention, it can make a great addition to your indoor or outdoor space, bringing beauty and vitality to your home. So what are you waiting for? Go out and get yourself one (or more)!