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Looking for a low-maintenance indoor plant?

Succulents have the ability to hold large amounts of water in their tissues

Several of my gardening friends are very knowledgeable about plant classification and their Latin names and can identify the family name. This doesn’t interest me much but I do use this information quite frequently such as when researching a plant such as a succulent.

Succulent is a term applied to plants which have the ability to hold large amounts of water in their tissues, and they belong to a number of different plant families. Within each plant family are a number of genera and within each genus are many species.

The succulent I’m writing about is commonly called Ox Tongue but the plant family name is Liliaceae (yes, the lily family). The genus is gasteria and members of the gasteria genus make great houseplants for a number of reasons. First, like most succulents, gasteria can go for weeks without being watered — great for people who are away from home for long periods or for those who forget to water regularly.

Second, gasteria are very undemanding plants, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions. Members of this genus will perform well in cool environments, but do not object to warmer temperatures either. They are not at all fussy about soil and as long as the potting mix and container provide good drainage, they will be happy. I put a bit of sand in my mix when potting succulents, including all cacti, and usually cover the soil surface with sand to create a desert-like landscape. The only disadvantage to this is that the sand on the surface dries out quickly, making it difficult to determine whether the soil is dry and needs to be watered. I stick a finger into the soil to check the moisture level of the soil beneath the thin layer of sand on its surface.

Succulents should be fertilized infrequently (I usually give them a bit of plant food once in the spring). Care must be taken when they are fertilized as any water containing fertilizer can mark the leaves if it is allowed to drip onto the foliage. The foliage of most succulents is permanent, so you’ll have to live with any marks put on the leaves for a long time. Succulents like bright light and some sun but are incredibly resilient in terms of light requirements — particularly in winter, when they go semi-dormant, they can be located in quite low light levels.

Gasteria plants can be used indoors in a variety of ways. Smaller plants can be used in dish gardens with other succulents, while large individually potted ones can be used alone or combined within a plant grouping to add interest and texture. It is the unique colouration and texture of gasteria leaves that make them so interesting. G. maculata has blunt-tipped, tongue-shaped, glossy leaves that are dark green and marked with white spots or bands. The smooth leaves are 15 cm long and five cm wide and arranged in two flattened rows opposite each other, one leaf atop the next.

My favourite gasteria, which I call Ox Tongue, but whose proper name is Gasteria verrucose, is interesting because of its wonderful texture. The leaves are about the same size as those of G. maculate, but a bit narrower and somewhat concave on the top. This gasteria has the common name Ox Tongue because the dark-green leaves are covered with small white warts — giving the leaves the texture of a cow’s tongue. The Latin name is derived from the flowers; they are stomach shaped and hang from long curving stems. The flowers are usually coral coloured and the flower stems can eventually become over a metre in length. The Latin word for stomach is gaster, hence the name gasteria.

I have a large specimen of this variety and when I used to live in Carberry, I left it in the same pot for over seven years and other than the clump getting larger due to the production of more offshoots, it didn’t change very much from year to year. It sat on top of a filing cabinet in front of a north-facing window and all I did was water it every so often. Ox Tongue is definitely a low maintenance — and long-lived plant.

Having a long “shelf life” is another plus for this genus — the plants do not need to be repotted very often and have a very slow growth rate so they don’t become root bound very fast. To keep them attractive every so often give the leaves a quick wipe with a damp cloth to get rid of the dust. On the relatively bumpy and heavily textured leaves of the Ox Tongue, however, dust seems invisible. But on some of the smooth-leaved gasteria, this grooming procedure will keep the plants looking their best. Low-maintenance plants that are not demanding are a good choice for those who don’t spend a lot of time tending their plants, making gasteria a perfect choice.

Ox Tongue can serve as a unique specimen plant for the indoor landscape.
photo: Albert Parsons

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