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Lifesaver Cactus: 7 Essential Plant Care Tips

The Essential Plant Care Guide for Lifesaver Cactus Huernia zebrina

lifesaver cactus
Alexander and Hephaestion, my Lifesaver cacti

The unique Lifesaver cactus is easy to grow for a first-time plant owner – just place it on a windowsill and don’t overwater! The plant is named after its 5-pointed, yellow, star-shaped flowers with coppery reddish-brown stripes connected to a maroon doughnut center, which look like Life Saver candies!

The annulus – the structure in the center of the flower that looks like a life saver candy – has a rubbery texture. Usually, flowers grow to about 1.5in (3.8cm) in diameter, but sometimes can reach up to nearly 3in (7.6cm)! Buds emerge intermittently, depending on the growing conditions, but usually bloom during the summer.

The 4-sided (sometimes 5-sided) stems grow to 3in to 3.5in (7.6cm to 8.9cm) in length but can grow longer in cultivation. Their spreading is normally limited to the size of the container. The Lifesaver cactus has soft spikes protruding from the edges of its stems. The only difficulty in repotting this plant arises when handling the different sections – just be delicate! Unlike some cacti, the spikes will not harm you.

Though commonly known and referred to as a cactus – and looks like one, too, because of its spiny appearance – the Lifesaver cactus is actually related to plants such as Milkweed. Like several species from the milkweed family, this plant is toxic to animals and people – keep them out of reach of your pets and small children. When a part of a live stem breaks apart, the plant excretes a milky white latex “sap”, which is poisonous. This sap is part of the plant’s evolutionary defense mechanism!

The Lifesaver cactus is great for propagating. During the growing season (spring and summer), these cacti will grow, grow, grow! It’s a great plant to cultivate for plant swaps or gifts for your friends.

Though Lifesaver cacti can be grown just about anywhere with proper plant care, they originate from eastern and southern Africa.

Plant Care

1. Light
  • Prefers full or partial sun
    • In full sun, the stems develop a reddish or purple pigmentation, which is okay to a certain extent
  • However:
    • Too much sun = stem burn
      • The reddish or purple coloration is actually a defense mechanism for the plant to protect itself from harsh sun; move away from direct sunlight
      • Lix’s Pro Tip: Make sure you protect this cactus from the midday sun in summer!
    • Too little sun = weak, thin growth and decreased flower production
2. Water
  • Water like any succulent or cactus
    • Prone to root rot, especially during winter
    •  Lix’s Pro Tip: I water mine every 1½ to 2 weeks during the growing season (spring through summer) and about once per month during the winter
3. Temperature & Humidity
  • Lifesaver cacti are not frost hardy – they should not be exposed to temperatures below 50°F (10°C)
  • Humidity is not an issue
4. Potting & Repotting
  • Use a cactus potting mix with excellent drainage
    • Lix’s Pro Tip: I mixed 1-part potting soil and 1-part perlite
    • You can also make your own mix: for example, mix 1-part perlite and 0.5-parts peat moss or coconut coir
  • Rarely needs to be repotted, as this plant prefers a slightly crowded environment
    • Lix’s Pro Tip: you don’t always have to size up your pot, but you should replace the soil at least every 2 years!
5. Pruning & Propagation
  • Needs very little pruning, if any at all
  • To propagate: break off stems that you want to remove (they should fall off quite easily)
    • Place cutting in a container filled with water near a windowsill
    • Once the cutting has roots about 1in (2.5cm) in length, plant it in soil!
6. Fertilizer
  • Use a balanced fertilizer – only during growing season (spring through fall) – no higher than 15-15-15 once per month
    • Lix’s Pro Tip: Make sure you dilute your fertilizer to prevent stem burn!
7. Pests & Diseases
  • Extremely prone to root rot – watch out for yellowing stems and soft brown spots, as those are the most common signs in this species
  • Prone to mealybugs

Images of my Lifesaver Cactus

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