Perhaps one of the rarest and most intriguing plants of the succulent world is the Cotyledon Orbiculata cv Variegata. They cost a small fortune and they are very tough to import.
They take a long time to root, which is why you predominantly see cuttings offered, and small ones at that.
Right now we're growing three types of this special plant in-house in an attempt to learn more about them. We feel that is imperative when selling these little unicorns to know as much as we can -- we want to learn growth rates, temperatures that suit them best, watering schedule and dormancy patterns. It will take a long time to compile this info, but we want to be able to help our customers should they choose to purchase such a tricky plant.
I wanted to share my personal limited experience with these plants for anyone considering them. We get at least 15 requests per day through our site and obviously there is never enough supply to meet that demand.
My first import was before I even started the business. It was a cutting, about an inch across and I gave $300 for it. She froze on the trip over. Absolute heartbreak. She came from a reputable farm and from a seller that I completely trusted, but things happen. Not his fault, not mine.
(My first 'successful' import of Cotyledon Orbiculata)
I immediately ordered a replacement. Success. She came in healthy, and looked like a tiny collection of canary yellow bubbles. Sigh of relief. Then the waiting game began. I waited, and I waited and I waited some more for roots. She became the plant in my collection that would not root and would not die. She just sat there in a semi-preserved state of beauty until she finally gave up the ghost a full year later -- yes, a full year later.
I have learned a lot about these plants since then, but it took me thinning out my wallet considerably to prompt additional research and a lot of what I have learned has been through trial and error through personal experience. I don't want you to have to go through the same lessons I have learned the hard way.
The trick to this guy is having a full understanding of their active growth cycles. It is reverse to most succulents. We tend to hold off on water in the winter unless we see wrinkles and then pick up a more robust and regular watering schedule in the spring and summer. These plants are winter growers. Meaning what I had done was not given my first cutting enough water to root when she would have preferred to do so and then waterlogged her during her dormant period, yikes. The result? A plant that managed to survive my best intentions who promptly died when she 'came back to life' at the beginning of her growth cycle the following year.
So, if you have a cutting this winter, by all means necessary try to root it in the next month. I will be honest with you, we had three in house that were not performing, all with old root systems. I had nearly given up on them so I started to dive into the very scant literature available when I realized I had been doing it all wrong. Additionally, I have been gun-shy on trying water propagation because you never know how a species will react that that. My standard MO is to encourage roots the old fashioned way -- soft, semi-moist soil and through positive encouragement, "You've got this…' That didn't work. They like water this time of year, don't be shy.
My plump bubbles have started to look like grapes turned raisins and I said what the heck and threw all three types in our water propagation vessels. It was like a triage unit and within three days I had gloriously thick, albeit rather short ivory roots, within a week I saw firming and water reserves being refilled.
(some of our in-house growth stock after three days in water propagation)
My plan from here is to let them plump back up and transition them back to an organic medium that I like and then in the summer they will be moved to our inorganic medium for the duration of their sleep.
Sourcing… so after sharing my experience with these beauties if you are still in the market for one here is what I suggest in terms of sourcing your Cotyledon Orbiculata cv Variegata, and believe me this was learned through trial and error with real orders.
Cuttings or rooted plants?
I would always err on the side of mature plants, if you can afford them. But cuttings come in exceedingly beautiful and with the right mindset you'll get more bang for your buck with cuttings.
Cuttings are less expensive than fully formed plants, but you are in a riskier position in terms of health. With a fully formed plant she has nutrients stored from her stem, has not been recently stressed by a beheading and she's more likely to put out fresh roots in a timely fashion.
You have to weigh the pros and cons of what best suits you and your budget and as with all living things know that there is a certain amount of risk, even when conditions are perfect.
I can tell you the warmer months are not a good time to buy a cutting of Orbiculata, no matter how gorgeous she is. She is semi-dormant and by cutting her you're putting additional stress on a diva. She is not going to root until she wakes up. Don't do it. Cuttings should be out of the question until mid-October.
(some cuttings we have shipped in the past)
Don't get me wrong most succulents import beautifully during their dormant period. The plant is already in a state of minimal effort and isn't using a lot of energy, but with most succulents that dormancy period is flip-flopped and you're not fighting heat. My suggestion when looking at Cotyledon Orbiculata variegates is to purchase them at the beginning of their dormant period or at the tail end (think March and April and mid-October through early November). The temps will be favorable and she'll import a lot better.
There are benefits to weigh with both periods, if you purchase in the early spring she'll be conditioned by the farm with enough nutrients to get her through her dormancy and if you purchase in autumn she'll be entering into her growth period which gives you more room for trial and error when establishing a watering schedule that suits her.
The risk of importing cuttings is also reduced during their active growth cycle, the main concern here is rot, and importing is still somewhat risky for the seller in this regard. This species is prone to rot and any plant that is actively growing can succumb to rot during the stress of being shipped over, this is a calculated risk the seller of the plant takes.
We tried last September and had to refund a lot of the plants we sold. They shipped beautifully, looked amazing and three-fourths of what we imported developed rot and died shortly thereafter. We lost thousands due to our inexperience. It was a tough lesson to learn, but I think ultimately the experience we gained from it was invaluable and now we have a deeper understanding about when to import and when not to import.
(a summer import attempt, yes, this picture is heartbreaking and, no, none of the leaves rooted)
A reputable seller should hold the plant for about a week and look for signs of rot developing before shipping the plant out to you. She may arrive slightly dehydrated, it is not always the best move to introduce water therapy before getting the plant to its final destination (this is especially true if your plant is in an active growth cycle). Rot is triggered by excess moisture and if the plant isn't sleeping she isn't utilizing her natural protectant of a chemical she produces to protect her in times of stress, think temperature swings and changing conditions (i.e. being boxed and sent across open seas). This chemical is called' anthocyanin' in most plants, but we'll get more into that during our next blog post.
I don't worry nearly as much about Cotyledons with roots, obviously I would say don't purchase these when temps are hot. She'll be sleeping and hotter temps will place undue stress on her as she slumbers, not something you want to do before throwing her in a dark box for a week.
We will be giving these another go and offering more in March, after which you will not see them again on our site until October. But we will be watching weather conditions in both South Korea, New York (our port) and local conditions here in Atlanta, if you are a a buyer you need to make sure temps in your area do not exceed about 85 degrees for the week of expected shipping.
And as always we're learning with you. We try to share what we've learned in a way that makes sense to us, but botany is complicated and we're still learning the ins and outs.
General care tips
If you have purchased during the months of late November through February your plant is active and it's perfectly fine to start her off with a bit of water therapy, and based of my experience it is something that I would encourage. I highly suggest using vessels like the ones we sell (doesn't have to be ours), you just want to make sure that only the bottom part of the stem is submerged to encourage root growth and you want a way to prevent too much of the stem from being submerged in the water. You only want to submerge the tip.
You should see new roots forming rather quickly, we did on all three types we experimented with. Allow her to plump back up and when she is looking her best move her back to an organic medium you trust for the remainder of her growth cycle. Water her deeply and frequently once a week, or if you're crazy like us with a fine tipped syringe every three days directly over where the roots should be resting under the surface of the soil. A little water goes a long way when it's targeted like that and prevents the soil from becoming too moist all over, which is obviously a recipe for rot.
They prefer temps of around 65-75 degrees when they are actively growing. We have not been brave enough to experiment with fertilizers yet, but we will next winter.
In the summer you should protect her roots from becoming water-logged by utilizing a good inorganic medium, protect her from full sun (no one likes to wake up with a sunburn), and remember to treat her the way you would treat your echeverias in the winter, just with a little extra love and care when the temperatures are extreme.
If the temps are fair and mild in your climate give her full morning and late afternoon sun and she'll throw magical colors.
The key here is good common sense and a understanding the growth cycles. From my experience this plant went from a diva level 10, with huge wallet implications if things went awry, to something that is easy to care for if you understand what she is doing and when.
The only other tip I can offer is patience, these are slow growers and will absolutely test your patience in terms of growth in the years ahead.
Additional in-depth reading, if you just can't get enough of Variegated Cotyledon Orbiculata -
Our stock is kept indoors so we can control temperature, lighting and keep a close eye on soil conditions. But, please keep in mind this is a plant that should be kept out of reach from your children and pets, as the leaves can be toxic. You know the old saying, if looks could kill and unfortunately this beauty can.
The leaves contain a bufanolide called cotyledontoxin, and when ingested it causes a condition known as cotyledonosis -- yes, the condition is so well-known in the regions where this plant grows wild that it was given its own name.
The only thing more expensive than a variegated Orbiculata is a vet bill or a trip to the ER. So, if she is to be an outdoor plant please make sure it is in a garden protected from your pets.... and as someone who loves nature, also from wild bunnies, chipmunks and any other furry creature that may encounter it otherwise... who wouldn't want to eat a plant that looks like a cluster of Jordan almonds?
These are native to the southern tip of Africa, and specifically to a semi-arid region known as Karoo. Rainfall in this grassland region ranges from 2-10" per year, so take notes. The temperature in this region averages 45F-75F on average, however there are wide swings between the low plains and plateau. In the plains the temperature can rise to 104F in summer, and can reach as low as -27F on the plateau in winter. The actual range of native Cotyledon Orbiculata is not the entirety of the region, I suspect that these naturally occur in the eastern and northeaster grasslands, but I do not have verification of that.
The general structure of the Cotyledon Orbiculata has alternating rows of leaves, two each that face each other (180 degrees offset), these grow in rows that are offset by 90 degrees. So two leaves directly apart from each other, and they alternate at each row.
(Picture above sourced from Pinterest)
Leaves can be short fat and stubby (almost Pachyphytum-like) to very oblong, to large and flat depending on the sub-species. All show the same offset geometry in their perfect form. Perfection of form has to do with compactness of leaf clusters, and stress conditions (of various types) that impact elongation along different axes.
Examples of leaf types:
(Pictures above sourced from Pinterest)
Some Sub-types of Variegated Orbiculata:
Cotyledon Orbiculata cv Variegata
These are fairly well-known pictures, but isn’t really indicative of what you’re likely to purchase for the cultivar. The specimens below would cost about as much as a fancy Hermès bag on the open market. That would be if you could persuade a collector to part with something like this. So unless you’re willing to take out a second mortgage, this is not what you’re likely to purchase. These are, however, magnificent examples of the species. The plants shown in these examples are so dense you cannot see much of the core geometry -- each of the plants below have been allowed to pup, mature and cluster time and again. And yes, they do look like a particular version of mint candies.
(Pictures above sourced from Pinterest)
The below examples are more indicative of what you're likely to see on the open market. These are three examples of the variegated plant, generally referred to as Cotyledon Orbiculata cv Variegata (no specialized hybrid name). I have seen these with some hybrid subspecies names attached, but I haven’t seen any that are used widespread enough to be helpful. The variegation will be different depending on the plant, proclivity to anthocyanin production and stability (the reds/pinks) and degree of hard striation in the carotenoid versus soft transitional blurs between colorations.
(Pictures above sourced from Pinterest)
Cotelydon Orbiculata var Dactylopsis Variegata
Variegated Lady Fingers are dainty and elegant, featuring oblong-shaped leaves. These are not as highly prized as their stubby-leaved cousins, but are striking nonetheless.
(Pictures above sourced from Pinterest)
And of course you have your mutants and hybrids
This particular cultivar is not as fancy as her colorful siblings -- can I say siblings? You know what I mean. I always think of the Hemsworth brothers, one is super-hot and one is still something you don't mind showing off. In Korea this particular type of mutation is commonly referred to as 'Cotton Seed,' and still commands a very high price tag in the world of succulents.
(a grower pic of a 'Cotton Seed' we sold)
It's pretty rare. This plant doesn't sell well for us and is hard to get, but it is still something I am fascinated by and we do keep some in house that we're growing and learning from. The farina on the leaves have a very distinct pattern to them, which is about the only difference I have seen from the regularly traded Cotyledon Orbiculata. But, I have a sinking suspicion these stress too under the right conditions. So, we're playing with them.
(one of our in-house 'Cotton Seeds')
And there are others, but that covers the basics of what most of you guys would be interested in. We'll continue to keep you updated as we learn more about this extremely beautiful and exceedingly rare plant. And hopefully one day we'll have stock that has been grown in-house to offer you.
And of course we're still learning and forgive us if we got something wrong. We're in the early stages of our research of this plant. As always if you have found this reading helpful please drop us a comment, or if you have tips of your own to share please enlighten us. The comments do require approval, we were getting some crazy ads popping up for little blue pills (lol!) when the comments weren't protected, so if your comment doesn't show up instantly that's why. But, all comments are welcome and we love hearing from you. And if you would like to subscribe to blog updates send a text to 555-888 with the keyword CCFBLOG
And if you are the original owner of the photos we used in these examples we would love to give you credit, just drop us a line.