A Primer on the Genus Gasteria
By Breck Breckenridge – USA
Gasterias are native plants of the Cape Region of South Africa. They are related, botanically, to the aloes, the haworthias, and assorted relatives within what is currently thought to be a family common to them, i.e. the Asphodelaceae (other taxonomists place them in the Aloaceae, the “Aloe Family”). However gasterias are formally classified, the genus is characterized by succulent leaves arranged either in two-ranks (distichous) or in rosettes. The flowers are tubular in form with a portion nearest the stalk shaped like a belly (i.e. gasteriform, from the Latin gaster or belly). Within these parameters the genus has apparently evolved into 17 species, and roughly 8-10 varieties.
In recent years a book has been written on genus Gasteria by a South African botanist Ernst van Jaarsveld. It is called “Gasterias of South Africa”, is still in print, is relatively inexpensive (I think about $35-40 dollars), and is indispensable for the beginning gasteriaphile (from Latin philos=lover).
In horticulture gasterias are fairly easy to grow (in my experience far easier than the haworthias). Like any succulent plants they favor an open, easily draining soil mix which should be kept on the dry side, and they thrive in warm to hot temperatures, being more or less dormant in the cold months. Much more can be said of their culture, but for now the above is, I think, sufficient.
Beginning keepers of gasterias are naturally interested in where or from whom they might procure some of these seldom-seen plants. I can but relate to you my own experiences. Some of my first gasterias were acquired from very ordinary sources, K-Marts, general nurseries, acquaintances. These gasterias were, of course, the common species and varieties, such as Gasteria bicolor var. liliputana, the miniature variety of bicolor, and G. carinata var. verrucosa, the tuberculate form of carinata. Less commonly encountered but by no means rare is G. nitida var. armstrongii, a most unusual looking succulent with few, broad leaves, and these held horizontal and close to the ground. You will notice that these three gasterias are all varieties of their species. I always found this curious and wondered why the species themselves were not the ones most encountered. This led me onwards in my study, but of that more later.
If one wishes to acquire the less commonly offered species and varieties it will be necessary to deal with succulent specialty nurseries, or to make the acquaintance of other gasteriaphiles. Some of the well-known succulent nurseries such as Abbey Garden or Mesa Garden operate as mail order businesses. These outfits have a much more extensive array of gasterias for sale, such as the singular Gasteria batesiana, or G. brachyphylla, or some of the larger bicolors, carinatas, etc. Then as one goes farther into the collecting of the 17 species it will be necessary to do business with Burks Nursery here in the United States. Burks has a really fine offering in gasterias each year. I did much of my early collecting through these good folks. Then there is always South Africa itself. I’ve obtained some plants directly from there through mail order businesses in that country.
I believe that there is much more to enjoy and learn about gasterias than most succulentophiles suspect. I foresee that the genus will become more popular in the coming years. Regardless, I have decided on my own to establish a Gasteria Reference Collection for North America. The purpose of reference collections is to provide a living collection of plants for botanical studies. Such resources are fairly common in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. They are not, however, as common here in the United States. I am also considering, at some point in future, when the reference collection is further along in its development, the compilation of a book. This book would, hopefully, augment and enhance “Gasterias of South Africa”, especially by providing better photographs of the taxa (which I believe are lacking in the first book), and adding some “popular” information.
I am always most delighted in and desirous of receiving communications from anyone interested in gasterias. Please feel free to contact me if I can in any way be of assistance.
And of course there is also a Gasteria e-mail Round Robin.
For any and all of these interests E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gasteria carinata var. carinata
Photo: Breck Breckenridge Collection, 1998 (Photo not in Wayback)
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