The Stunning, but Smelly, Lifesaver Cactus

The Lifesaver cactus, Huernia zebrina, is native to southern Africa. Also known as the Lifesaver plant, it gets its name from the plant’s flowers that resemble the popular Lifesaver candies. Unfortunately, while the blooms look delicious, their fragrance is not as sweet.

Huernia zebrina

Lifesaver Plant Appearance

The Lifesaver Cactus is a small indoor cactus with a creeping growth pattern. A Lifesaver plant grows 6 to 8 inches ( 15 to 20 cm) tall and 6 inches ( 15 cm) wide. The blooms are raised, shiny circles that appear in the spring and summer.  Each flower is surrounded by a corolla with red and cream-colored stripes. The tube-shaped stems of the Huernia zebrina feature distinct ridges, edged with soft spikes. The eye-catching blooms may look like candy but their aroma is far from appetizing. The scent is compared to rotting meat, which attracts pollinators in its native habitat.

Lifesaver Plant Light Requirements

Provide your Lifesaver plant with partial sun from an east or west-facing window. Avoid south-facing windows in climates with extreme heat. Too much sun exposure causes stress in the plant, resulting in the stems turning red and making it susceptible to disease.

Water Needs

In the spring and summer, water your Lifesaver plant when the top 1 inch of soil feels dry when a finger is inserted. Water slowly until the moisture runs through the drainage holes of the pot. Empty the drip tray of excess water to avoid root rot. Taper off watering in the fall, when the weather cools. Water no more than once per month in the winter.

Temperature and Humidity

Temperature and Humidity Huernia Zebrina
Grand Rapids Succulents

Average household temperatures and humidity are ideal for your Lifesaver cactus. Always keep temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit ( 10 degrees Celsius) for optimal growth. Avoid rooms with excess humidity, such as bathrooms and the kitchen. 

Soil and Fertilizer

Provide a well-draining cactus or succulent soil mix that includes both organic and inorganic matter. Feed your Lifesaver cactus once per month in the spring and summer. Use a liquid succulent plant food or a complete, granular fertilizer diluted to half strength. Stop feedings in late summer to allow the plant to go dormant for the winter months.

Lifesaver Plant Propagation

Cut a stem from your plant with a sharp and sterile knife. Allow the cutting to dry and callus for a few days before planting. Dust the lower third of the callused end with a rooting hormone for quicker establishment. Plant the cutting in a cactus or succulent soil mix and keep the soil moist. Once new growth begins, water the plant as normal. 

Lifesaver Cactus Pests and Diseases

Mealybug infestations are the most common pests associated with Huernia zebrina. These pests appear as soft, cottony masses on the leaves and stems of your plant. Spray your plant with neem oil or an insecticidal soap to rid the plant of these pests.

Root and stem rot are common diseases affecting the Lifesaver cactus. The cause is typically overwatering or high humidity. Treat root rot by removing the plant from its pot and trimming away any dark or mushy roots. For advanced root rot, the plant might be saved by pouring a solution of one part 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and two parts water into the plant’s dry soil.

Lifesaver Cactus FAQ
Mountain Crest Gardens

Lifesaver Cactus FAQ

Does a Lifesaver Cactus Need Repotting?

In most cases, your Lifesaver plant won’t need repotting. Instead replenish the plant’s soil, in the same pot, every two years to provide new nutrients.

Will a Lifesaver Cactus Grow Outdoors?

Yes, you can grow this cactus outside in USDA zones 9b to 11.

Is the Lifesaver Cactus Considered Rare?

While not the rarest form of cacti, the Lifesaver plant is considered less common than most cactus plants.

Is the Lifesaver Plant Toxic?

Yes, the Lifesaver plant is part of the milkweed family and is considered very poisonous to both humans and animals. 

How Strong is the Smell from the Lifesaver Cactus?

Since it’s the blooms that produce the unpleasant smell, the plant will emit the odor only when flowering from late spring through the summer. If the aroma becomes unpleasant, move the plant outside during this period. 

Cindy McKie
About Cindy McKie
Cindy McKie provides helpful, easy-to-follow care guides for plant lovers of all experience levels. She has written for several online gardening publications and has self-published her own guide to growing herbs under the pen name Sophia Darby. When not writing about plants, she can be found in her gardens or reading a good book.

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