Huernia zebrina (Lifesaver Plant) Profile

A Small Succulent House Plant With a Spectacular Flower

Huernia zebrina in bloom

iam555man / Getty Images

The flowers of Huernia zebrina look like they come right out of a fantasy movie: a corolla consisting of zebra-striped red and cream-colored petals with a raised, glossy, rubber-like burgundy ring in the center called annulus. This gave the houseplant its common name, lifesaver plant or lifebuoy plant.

Huernia zebrina is a small perennial succulent that grows in a creeping pattern. You might think that a plant that stunning is difficult to grow but it’s not, it is actually low maintenance, as long as it’s in a pot with the right potting soil and excellent drainage, and watered correctly.

One warning though: The flowers, which Huernia zebrina produces generously from late spring through summer, may emit a strong odor, unpleasant to the human nose but designed by nature to attract pollinators. The odor is often compared to carrion, the decaying flesh of dead animals, hence the other common name, carrion flower.

Botanical Name Huernia zebrina
Common Name Life saver plant, lifebuoy huernia, little owl eyes, owl eyes, zebra-striped huernia, carrion flower
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size Six inches spread, six to eight inches height
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Cactus potting mix
Soil pH 6
Bloom Time Spring and summer
Flower Color Cream-colored and red
Hardiness Zones 9b-11
Native Area Southern Africa

How to Grow Huernia zebrina

Huernia zebrina is a good houseplant even for small spaces, as its spread can be limited by the size of the pot. It can even be grown in a dish garden.

Light

The proper amount of light is very important for Huernia zebrina. In its native range in southern Africa, it’s an understory plant.

An eastern- or western-facing window that provides partial shade is best. Southern exposure with midday sun and extreme heat will stress the plant and make it susceptible to disease.

Depending on the amount of light, the thick, angular stems with soft spikes are deep green in low light, and turn red in strong sunlight.

Soil

The right soil is crucial to successfully grow Huernia zebrina. Both the soil and the pot need excellent drainage.

Unglazed pots are best because they allow excess moisture to evaporate.

For the soil, use a special cactus or succulent potting mix, which contains both inorganic elements such as sand and perlite, and organic matter, and is fast-draining.

The stems of Huernia zebrina change to red under stronger light exposure
The stems of Huernia zebrina change to red under stronger light exposure. MelodyanneM / Getty Images

Water

Like all succulents, Huernia zebrina does not like it wet so watering the right amount at the right time is crucial.

During the growing season, starting in April or May and throughout the summer, it needs watering when the soil feels dry when you put your finger into the top inch. Water slowly until water runs out of the drainage hole, and empty the saucer so no water remains. Only water again when the soil has dried out again. On hot summer days, this can happen fast so check the soil regularly.

During the winter, the plant goes dormant and needs almost no water, about once a month.

Temperature and Humidity

Huernia zebrina is sensitive to frost but you can move it to your patio or porch during the summer months, provided you can provide a spot where it is protected from the hot midday sun. Be aware that outdoors, the soil will dry out more quickly so adjust the watering accordingly.

Once the temperature drops to 50 degrees F—which might happen at nighttime even when the days are still warm—it’s time to bring the plant back indoors.

Fertilizer

As you start watering the plant more regularly in the spring when the growing season starts, fertilize once a month, either with a special liquid succulent plant food, or a complete granular fertilizer, using half the amount specified on the product label.

Do not add any more fertilizer starting in late August as the plant approaches dormancy.

Repotting

Huernia zebrina generally does not outgrow its container. It’s fine if it tightly fills the pot, because that limits its growth and keeps the plant nicely compact.

It will benefit from fresh potting soil about every two years but won’t necessarily need a larger pot.

Propagation

You can easily propagate the plant during the growing season. Cut a piece of stem with a sharp knife and let it dry out on paper towel for a few days. It will callous over, at which point you can plant it in a pot filled with fresh potting soil. Dusting the lower third or half with rooting hormone will help it get established.

Keep the soil slightly damp by spraying it lightly with water when it feels dry. Once you see new growth, it’s a sign that it has rooted, and you can follow the regular watering schedule above.

Varieties

Huernia zebrina variegata is a rare variety with variegated leaves.

Common Pests/Diseases

Huernia zebrina can attract mealybugs.

Root rot and stem rot can become an issue when the plant is stressed, such as from overwatering. Stem rot manifests itself by soft dark spots. Use a sharp blade to promptly cut off any affected tissue, and make sure to clean the blade with a 10% bleach solution, one part bleach to nine parts water, between each cut, to prevent spreading the disease.