Frithia pulchra

The specific name means ‘beautiful’ and I think this is very apt. It is one of my very favourite Mesembs, (Lithops excluded), and I will confess to having at least six plants of the genus in my collection.

It is one of the windowed succulents of South Africa and comes from what I used to know as the Orange Free State area (now known as Free State). It consists of an underground caudex from which the cylindrical-section, 25mm long leaves arise. The ends of these have a very apparent reticulate window and, like Fenestraria, are the only visible part of the plant in habitat. The flowers, when they appear, also arise from the caudex.

Some people get confused between this plant and Fenestraria rhopaphylla (see Plant of the Month October 2013) which occurs on either side of the Orange River far to the west, but this misconception is soon dispelled when one grows both. Fenestrarias have a fibrous root system, unlike the caudex found in Frithia, and the former will eventually grow to fill a 30cm pan whereas the latter will rarely outgrow a 10cm pot. This apart, the flower and its colour are different, Fenestrarias having a white or yellow flower on a 7cm stalk, whereas Frithia flowers are varying shades of magenta and only some 25cm long.

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Fig. 1 Frithia pulchra

Up until some 10 years ago it was a monotypic species, but another form was found which had a paler white centred flower and quite often was smaller in size. This became variously known as Frithia pulchra v. albiflora or v. minor but, after further exploration and investigation, it was agreed that this plant deserved species status and was officially described as Frithia humilis. Hence Frithia ceased to be monotypic.

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Fig. 2 Frithia humilis

I treat them all as summer growers, potting them up in my usual soil mix which is a 50/50 mix of John Innes No 3 and small, sharp granite grit. Unlike in habitat, I only bury the caudex in the soil, with the leaves above the soil level, to ensure that these do not rot off in the British weather. Watering starts in late March, initially as a light spray to wake them up, then giving them a good soaking and allowing the plants to dry out before repeating the process. I grow them on the main bench in a good sunny position and with plenty of air movement through the greenhouse to avoid scorch (there is always a wind in South Africa). Flowering usually occurs around mid to late September.

Eddy Harris

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