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Exotic Succulents | Tylecodon

Published on June 18th 2020
A close up of a plant
The genus Tylecodon comprises 49 species native to Southern Africa and Namibia. These slow-growing caudiciform, so-called for their swollen stems, have attracted the attention of both hobbyists and farmers alike.
In this instalment of 'Exotic Succulents' we will take a look at some interesting facts regarding the genus and why some have made it into nurseries.
A close up of a rock
Several species call the Nama Karoo and Richterveld home.

Did you know?

Tylecodon are extreme specialists and have adapted to the low rainfall and high temperatures of the Richtersveld. The low nutrient and water requirements translate into extremely slow growth. To stay alive in an area with very little vegetation some have developed a defence mechanism.
Fact | Tylecodon manufacture a neurotoxic compound that causes 'Krimpsiekte' (Cardiac Glycoside poisoning) in sheep and other livestock.
Fact | A butter tree seedling takes roughly 2 years to reach a height of 3 cm.


A baby Botterboom (Tylecodon paniculatus). #succulents #LocalSucculents

Starting with a seedling will allow you time to come to grips with all the aspects of its growth, dormancy and care.
A close up of a Tylecodon paniculata (Botterboom or butter tree)
A butter tree or Tylecodon paniculatus occurs throughout the Western Cape.

Interesting species

The genus has a few breathtaking species that present their tiny tubular flowers on cloud-like pendicles. When deciding on a particular purchase one should start with flexible species, in terms of growth.
Here is a list of possibilities:
Tylecodon paniculatus (Butter tree) is the largest (2 m) and the easiest to come by. It naturally occurs in the Western Cape and can tolerate higher rainfall than some of the other species.
Tylecodon reticulatus (Barbed-wire plant) has a similar swollen stem, but far more delicate flowers.
Tylecodon ellaphieae (Rosyntjieberg-nenta) forms a bonsai-like tree, similar to other Tylecodon with leaves similar to a butter tree and flowers resembling a barbed-wire plant.
Tylecodon wallichii (Wallich cotyledon) with its strange protrusions and needle-like leaves tends to attract most succulent gardeners.
They are available (international shipping) from:

Care instructions

Tylecodon requires great care, therefore it is best to familiarise yourself with all the information before acquiring one. Caudiciform plants are easily over-watered, especially during dormancy.
To minimize mistakes one can follow these guidelines:
  • Soil: Tylecodon naturally occur in granite covered by lime-rich, nutrient-poor sandy soil. The best mix would be aerated sandy-loam with minimal nutrients. Consider adding sandstone or granite fragments to help drainage.
  • Water: Requires watering during winter months, with little to no water during dormancy.
  • Dormancy: During summer months
  • Temperature: Frost tolerance may differ, but it is best to er on the side of caution to prevent freezing.
A close up of a Tylecodon reticulata in flower
Tylecodon reticulatus pollinated flowers will take several months to form seed.

Exhibits and habitats

If you find the plants fascinating, but would rather admire their beauty from afar then you can always visit Kirstenbosch or Karoo Desert Botanical Garden. The latter offers guided succulent tours for groups of more than 7 (booking essential).
Those at home can have a look at this beautiful short film of the Richtersveld that features Tylecodon in habitat:

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Glavich, T. (2017). Beginner's Guide to the Smaller Tylecodon, Cactus and Succulent Journal, 89(1), 34-37.

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