How to Grow and Care for Pig’s Ear Succulent (Cotyledon orbiculata)

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If your succulent collection is in need of some height and complexity from larger-leaved species, the pig’s ear cactus would be a charming addition. Low-maintenance, robust, and evergreen, this lovely plant grows large enough to be a shrublet. It can be cultivated either outdoors or indoors, but its best features are brought out by full sun exposure.

The pig’s ear succulent is formally referred to as Cotyledon orbiculata. When grown in optimal conditions, its shoots are able to reach a height of about 120 cm tall.

They have the tendency to become branched and their foliage may differ depending on their environment. As a result, this species comes in many varieties and is thus quite complex to accurately classify. 

C. orbiculata is best known for its large leaves, which, as its common name suggests, may resemble the rounded shape of a pig’s ear. The leaves are usually bright to muted green in color, and they may have pink to reddish margins when exposed to cool conditions and bright light. Each leaf is covered in a waxy coating for water retention and protection.

In winter or midsummer, mature pig’s ear succulents may produce inflorescences on stalks that may be much taller than the leafy shoots. The bell-shaped to tubular blooms are oriented downward, making them appear as though they are nodding in the wind. Their petals range in color from pink to orange to deep red. Honey bees are some of their major pollinators. 

History

C. orbiculata has been cultivated for centuries. As early as the 1600s, horticulturists included this species in their succulent collections. This makes it one of the oldest succulents in cultivation. Its popularity was brought about by its long-lived inflorescences, the magnificent colors of its leaves, and the sheer variability of the plant.

Native to the Karoo region of South Africa, the pig’s ear succulent favors rough landscapes and grassy outcrops. It can thrive in treeless zones and in areas with low-growing vegetation. Due to its popularity as an ornamental plant, it has now become naturalized in many countries outside of Africa. In New Zealand and Australia, its wild stands may become invasive. 

Another common name for this species is round-leafed navel-wort. Hardy to USDA zones 9b – 12, it is able to thrive in a variety of arrangements as long as its leaves are provided with ample ventilation. It’s also best for the plant to be placed in an aerated space as its flowers may unfortunately mimic the smell of decaying plants or fungi. 

A moderately fast grower, C. orbiculata is a mildly toxic species. Chronic poisoning may result due to the repeated ingestion of a considerable amount of plant material. If you intend to grow this species, make sure your pets or young children cannot easily access its foliage.

Plant Facts

Scientific NameCotyledon orbiculata
Common NamesPig’s ear, rounded-leafed navel-wort, plakkie
GenusCotyledon
FamilyCrassulaceae
Height120 cm
Width150 cm
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone9b-12
OriginSouth Africa
Flower ColorsPink, orange, red
Blooming SeasonWinter or midsummer
Plant/Flower Special FeaturesRounded and large leaves, brittle stems, lengthy flower stalks with nodding blooms

How to Plant Pig’s Ear Succulent

Pig’s ear succulent is ideal for several areas of the garden, where it can be planted directly into the ground or in dedicated pots and containers. When selecting an area of growth for your plant, keep in mind that it requires proper drainage and is best matched with a gritty substrate. To start growing this species, you may obtain its seeds, intact leaves, or cuttings. 

C. orbiculata seeds should be sown on a pre-moistened and well-draining substrate mix. To encourage them to germinate, they should be placed in a dim area or in a room with indirect sunlight. A thin layer of sand should help keep them in shade until they sprout. Propagation via seed is not typically recommended as it can take an excessive amount of time. 

If the seeds do manage to sprout into seedlings, aim to keep the substrate slightly moist. Once the pig’s ear seedlings are large enough to handle, you may transplant them into a larger setup, taking care to provide each with a few inches of space. They can also be planted into their individual small pots. Once they are well-established, they should be gradually moved into spots with brighter light. 

How to Propagate Pig’s Ear Succulent

Propagation via leaves or stem cuttings is much more straightforward than growing this plant using its seeds. Leaves can be removed from a mature main stem by gently moving them back and forth across a horizontal plane. They should cleanly snap off, with their base fully intact. If there are any exposed tissues, make sure they callous over completely before exposing them to soil. 

Cuttings should be obtained with a sterilized pair of sharp gardening shears. For rapid root production, each cutting should ideally have at least one pair of attached leaves. Place the cutting in a clean, dry, and shaded area and allow any exposed parts to dry up over the course of a few days. Once either the leaves or cuttings are healed, they can be planted.

The base of each cutting should be buried in enough substrate to keep it upright. You may place rocks around the base to secure its position. Leaves can be planted by sticking their base into the same substrate. Over time, cuttings should begin to produce new roots and should have new growths emerging from the nodes of the plant. Leaves should eventually produce new root and shoot tissues too. 

Care and Maintenance

Here are important succulent care tips you must know:

Soil

For your pig’s ear succulent to thrive, it needs to be planted in a well-draining substrate with a predominantly gritty composition. A store-bought substrate mix that is specifically formulated for cacti and succulents should work well, though you may opt to amend the soil further to increase drainage rates. 

If you intend to use garden soil or a standard houseplant mix as a base, add generous amounts of sand, pumice, perlite, stones, and gravel. To reduce chances of pathogenic contamination, all components should ideally be sterilized before they are added to the mixture. The substrate should be placed in a porous pot with drainage holes. 

If you intend to plant your pig’s ear succulent directly into the ground, make sure the soil is thoroughly gritty. The roots should not come in contact with large clumps of clay. The plant should be situated in an area that does not collect water. Also, avoid decorating the substrate with heavy toppings. 

Water

Both young and mature specimens of this species should only be watered when the soil has dried out completely. Those planted directly into the ground should not be watered unless the top few inches of soil are dry. When watering your succulent, aim to moisten the substrate and not the leaves or upper portions of the plant. 

During each watering session, soak the soil completely or until the ground is evenly moistened. Make sure the plant is placed in a well-ventilated area afterward. Note that the roots of this species can easily succumb to rot due to excess moisture. 

Avoid watering this succulent during rainy or cold days. It would be best to hold off watering sessions for the full duration of winter, particularly if you are located in an area that experiences harsh temperatures. Water can be provided frequently during the growing season as long as evaporation and drainage rates are favorable. 

Sunlight 

C. orbiculata is able to thrive in full sun to partial shade. The best flowering rates, however, are observed in plants that are exposed to direct sunlight throughout the growth period. As this is a desert succulent, it requires at least 6 hours of sunlight per day to grow at an acceptable rate. If you need to locate your pig’s ear in partial shade, make sure it has ample ventilation.

When grown indoors, this species should be placed close to a window that receives direct light for a few hours each day. Leaves that receive enough light are more likely to arise around the stem in a compact manner. Moreover, their color tends to be more muted, with subtle shades of red arising along their margins. 

If your pig’s ear succulent is planted in a pot or container, make sure to rotate it regularly to prevent the shoots from bending towards a source of sunlight. If direct sun exposure becomes too intense in summer, you may need to protect the leaves with a shade cloth or re-situate your plant. 

Fertilizer

Fertilizer is not a necessity for pig’s ear succulents to grow and produce flowers. They are not known for being heavy feeders in their native environment or in cultivation. Regardless, if you do intend to fertilize your plant, aim to do so during its peak growth period. Aim to use a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer with a well-balanced ratio of nutrients. 

Temperature and Humidity

The pig’s ear succulent grows best in areas with warm daytime temperatures that don’t dip down to below 21C. At night, they are able to tolerate cooler temperatures as long as they don’t dip close to 0C. Nighttime temperatures ranging from 16-18C are best. If temperatures are much cooler in your area, you may need to consider growing this species indoors. 

Artificial lamps or indoor heating through winter periods in temperate zones can be used to encourage good growth. Note that, if temperatures do drop considerably, this plant may fail to flower and may begin to die back. 

Regular indoor humidity or outdoor humidity at the range of 40-70% is acceptable for this species. Light rainfall may be tolerated as long as the substrate is well-draining. Avoid providing water when humidity levels are particularly high. Do not mist the leaves as trapped water particles may encourage fungal growth.

Pruning

As this species can grow fairly tall for a succulent and may have a wide spread due to its branches, you may wish to prune its stems back. Pruning is not entirely necessary for the health of the plant, but it may be done for ornamental purposes. It may also promote new growth and allow basal leaves to be exposed to more sunlight. 

If you spot parts of the plant that have become damaged due to diseases or pests, you may remove these parts using a clean blade or sterilized gardening shears. Flower stalks may also be cut back as soon as their blooms are spent. 

Repotting and Transplanting

The pig’s ear succulent should be repotted as soon as it outgrows its container or pot. Those that are planted directly into the ground need not be uprooted and replanted as long as they are in good condition. Aim to repot planted specimens at least once every 2-3 years so that their substrate can be refreshed.

Once you uproot the succulent and prepare it for repotting, visually inspect the roots for damage or disease. Remove compromised parts and allow exposed tissues to heal before exposing the roots to new soil. Ideally, you should be moving the plant to a slightly larger pot to make room for root expansion. 

Pests and Diseases

In optimal conditions, the pig’s ear succulent is normally resistant to pests and diseases. When it is slightly weakened or exposed to infestations, it may unfortunately succumb to disease and may quickly become damaged. Excess moisture, for example, can compromise root tissues and allow pathogens to enter the plant. This causes irreversible root rot, which can be fatal. 

Mealybugs

Appearing as cottony masses on the leaves, shoots, and roots of infested plants, these tiny bugs are troublesome if they are present in large amounts. Over time, they can lay their eggs in the soil or on the plant itself. To prevent heavy infestations, which can attract aphids, scale, and a wealth of other pests, mealybugs need to be removed as soon as they are spotted. 

Fungal Rot

Overwatering, planting leaves or cuttings before they have calloused over, and using unsterilized tools can lead to fungal rot in pig’s ear roots and shoots. This can rapidly spread from the afflicted point to the rest of the plant. Rotten areas, which are mushy to the touch and may be malodorous, should be thoroughly removed. 

Uses of Pig’s Ear Succulent

This species is chiefly cultivated as an ornamental plant, but it does have other interesting uses in its native range. Although it contains potentially toxic phytochemicals, it can supposedly be used to make a medicinal poultice for the treatment of warts, boils, and abscesses. Don’t make this at home or without the presence of an experienced herbalist, however, as the toxins can be dangerous. 

Common Varieties and Cultivars

One of the reasons why the pig’s ear succulent has become so popular is its availability in multiple varieties. These usually differ from one another in leaf and flower color.

Some of them are known for being very similar to another succulent species with large leaves, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora. Their leaves may also vary in terms of general shape. 

Here are some common Cotyledon orbiculata varieties you can grow:

  • C. orbiculata var. oblonga
  • C. orbiculata var. oophylla
  • C. orbiculata var. oblonga f. cristata
  • C. orbiculata var. oblonga f. variegata
  • C. orbiculata f. undulata
  • C. orbiculata var. flanaganii
  • C. orbiculata var. spuria
  • C. orbiculata var. engleri

Conclusion

Any considerably-sized succulent collection is incomplete without at least one variety of this hardy species. The pig’s ear succulent is a lovely plant for adding color and complexity to gardens and homes that are situated in warm climates. Easy to propagate and fairly pest resistant, it is a great plant for beginners and experienced growers alike. 

*References

*image by soniabonetruiz/depositphotos