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The pachypodium are succulent plants widespread in nature in southern Africa (only 5 species) and in Madagascar (about twenty species); their name derives from the Greek, pachys means big, and podos means foot, to indicate the particular conformation of all the pachypodium. In fact they give rise to shrubs of various sizes, or even small trees, characterized by a succulent stem, with a particular shape enlarged at the base, almost shaped like a bottle, not very branched. At the apex of the branches numerous large leathery leaves develop, semi-evergreen, oval-shaped, slightly matted, bright green, glossy; specimens grown in the open ground, in the areas of origin, produce large apical inflorescences in the summer, consisting of large tubular flowers, with corolla divided into five lobes, white, yellow, orange or red, depending on the species; plants grown in pots in the apartment are unlikely to bloom, unless you can grow them in a cold greenhouse or live in a very hot area in winter. THE pachypodium they belong to the same family as oleanders or plumeries, and their kinship with these plants is most noticeable by the very showy flowers.
All the pachypodium they originate from desert or semi-desert areas, and are particularly adapted to the arid and hot climate; this adaptation is well known from the fleshy and succulent stem, from the presence of sharp spines on the stem of some species, from the epidermis of the stem that can practice chlorophyll photosynthesis, since the leaves are very small compared to the size of the plant. Apart from this the foliage of the pachypodium, not being strictly necessary for the life of the plant, is present only when the climatic conditions allow it, so it is normal that in cases of excessive temperatures, which favor transpiration, or prolonged periods of drought, the pachypodium loses all or most of the leaves.
The species most commonly found among amateur growers, in pots, is generally the pachypodium lamerei, a species with large thorns on the stem, with little branching, with large leaves and white flowering.

How to grow pachypodium

These plants are perfectly adapted to life in arid and dry climates, hence from the point of view of humidity they look great in an apartment, even if those who have decided to put one in the living room tend to forget to water it, in fact these shrubs can withstand periods of even months without watering, implementing all the means they have available to survive despite the lack of water, even in the air. Indeed, it often happens that this type of plants is subject to fungal diseases, caused by excess watering, stagnant water or poorly draining soil.
In fact, they are grown in fairly small pots, since they do not produce a large or deep root system; the best soil to cultivate pachypodium simulates the one found in nature, therefore it is constituted by universal soil, mixed with a good quantity of lapillus, or pumice stone or pozzolan, and sand, in order to obtain a very porous and permeable substrate.
It is not necessary to repot this plant every year, especially when it is a specimen of many years; repotting is done at the end of winter, every 3-4 years, placing the plant in a container slightly larger than the previous one.
At home, pachypodium are held in a luminous position, even with direct sun, but far from heat sources such as radiators or fireplaces; they love a dry air like the one in the house, and they need minimum winter temperatures above 10-12 ° C.
During the summer season they can be placed outdoors, in a sunny place; remember however that if the plant has been in a very sunny position for the whole winter; it is good to shift it to light gradually, starting from a semi-shaded position.
Watering is provided only when the soil is dry, therefore sporadically or not at all in the cold months, and more regularly in the warm months, when the plant is outdoors; in the summer period it may be necessary to water the plant every 2-3 days, as long as the soil has time to dry well between two waterings.
From April to September we dissolve in the water of the waterings a fertilizer for succulent plants, every 15-20 days.


Common name

Pachypodium lamerei
Family and Latin name Apocynaceae, 20 species
Type of plant Shrubs or trees
Leaf color Medium green, glossy
Foliage frail
Adult height Even more than 10 meters; rarely more than 2 in pots

Moderately demanding
Exposure Full sun; Very bright
Ground Fresh, but draining (40% coarse river sand, 40% leaf soil and 20% clay)
pH From neutral to acid
Water needs Average
Growth slow
Resistance to cold Rustic (up to 15 ° C)
Propagation Sowing, grafting, cutting
Cultivation From apartment, veranda or outdoor potted
use utilization

Pachypodium characteristics

The genus is very polymorphic: it includes species characterized by very branched stems, but also small, lively ones and single-stem plants, up to 6 meters high.
They are part of the Apocynaceae family (like the oleander) and with this they share the ability to store a large amount of water and to close the stomata in case of drought to avoid excessive transpiration.
Pachypodium lamerei, the most widespread in cultivation, is native to southern Madagascar where it forms large purity forests or with other essences. It prefers very dry soils and climates; It is characterized by a "trunk" (actually it is a stem) green-gray, very thorny. In nature it can reach over 10 meters in height with a diameter of about 50 cm. At the top there are tufts of leaves, lanceolate and shiny, and / or wide branches. Flowering at the beginning of the season and in cultivation is very rare. The flowers are white and fragrant, similar to those of the frangipani.
The latex contained in the stems is very rich in alkaloids and should never come into contact with the skin or mucous membranes: it could cause serious dermatitis. In the market there is also the form "cristata", actually deriving from a genetic alteration called "fasciazione".

The climate of arid areas

The pachypodium comes from a part of semi-arid Madagascar, so not from a desert, as for example the Sahara may be; the climate in these places, compared to Italy, is certainly warmer, without frosts or cold temperatures.
Precipitation is scarce, and generally more likely at particular times of the year; we could compare the amount of rainfall to that found in some areas of Sardinia. This does not mean that pachypodium in nature never receives waterin fact, in rainy periods they can be affected by showers or in any case by rainfall that wets the soil well, while in other seasons of the year they receive very little water.
The thorns present on the pachypodium lamerei they are specially developed to allow the greatest amount of dew to condense on them, to fall at the foot of the stem, watering the plant.
In semi-desert areas, characterized by strong temperature changes, the water obtained in this way can be a good quantity every day.
Therefore, the fact that succulent plants store the water they receive does not mean that we can leave them dry for several months; they are simply plants that are well adapted to drought, needing watering only when the soil is very dry, and that fear excessively compact soils that are saturated with water.


Vegetative rest (light irrigation)

October to March
Vegetative growth (frequent irrigations) March to October
Sowing July August
Leaves loss October
Flowering March (rare)
repotting November-January (every two years)

Pachypodium exposure

To keep our pachypodium healthy It is extremely important to respect its climatic and exposure needs. In the countries of origin it always grows in open and very bright environments: this is what we will have to try to reproduce as faithfully as possible. During the winter months the ideal is place the vase near a window facing south or in a very bright environment (the verandas are perfect). The lack of light does not cause lasting damage, but it slows down the metabolism a lot and the plant will need more time, in spring, to grow again.
When the warm weather arrives, moving outside is advised, even in full sun. If we do not have a garden, a well-exposed balcony or terrace will also work.

Temperatures for Pachypodium

Pachypodium is a plant of tropical origin and absolutely does not tolerate low temperatures. It is not recommended to keep it in environments where the thermometer never drops below 15 ° C: the first signs of suffering will be the rapid deterioration of the leaves and their fall. Cold damage is not always remediable.
It is clear therefore that in our peninsula it is very difficult to cultivate in the open ground: it can be tried in extremely southern locations or if you have large heated greenhouses (as in botanical gardens). Alternatively we can opt for container growth, which is welcome.
The heat is rarely a problem: it easily withstands even 40 ° C, provided that the area is always open and very well ventilated, without excessive stagnation of humidity.

Pachypodium soil and potting soil

The change of soil and repotting must be done during the dormancy period, ie generally from November to the end of January. We always work gently so as not to damage the thin roots.
Usually they grow discreetly in special substrates for cacti, but to obtain optimal results it is good to obtain a mixture ourselves: we combine 40% coarse river sand, 40% leaf soil and 20% clay. If we want to improve the drainage even further we add a little perlite.
It is very important to create a thick layer with expanded clay on the bottom of the container and make sure that the water comes out easily. The brevicaule species (fairly widespread in cultivation) requires a specific substrate composed of sand, perlite, pieces of quartz and blonde peat.

Pachypodium irrigation

Irrigation must follow the natural development cycle of the plant. In our hemisphere the vegetative awakening begins in March; in this period in theory the flowering should take place, it is very rare but in cultivation, especially if the plants are grown in pots. As soon as the days begin to lengthen we will have to expose the specimen as much as possible to the light and begin to irrigate more abundantly: the substrate will never have to dry completely.
At the same time it is extremely important avoid water stagnation (due to the emergence of root rot): the use of the saucers is therefore absolutely not recommended.
Ideal hydration is achieved by light but frequent and regular irrigations.
The arrival of the bad season will cause the fall of the leaves and the entry into vegetative rest: we drastically reduce the water supply, making sure only from time to time that the soil does not dry completely. In general it is sufficient to intervene lightly every 15 days.

Pests and diseases

These plants are quite resistant from this point of view: the most frequent problems derive from an incorrect cultivation, in particular from the excesses in irrigation.
If we notice a darker color on the trunk, spots on the leaves and a widespread decay it is good to immediately extract the root system and control it. We eliminate the parts that are rotten or damaged, we spread a rooting hormone and we insert in a new substrate. It is a good rule for both prevention and treatment to distribute a fungicide by root at least once a week.
Other frequent enemies are scale insects, to be fought with systemic insecticides and mineral oil.

Propagation of Pachypodium

The most common methods of propagation are sowing and grafting (on P. lamerei); the cutting is rarely successful, especially if constant temperature and humidity cannot be guaranteed.
Seeds can be found at specialized internet retailers. Let's buy them in the summer so that they are freshly picked and the germination is kept high.
The ideal substrate is composed of 35% of fine sand, 35% of coarse sand, 10% of compost, 10% of vermiculite and 10% of perlite. Spread the seeds and cover them with half a centimeter of compost: we vaporize and maintain temperatures close to 30 ° C. Germination takes place in about 1 month and we can put them in individual jars one or two months later.

Species and varieties

The most widespread species in cultivation are the lamerei and the brevicaule. We report the most interesting ones.
Pachypodium brevicaule
It comes from the central highlands of Madagascar, between 1000 and 2000 meters above sea level, on volcanic soils with acid reaction. It is a prostrate shrub that reaches a maximum height of 25 cm and expands up to 40 cm in diameter. The trunk has small spines. The leaves are up to 3 cm long, ribbon-like. At the end of winter it produces yellow inflorescences carried on a short peduncle. In the summer it likes temperatures around 30 degrees; in winter it is more tolerant than others since it can withstand 8 ° C, especially if the environment is dry.
Pachypodium geayi
It lives on sandy substrates, almost at sea level, in very dry environments of Madagascar. It has the typical bottle-shaped trunk, covered with a bluish patina, which branches out at the top; the thorns are many, in groups of three. The leaves are ribbon-like, very long. Very beautiful, but very delicate.
Pachypodium decaryi
Originally from the mountains and highlands of Madagascar. It can grow up to 12 meters; It is a shrub composed of several fleshy, greyish trunks with small spines. The leaves are oval and shiny. It produces large groups of flowers, up to 12 cm wide. Their scent is very intense. The cultivation, in special greenhouses, is very simple and gives great satisfaction.
Pachypodium saundersii
Originally from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe where it grows in forests, on rocks and in dry environments. It forms a shrub up to 1, 30 cm with a compact and rounded habit, up to 1 meter in diameter. The leaves are lanceolate, greyish. It produces beautiful white flowers with lilac shades and a waxy appearance.
It grows very fast and is particularly appreciated for breeding as bonsai.
Pachypodium rosulatum
Originally from most of Madagascar, especially the cliffs and crevasses of the Isalo massif. It grows up to one meter in height, but occupies about 2 meters in diameter. It has many fleshy and thorny branches. At the top it has shiny lanceolate leaves. At the beginning of the vegetative cycle it produces bunches of yellow flowers.