Crested and monstrose succulents — mutant forms only a succulent freak could love? We think not, whether it’s Halloween season or, say, Arbor Day…although these living oddities would be naturals in any décor scheme aimed at enticing or spooking trick-or-treaters and their parental units.
To start, the occurrence of growth mutations is documented throughout the plant kingdom, but we happen to be most interested in the topic as it applies to succulents, especially cacti and euphorbias. Mutations, however, occur in aeoniums, echeverias, and other succulents too.
Crested and monstrose plants are those that exhibit abnormal, distorted or disfigured growth. This happens when a mutation occurs during cell division. Crests are the elongation of the growing point from a radial one to a linear one. But rather than perfectly flat layers of tissue resulting, the damage to the central growing point creates multiple growing points that crowd and push against each other. Peculiar shapes form from this energy — such as those resembling brains, alluvial fans, coral, and snakes.
In monstrose growth, the mutation typically makes random multiple growing points that are not stacked next to each other — there’s one here, another over there, pushing the body of the plant all out of shape in disorderly fashion. In monstrose plants, the mutation can manifest in a variety of freaky growth, from spiraling to extra ribs to the absence of spines or teeth, or even excessive teeth, like on an Agave ‘Cubic’ (Agave potatorum f. monstrose).
The crested and monstrose forms generally occur because of injuries to the plant at a young age. This damage can result from insects munching on the growing tip, or from other causes, including disease and genetic predisposition. In reaction to this injury, the cells at the tip of the branch where growth occurs begin to multiply at a much faster rate and the normal growing tip “goes crazy,” creating, in the case of crested plants, those fantastical fans and whorls.
In monstrose specimens, each of those growth tips behaves as if it were the primary point. The result is messy, lumpy, monster-like growth. Cristates look more neat and symmetrical in comparison.
Plants can exhibit mutated and regular growth at the same time. Crests and monstrose growth are unpredictable; no two are precisely alike. That goes for plants of the same species. While we are not going to dive into the topic of cultivation here, those wanting to propagate their ornamental mutants can attempt to do so via cuttings, particularly those that include the abnormal growth. Propagation steps do differ a bit with these plants. The author of this article recommends that cuttings of crested cacti be grafted for best results. Lots of different examples of mutated succulents can be viewed in this piece.
So whether you incorporate your little monsters into your Halloween celebrations or not, we trust you love and cherish them just the same as you do your normal, “non-rule-breaking” succulents. These lovable freaks add to the amazing variety of succulent plants available to gardeners and collectors. It’s conceivable that one could possess, in addition to a beautiful, non-mutant specimen, a monstrose form of it, a crested version, and — why not — a variegated cristate type too.
Below are examples of monstrose and crested forms. Our online retail shop regularly harbors monsters and cristates. For online wholesale customers, we offer trays of assorted crested cacti and assorted monster cacti at The Cactus Shop.
Euphorbia flanaganii cristata ‘Green Coral’: Native to South Africa, this is one of the “medusoids,” or plants forming a central basal caudex with arms arising from the basal area. This is the cristate form of E. flanaganii, which forms deep emerald green fan-shaped stems that resemble green coral. Retail link.
Mammillaria gracilis v. fragilis monstrose ‘Arizona Snowcap’: A monster cultivar of the charming miniature Mammillaria gracilis fragilis. It features thimble-shaped bodies to 1.5 inches in height with tufts of snow-white spines and wool at the areoles. Satiny, creamy yellow flowers come in late winter. Retail link.
Mammillaria elongata cristata ‘Copper King’: It’s known as the brain cactus because of its unusual growth, giving the appearance of, yeah, brains. Very attractive, with undulating fans covered in dense coppery orange spines. Retail link.
Opuntia microdasys monstrose: This paddle cactus is known as crazy bunny ears, an undulated form of regular ol’ bunny ears. It’s covered with minute golden spines known as glochids, which can cause irritation to the skin and eyes. Retail link.
Opuntia (Austrocylindropuntia) vestita cristata: Native to Bolivia, this cactus forms rounded stems in clusters that are densely covered with beautiful white hair. Vivid magenta flowers to 1 inch in diameter. Retail link.