Dyckia Cultivation - Tips and tidbits by Wade Roitsch
I love the Genera Dyckia with its many shapes, sizes, and plant forms. I enchanted by the different leaf colors and the variations of marginal spines on the leaf edges. And I particularly enjoy how forgiving they are to poor conditions and how easy they recover when they are given better care. When they bloom the mother rosettes do not perish like some bromeliads and Agaves can. Finally, who wouldn't be amazed by the vibrant orange or yellow flowers (which hummingbirds also love) and the different ways the flowers are arranged on the flowers pikes. I will admit that dealing with the spiny leaves when the plants need dividing or repotting is a drawback but what plant does not have some kind of character flaw?
How to grow Dyckias
Though I find Dyckias easy to care for and deal with for the most part there are few basic concepts that helps make growing them a bit easier.
Picking the Right Pot
If you plan to grow your Dyckia in a pot and not a garden or landscape we have found that selecting the right shape and style of pot makes a huge difference in culture over the long term. Dyckias are adaptable and will grow well in plastic or clay pots. We prefer a pot that is relatively wide at the top and somewhat short in height works better than one that is narrow at the top and deep. As Dyckia rosettes spread out they tend to creat an "umbrella" — a thatch of leaves — that spread out and shed water away from the central rosette. So when grown in narrow topped pots - older, root bound plants tend to spread out enough that they exclude water from entering the pots the roots are and the plants becomes dry and desiccated. The plant gets a dullish appearance and seem to somewhat shrivel, not looking as spry and shiny as desired. When the rosettes reach a size where they "umbrella" the pot one can pour a stream of water for minutes without any appreciable amount of moisture getting to the roots. Though a Dyckia can survive this drying out for long periods of time they do lose their attractiveness and either have to be repotted to larger pots or need to be set in a saucer of water so they obtain enough water.
So how do you determine what pot to use for your particular Dyckia? Dyckia, unlike cacti, tolerate over potting without too much difficulty. Consider the growth rate of the plant in question then select a pot with a top diameter that you think will slightly exceed what the width of the plant after one or two growing seasons. Then, once your plant’s leaves start to umbrella the pot, transplant to a larger pot or divide. Do not pot a 4" potted Dyckia into a 20 gallon pot unless you know the growth rate of the clone you have is exceedingly fast! It is safer to plant and transplant at graduated steps instead of leaping in pot size.
Also, select pots that do not have an inward curving lip or an urn shape. Eventually when you need to repot or divide one of your plants and it is in a pot that is urn shaped or has an inward curving tip you will have a devil of a time getting a plant out of a pot, without cutting or breaking the pot or destroying the plant.
Though Dyckias are tough and resilient, many species really resent being divided and especially dislike being divided in the late fall or winter time period when they are not actively developing new roots. It is best to divide in the warm growing seasons (warm - not HOT) when they can redevelop lost and damaged roots in a short time. Several years back we learned this the hard way when we divided some special clones in the late fall and nearly lost them prior to spring root initiation. The plants sat all winter looking shriveled and dull and took a long time to recover. Even when they did go back into growth mode they did not recover their full vigor for months. This was especially the case for Dyckia velescana clones and some of the Dyckia hybrids and species that divide in the center of the rosettes rather than develop side pups.
Small or large plants with intact root systems can be transplanted up to larger pots throughout the year without too much stress and seem to survive with little setback, just do not split up, cut, or divide the plant’s roots during the winter cooler months. If you do have to divide plants in the cold seasons of the year for some reason you may need to use bottom heat to get roots to initiate, out of season.
Dyckias like water, yet they can take moderate dry periods in stride. Many of the Brazilian species of Dyckias we grow in cultivation come from near the Atlantic Rainforest region of Southeastern Brazil. The area is mesic or wet and receive the bulk of precipitation during the warm seasons of the year, with less moisture occurring in the cooler seasons of the year. Though less precipitation comes in the fall and winter seasons there still abundant humidity and often fog which help to keep plants and soil from drying out completely. So the best watering regimen for these species is to water them thoroughly and often in the summer growing seasons but reduce watering frequency in the winter period. For these Brazilian species an occasional thorough, winter watering on warm days helps keep them vigorous and does them no harm. An exception to this general rule is Dyckia marnier-lapostolleii which is a common Brazilian species in cultivation that I would keep much drier during the winter cool season because it is from a region away from the core of the Atlantic Rainforest with a more distinct winter dry period.
The rainfall pattern of much of Argentina and Bolivia is also monsoonal (summer moist and winter dry) but is more dramatic in the extremes than the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest region. In Chaco regions of Argentina and Bolivia the bulk of the rainfall occurs in a 4 to 6 month period of time with little or no rainfall for 6 to 8 months. The soils become powder dry during the dry season and there is little to no fog to hold up soil humidity. So for species originating from these regions it is advisable to water frequently in the summer months and much less frequently, if not at all, during in the winter months, especially during cold spells. Avoiding excessive winter moisture for the xeric and Chaco species of Dyckia not only keeps the plants healthier but also encourages certain esthetically desirable, dry season attributes. During dry cool periods the leaves of many of the Argentine and Bolivian succulent bromeliads take on different leaf colors than when they are fully turgid, (this is also true for the genus Hectia of Mexico). The leaves of some species take on pinkish to reddish hues while others turn plum to purplish in color. The leaf tips and leaf margins on some species curl and twist more dramatically when the plant is severely dry giving it a completely different look compared to the same plant than during the summer growing season. The changes in color and leaf shape may not occur if they are over watered or kept too humid in the winter. So if you want to witness their dramatic winter show don’t care for them too much and grow them on the “hard” side.
Dyckias take extended dry periods pretty well but they have their limits. When it is 100 degrees + for weeks on end Dyckias need some extra water to pull them through. I lost several Dyckias in the landscape during the summer of 2011 when we were at our hottest and driest as I was unable to give them sufficient supplemental irrigation. Extremely drought stressed Dyckias also get attacked by fire ants which take advantage of the stressed plant and dig holes in the leaves to extract water and nutrients.
Many species of Dyckia have proven to be very cold tolerant when established with some species and hybrids tolerating temperatures into the teens. The key word here is established. Young newly planted plants in the fall or early winter, in marginal areas, are much more susceptible to cold damage than plants that are started in a garden in the late spring or early summer. This is really true of all summer growing, subtropical leaf succulents but is especially true of bromeliads. For example, one year I planted a plant of the clone ‘Soda Straws’ the garden in the spring and later decided to add plants of this clone to the same planting bed in the fall to increase the colony. Winter came and brought several testing cold events and the original established plant survived the cold events into the teens undamaged yet the fall planted, newly established plants of the same clone received considerable damage. The sun exposure, soil fertility and everything else were identical but the established plant faired the best. If you happen to plant late outside, or live in a marginal zone for Dyckia provide protection for your plants the first winter or two before subjecting them to extreme cold events.
Though some species like Dyckia choristaminae, D. x ‘Cat fight’, D. x ‘Cherry Coke’ and D. velescana have tolerated temperatures into the low teens for brief period of time (overnight) they do not like extended cold periods. During the winter of 2010 we had one or two nights where the temperatures fell into the teens and numerous clones were not damaged. In 2011 we had a cold event where we had 3 nights into the low teens and the temperatures did not rise above freezing for 3 days. Many of the Dyckias that had no damage the previous year got severely damage if not outright killed. The difference was the duration of cold. If you have Dyckia in your landscape and a cold snap is coming that will bring temperatures down below freezing for an extended period of time it is advisable to cover the plants with frost cloth or blankets to give added protection.
Another odd thing about Dyckia hardiness is that plants grown in shade to part shade survive freezing temperatures better that plants grown in full sun exposure. We cannot explain this phenomenon but have witnessed this on numerous occasions with many species. Either plant your Dyckias where they do not receive full light exposure or for sun-grown Dyckias when they are thawing after freezing events cover them. Uncover them after temperatures have warmed.
Deer and other varmints generally leave Dyckia plants alone but relish the tender bloom spikes. If you have a deer problem and want to see the flowers, plant where deer are excluded. Though the plants of Dyckia are normally not eaten by deer, rabbits etc., under extreme drought conditions or with heavy infestations of deer no plant is safe. Grasshoppers will eat the leaves of drought stressed plants.
Moon Glow lost its glow.
I often hear from folks that have grown Dyckia brevifolia ‘Moon Glow’ stating "my plant has lost the yellow glow or variegation in the center of the plant." I have found that to maintain the yellow glow for Dyckia brevifolia 'Moon Glow' the plant needs to be grown in bright, even shade. In our experience this clone grown in too much sun loses it glow and is mostly green. I also have found the plants have better color if kept evenly moist and fertilized lightly on a regular basis. In fact this species tends to be a water hog and I think needs to be grown in conjunction with a pot saucer, so the plant can get all of the water it needs. We often struggle in the nursery to keep this species turgid and have to water them extra and more often to keep them happy.
During August of 2012 we had the opportunity to see Dyckia brevifolia in habitat, in Santa Catarina, Brazil and saw firsthand that it grew on boulders within the yearly flood zone of the rivers where it is found (see photo above under Watering Dyckias). At the time we got to witness the plant during the drier time of the year for that region. The plants were often growing just a few feet from the water’s edge and looked super healthy. During the rainier parts of the year the plants are obviously subject to being underwater for periods of time because we saw debris close by, which was deposited by previous flooding events. No wonder this species is always drying out in the nursery. With the proximity to where it was growing in relation to the water of the river the plant’s roots were likely always tapped into a source of water, regardless of season. If this species tend to dry out quickly for you increase the frequency of watering or set the plant in a saucer of water and re-water it once the saucer is dry.
More often than not once a Dyckia blooms and you have humming birds or insects present the flowers will fertilize and abundant seed will be set. You might then get the crazy inclination to try growing the seed off to see what develops. Warning: Dyckias are randy little creatures and will hybridize like crazy if two plants are blooming at the same time and you do not take care to isolate the clones from one another. Open pollinated seedlings between different species and hybrids may vary across a huge spectrum of attributes, which is great if you are looking for something new. If you want seedlings that true to a species this attribute can be challenging. Also, unless you have growing space and patience to evaluate the variation you could become overwhelmed with seedlings to the point of exhaustion. Unless you are willing to throw away tons of mediocre plants you may wish to avoid collecting and growing seed.
The growing of seed is not hard. Fresh seed germinates best, so sow within a few weeks of ripening unless you have proper storage facilities (air-tight containers kept in a cool, dark location). Old seed or any seed stored in unsealed containers and exposed to fluctuations humidity and environment lose their viability quickly.
If the flowers are properly fertilized Dyckia when seed are ripe the seed pods turn brownish and begin to split open, revealing light brown to tan seed. Sow the seed on the surface of a well drained potting medium, place in bright, even shade and keep evenly moist. If the seed is good it usually germinates in 2 to 4 weeks.
Dyckia seed germinates best if kept evenly moist. To accomplish this you can place the seed pots in or next to a mist propagation bench or into a humidity chamber. The clear plastic containers that berries and produce come in work very well as seed germinating pots and for creating individual humidity chambers. Use the deeper containers because soil in these containers will stay moister longer. Once the seed is sown, as mentioned above, moisten the seed and soil then close the lid. Re-moisten as the soil dries out and the seed should germinate in 2 to 4 weeks. If the soil dries out rapidly, in warm conditions, place the containers in shallow saucers or trays to keep soil moister longer. After the seed germinates the lid should be kept closed for several more weeks until the plants start looking like miniature Dyckias. Then opened to acclimate the tiny plants to the real world. At this point you can begin to fertilize the seedlings with any gentle liquid fertilizer at about one-quarter to one-half strength of the label's directions at about two week intervals. When the little seedlings reach the size of your thumbnail or larger they can be transplanted to individual pots or cell packs and grown to larger sizes. Dyckia seedlings tend to all look alike as juvenile plants and do not develop much character for one to 2 years, so patience is required to determine if the seedlings are either true to the mother species or are worth cultivating further if making hybrids selections.
I hope these bits of information are helpful to you. Of course we are still learning about this genus and have much still to learn but if you have specific questions please contact me and I am sure we can bluff out a convincing answer or tell you is if we can’t.