String of Pearls, Senecio rowleyanus

String of pearls, Senecio rowleyanus.

String of pearls is an unusual succulent with nearly spherical leaves from South Africa. Named after British botanist Gordon Rowley, the species was recently moved from huge genus Senecio (which contains not just succulents, but also common weeds like common groundsel) into the new genus Curio, but is likely to be identified as Senecio rowleyanus in literature and the horticulture trade. This tender evergreen perennial in the daisy family (Asteraceae) is native to dry areas of the eastern Cape of South Africa. There is also a variegated form with wide white stripes and sections (which might actually be S. herreianus which has slightly larger, elongated and striped round leaves and is also called string of pearls or string of beads).

The small leaves are the size and shape of small peas.

The plant grows from weak surface roots, producing trailing stems up to three feet long on the ground which can root where they touch soil to form dense mats. It often grows under bushes or between rocks which provide some protection from intense sunlight. The alternate, water-storing leaves are the size and shape of small peas (each to 1/4” diameter) with a small pointed tip on the end and a thin stripe of dark green along the side. The round shape of the leaves minimizes the surface area exposed to dry desert air and therefore reduces evaporative water loss, but also reduces the surface area where photosynthesis can occur compared to a normal thin, flat leaf. The ban of darker, translucent tissue on the side of the leaf is an “epidermal window” which allows light to enter the interior of the leaf, effectively increasing the area available for photosynthesis. This adaptation to arid environments is seen in several other succulents from southern Africa, including the related Senicio radicans, and in baby toes (Fenestraria spp.) and Haworthia cooperi which grow underground, exposing only the leaf tips.

Senecio radicans among rocks (L) and closeup of leaves (LC); Fenestraria in habitat (RC) and closeup (R).

String of pearls blooms in summer, producing ½ inch compound, daisy-like flowers of white discoid flowers with long red stamens and bright yellow anthers on 1½ inch long peduncles. The small flowers are not showy but are fragrant; it is said to have a sweet and spicy, cinnamon-like scent. The flowers are followed by multiple seeds, each with a white cottony pappus which aids in dispersal by the wind.

String of pearls produces white flowers with long red stamens and yellow anthers (L) followed by cottony seed heads (R).

String of pearls is commonly grown as a houseplant or an outdoor ornamental in frost-free climates. It is often grown in hanging baskets to allow the trailing stems to spill downward. But it could also be grown in a flat dish allowing it to maintain the trailing growth habit seen in the wild. Indoor containers can be moved outside for the growing season, but need to be acclimated gradually to prevent sunburn, should be protected from excess rainfall, and must be moved back indoors before frost.

Pots of string of pearls for sale.

Like other succulents, this plant is relatively low maintenance, and only needs bright light, well-drained soil, and infrequent watering. Root rot from overwatering is the most common cause of its demise. Grow in a very well-draining soil mix, such as cactus mix or add inorganic materials such as small pea gravel, sharp sand, poultry grit or pumice to potting medium (up to 1:1 mixture). Use a shallow container since the plants will not produce an extensive root system (and if they are unable to quickly remove moisture from a large soil volume, they will be more susceptible to root rot). Clay containers are better than plastic or ceramic because the material allows evaporation through the sides so the soil will dry out more quickly. Allow the potting medium to dry out completely between waterings, providing more water in summer than in winter when the plant is not actively growing. Providing a rest period during the winter with cool (55-60°F), dry conditions may promote blooming in summer. Plants need to be watered is when the leaves start to look a bit shriveled. Repot every year or two, or fertilize lightly in spring. Mealybugs or aphids may infest plants, but otherwise they have few pest problems. The leaves are slight toxic; ingestion may cause vomiting or diarrhea the plant’s sap may cause skin irritation or rash in sensitive individuals.

Propagate string of pearls by taking 3-4 inch stem tip cuttings. Strip 3-4 leaves from the bottom of the cutting and place in or on moist potting mix (lightly cover the last few bottom nodes) and roots should quickly develop at each node. Mist the soil surface to avoid overwatering until the roots are established. This plant can also be grown from seed, but it is not commonly available.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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Additional Information

  • Senecio rowleyanus – on the Missouri Botanic Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening website

16 comments

  1. Wondering if this could be grown in an open terrarium ( gold fish bowl) with the ends sticking out.

  2. String of Pearls id a very interesting plant…I did not know that it flowered.

  3. I keep seeing people propagate by cuttings but I was wondering if tucking the strands back onto to surface of the soil will cause them to root. (Since they root when they’re vines touch the ground) In the last photo, it looks like they used that method? Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated!

  4. I like these in containers for trailing over. I never new they flowered – it’s very different looking.

  5. String of Pearls is a very interesting plant. I have never had one bloom so not sure what I am doing wrong. I did not give mine enough shade before giving it direct sun this year and it did get sun burned.

  6. Hi,l brought some seeds and one string of pearls seeds l order ten different seeds none is labelled, i spend all my morning but found what seeds look like.

    • Oooo where did you find it? I am in the same situation. I received many packages of seeds, only 1 had the name written on the plastic bag one I can tell is grass for my aquarium because it is like 3000 small seeds. I went back to the site I purchased from to look at the listing, but it didn’t have pictures of the seeds. Only the grown plant! Can you share where you found it?

    • I found some seeds on WISH. Just got them don’t know if they’re good yet

  7. I am looking for watermelon string of pearls. Do you know were i could buy some or seeds
    patpearce55@gmail
    Thank you

  8. An unusual looking aster indeed! Fun looking little succulent.

  9. The concept of an “epidermal window”, an adaptation for arid conditions is interesting. This is a plant, I would like to try growing. It would be attractive in a hanging basket. However winter protection may be difficult, unless you have a green house.

  10. I like succulents — have burro’s tail, hen and chicks, etc. I’d like to know where in St. Croix County or Wash. Co., MN I might find this plant

  11. This is a very unusual looking plant, with unique looking flowers and seed heads. I would love to grow these along my natural rock walls where my hens & chicks grow in profusion but it sounds like these would never survive our winters. Too bad. Maybe there would be a way to grow them in a container and then bury the container to the rim (as recommended in the Gloriosa Lily article) and then let them grow and trail over the rocks. I could trim them back before bringing them into the house for the winter. Or I could try a papercrete container next to the rock wall that might blend in.

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