by Bruce Brethauer
Hechtia belongs to the Bromeliaceae or bromeliad family, which includes such familiar plants as , Aechmea, Billbergia, Cryptanthus ("Earth Stars"), Neoregelia, Tillandsia ("Air Plants"), and of course, the pineapple (Ananas comosus). These plants typically produce a rosette of more or less rigid leaves which frequently bear modified hair-like structures called trichomes, which gives many of these plants their silvery-white markings, and may serve the plant in any number of ways, including protection from intense light, insulation from temperature extremes, and may assist in the absorption of moisture and nutrients. A majority of species are epiphytic, but a good number of species are terrestrial, including several genera whose species are more generally adapted to more arid conditions, including Abromeitiella, Dyckia, and Hechtia. To the best of my knowledge, none of the bromeliads are truly succulent - they do not possess highly modified structures for storing moisture; instead, those plants which are adapted to arid regions are highly resistant to desiccation, and will tolerate a higher degree of dehydration than many other plants. There are about 50 species of Hechtia, all except 5 species are native to Mexico, but several species have distributions which may extend into southern Texas, and a few others extend into Guatemala. These species range in size from tiny plants which may flower at just a few inches in height to giants which can grow to 5 feet across, with an inflorescence which can exceed 8 feet in height. One of the traits which sets the Hechtias apart is that these are all dioecious, with functional male flowers and female flowers being produced on different plants, assuring that any seed set on these plants are the result of cross pollination.
Hechtia "Lad Cutak" is a medium sized plant - the largest plant which I have seen grew to about 24 inches in height, and had produced multiple offsets. These plants have the general appearance of a pineapple top, but with narrower and longer leaves. The leaves are tough, and rigid, and produce sharp marginal teeth and a terminal spine. The coloration of the plant is highly dependant upon light intensity, and (possibly) temperature. In very bright light (direct sunlight is best) this plant takes on a burgundy/ black coloration. In lower light, the colors are less dark, becoming increasingly green as the light levels diminish. My second image illustrates a plant about 2 months after it had been moved outdoors following its winter dormancy - its leaves are transitioning from their winter green coloration and are becoming increasingly dark with exposure to sunlight (my plants overwinter in a dark basement: my smaller plants are grown under lights, and the larger plants get a bit of the stray light from the lights over the smaller plants - but little else). A month later, this plant was almost uniformly burgundy/black. The leaf undersides are a contrasting silvery coloration due to the dense growth of fuzzy, hair-like trichomes. The undersides of the leaves frequently bear leaf impressions, in very much the same manner as in Agaves, adding additional interest to these plants. In my experience, the summer growth rate of this plant is slow and steady - to date, I have not observed any period of particularly rapid growth - but by the end of the season, the plant has shown significant growth overall. In one year, the plant has nearly doubled in size, and is now producing multiple offsets.
To date, my plant has not produced any flowers, so I am unable to comment on their size and coloration, but in other Hechtias, the individual flowers are smallish, and are generally not very brightly colored - but they are produced in good numbers on a tall, branching inflorescence.
Propagation is easy, just separate out a few offsets when re-potting, and plant these up. Online sources suggest that the Hechtias are easily grown from seed, but since this is a named cultivar (and probably a hybrid), the plants raised from and seed set on this plant will probably not come true to type
"Lad Cutak" is a tough survivor; it tolerates significant drought, temperature extremes, heavy summer rains, and appears to be highly resistant to disease and insect infestations: it responds well to my general guidelines on growing succulents, with a few considerations. To produce its most intense coloration, "Lad Cutak" requires very intense lighting - direct sunlight is best, so this plant should be incorporated into summer planters on the patio. A very bright sun room may also provide enough light for this plant to produce it best colors. During my plant's winter dormancy, the foliage will invariably revert back its basic green coloration, but will slowly revert back again to dark burgundy to nearly black when it is moved outdoors in the spring/summer. It will tolerate considerable cold during its winter dormancy - my plant took temperatures down to the mid 40's without ill effects, but I suspect that this cultivar may tolerate brief exposure to a few degrees of frost, and possibly cooler conditions (one or two of the Hechtia species which grow in Texas are said to survive temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit).
This plant is not without its drawbacks; each leaf bears a sharp and rigid terminal spine (do not display this plant at eye level), and the marginal "teeth" along the length of the leaves are particularly good at snagging passersby with such a tenacity, that the plant could become unpotted. Either indoors or outdoors, do not plant this variety close to high traffic areas.
This is not an easy plant to locate in the trade, I acquired my plant from Bill Hendricks, but to date, I have not found it listed in the catalogs of any of the mail order companies which I have dealt with. I suspect that Bill acquired his plant through an ISI introduction. But the Hechtias, and the very similar looking Dyckias are attractive plants with a well deserved reputation of being tough survivors. Just about any of these plants would make a suitable addition to a mixed succulent summer planter. If you ever encounter this plant, or one of its close relatives, give it a try.