Dudleya edulis

small green tube plants on trail wall
Annie's Canyon | July 2016

In a contest for the weirdest-looking plant in San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, ladies’-fingers (or fingertips, Dudleya edulis) would be among the top. With a tuft of smooth, cylindrical, red tipped leaves emerging from the ground, this plant lives up to its name, leaving one to wonder where the rest of the lady is…

The native range of ladies’-fingers extends only slightly beyond San Diego county where it prefers steep, dry, rocky cliffs. The entrance to Annie’s Canyon offers a magical landscape of ladies’-fingers clinging to the sandstone cliffs high above the canyon trail.

Other Common Names:

coast live-forever, fingertips, San Diego Dudleya, string bean plant, Nuttal's live-forever, Ladies'-fingers live-forever

Description 2,59

Ladies’-fingers is a low-growing, perennial plant with one or several short branching stems arising from a woody base. Each branch produces a rosette of fleshy green leaves, which together form a compact mound. The leaves are cylindrical, generally less than eight inches (20 cm) long, and covered with a light waxy coat. At the ends, they are acute and sometimes tinged reddish or withered into dry streamers. Dried leaves often cling to the lower part of the stem.

Flowers are held above the leaves on several open, branched peduncles. Three to 11 flowers occur on the terminal branchlet, on very short pedicels. The bisexual flowers have five fleshy sepals and five petals. The petals are white or cream colored, generally, less than 3/8 inch (1 cm) long, fused at their bases and spreading or somewhat reflexed from their midpoints.  There are five pistils, each with a superior ovary tapering to a short style and minute stigma. The ovaries are fused at their bases, tear-drop-shaped with somewhat flattened sides, whitish, often tinged pink. There are ten stamens with reddish anthers; after maturity, anthers turn purple, and the stamens curl inward and persist on the developing fruits. Most flowers occur from May into July.1

The dry, one-chambered fruits are swollen, fused at their bases, and flared 45 degrees to 60 degrees away from vertical; aside from the asymmetry of the ends, a fruit resembles a segment of an orange; together, the five fruits look like an orange that has been opened for eating. Fruits split along the upper edges releasing many tiny seeds.

green tubes extending from ground

Nature Center | July 2016

small white flowers with yellow and red center

Nature Center | July 2016

tiny white flowers with yellow center on top of tube

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | May 2003

Distribution 2,7,59

Ladies’-fingers is a coastal species native to southern California and northern Baja California, west of the Peninsular Ranges and below 4000 feet (1300 m). Although ladies’-fingers will grow on bare soil, it seems to prefer rocky outcroppings and vertical cliffs.

In the Reserve, ladies’-fingers may be seen on the bluffs on the south side of Central Basin. A gravity-defying display can be seen on the cliffs at the entrance to Annie’s Canyon Trail. They have been planted in the native plant garden and in the roof garden at the Nature Center.

Classification 2,11,44,59,143

Ladies’-fingers is a dicot angiosperm in the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae), a family-centered in South Africa but found worldwide except in Australia and the SW Pacific islands. Members of this family are mostly succulent herbs. The typical stonecrop flower has 3-5 unfused sepals and 3-5 petals. The number of stamens is equal to or double the number of petals. There are 3-5 pistils. Fruits consist of 3-5 unfused, dry, tear-drop shaped, one-chambered capsules.

There are many architecturally diverse, ornamental plants in the stonecrop family, including jade plant (Crassula ovata), and species of Sedum, Aeonium and Kalanchoe.206

Species in the live-forever genus (Dudleya) typically have thick, fleshy leaves in a rosette from a woody base. They are distinguished from similar genera by small differences in flower morphology. There are three species of live-forevers reported from in the Reserve.48 In addition to ladies’-fingers, we have lance-leaved dudleya (D. lanceolata) and chalk dudleya (D. pulverulenta). We have one other native member of this family: pygmy stonecrop (Crassula connata).

Alternate Scientific Names:

Stylophyllum edule

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
close up of white flower with red center

Nature Center | July 2016

small green tube plant, similar to sea anemone

Annie's Canyon | February 2016

green tube-like plant

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | April 2008

Ecology 41

Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) is a photosynthetic process evolved by many plants in the stonecrop family, including ladies’-fingers. CAM is also found in cactus, most orchids and some members of several other plant families, especially in plants from arid environments. Most plants take up carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the day when carbon dioxide can be immediately used for photosynthesis. Most water loss occurs during this exchange of gasses. With CAM, plants exchange gasses at night, temporarily storing carbon dioxide in an acid form until the energy of the sun is again available to complete the conversion to organic matter. Because, with CAM, gas exchange occurs during the night when temperatures are lower and humidity is higher, the accompanying water loss is reduced. This type of metabolism was first identified in the stonecrop family, the Crassulaceae, for which it is named.

Bioengineers are investigating potential applications of CAM for the development of more drought-tolerant food crops and more water-efficient biofuels.286

tiny white flower on tube end

Nature Center | July 2016

tiny white flower with 5 petals

Nature Center | July 2016

bundles of green tubes like sea anemone

Nature Center | June 2016

Human Uses  

The specific name, edulis, means “edible”.59 Thus it is surprising that we found no records specifically of ladies’-fingers being eaten by the local Kumeyaay or the Luiseño. The Kumeyaay in Baja California chewed the leaves of Dudleya sp. to alleviate thirst, and ate the young flowers stalks, which were sweet and edible.272 The raw succulent leaves and flowering stems of live-forever (Dudleya sp.) were considered a delicacy by the Cahuilla.”75 It is likely that the local native Americans did not distinguish the individual species in this genus.

note: If one googles “ethnobotany of ladies’-fingers” one learns many uses for okra.

green plant with sea anemone-like tubes

Nature Center | July 2016

close up of tiny white 5 petal flower on top of tube

Nature Center | June 2016

tiny white flowers scattered on ground along stems

June 2007

Interesting Facts 59

Several species of Dudleya are in cultivation, prized for their architectural form, their foliage and their flowers – “sort of nerdy (yet trendy at the same time).”168

Species of Dudleya are easily dug and transplanted, which makes them easy targets for plant poachers. Many species are declining in the wild from poaching as well as habitat destruction. Of the 49 taxa (species or varieties) found in California,7 28 are listed by the California Native Plant Society as rare, endangered, or extirpated in California.45  It is unlawful to remove any plant from the Reserve, but, as of September 2021, all species of Dudleya have been given specific legal protection.531

small green plants growing on trail wall

Annie's Canyon | February 2016

small white flower with five petals

Nature Center | June 2016

green tubes with red tips

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | February 2010

Photo Gallery