Some succulents have a lot of spikes and attitude, and some are just plain cute. The bear paw succulent is definitely one of the latter.
The bear paw succulent, or Cotyledon tomentosa, gets its common name from its leaves, which look a whole lot like the paws of a cartoon bear, complete with a fuzzy surface and little claws. The “claws” on the leaves of Cotyledon tomentosa are often tipped with red or purple, so you may hear this plant also referred to as a variegated bear paw succulent. This plant can grow up to 20 inches in height, but is usually shorter. It flowers in summer with a branched flower cluster of hairy, five-petaled pink flowers.
In this article, we’ll be covering bear paw succulent care in detail, starting with this little plant’s native growing conditions. We’ll also answer some common questions and list some sources where you can buy a healthy bear paw.
Let’s jump in!
Table of Contents
Bear Paw Succulent Background
The first step to mastering bear paw succulent care is familiarizing yourself with your plant’s background and native habitat. So let’s start there!
The genus name Cotyledon means “seed leaf,” indicating these plants’ ability to spread themselves from their leaves instead of simply by seed. The species name tomentosa means “hairy” in reference to the light fuzz on the surface of the plant.
Cotyledons as a whole are native to South Africa, although they can sometimes be found in the drier areas of the continent farther north. This genus is pretty big and several of its members are popular house plant succulents, such as Cotyledon orbiculata a.k.a. green pig’s ear, and Cotyledon pendens or cliff cotyledon.
C. tomentosa is actually quite rare in the wild, with only five known subpopulations in South Africa, all of which consist of fewer than thirty plants. The South African National Biodiversity Institute classifies this species as Vulnerable due to its low population and the threats it faces in the form of livestock trampling, habitat degradation, and illegal gathering.
Within those five populations in South Africa, Cotyledon tomentosa grows in arid ravines with very dry, porous, rocky soil. Thus, as a houseplant, the variegated bear paw succulent doesn’t need much water or many nutrients, but it does require strong, consistent light and well-draining soil.
Bear Paw Succulent Care
Now that you have a better understanding of your bear paw’s background, let’s move on to its day-to-day care needs in your home.
Appropriate Pot Type and Size
Succulents tend to do better in wide pots as opposed to deep ones. Their root system is shallow and spreading, and often a succulent will create a mini version of itself at its base and grow steadily outwards.
Terra cotta pots are our favorite for house plants because of the breathability of their surface, but ceramic and plastic pots work too. Just be sure that your pot has really good drainage, and in the case of a plastic pot, be extra careful not to overwater.
The size of your pot will depend on the size of your bear paw succulent.
One method to find the right size is to measure the plant from tallest point to the soil line. Then take that number and divide it by three. This gives you the ideal pot diameter in inches. So for example, if your bear paw measures 6 inches from soil line to the tallest point, 6 divided by 3 equals 2, so use a pot that’s 2 inches in diameter.
The second method is to simply choose a pot that is an inch or two deeper and wider than the root ball of the plant.
As we mentioned before, bear paw succulents naturally dwell in porous, rocky soil that drains very quickly. When keeping one in a pot as a houseplant, you’ll want to forego the normal potting soil in favor of a cactus mix which is much more sandy and porous.
Cactus mix soil is quite light, so you may also want to add some pebbles or gravel to the bottom of the pot in order to give it some extra drainage and weight.
Bright! South Africa is a very sunny place, and averages about 2500 hours of sunshine per year, according to the country’s Department of Energy.
So it’s not surprising that Cotyledon tomentosa appreciates bright light year-round.
A south-facing window is ideal for this plant, and you can even bring it outside into your garden or patio during the summer. In winter, you may want to use a UV grow light to help supplement the natural light.
Remember: Succulents are essentially desert plants, and they are much more susceptible to overwatering than other house plants. This is particularly true in winter when they are dormant.
When you water your bear paw succulent, don’t soak the soil. Annual rainfall in their native habitat is quite low and, again, their soils are fast-draining, so they won’t tolerate much dampness.
Instead of thoroughly wetting the soil, use a bottle with a small nozzle to lightly drizzle the surface of the soil in the pot with water once a week or so. It’s better to water lightly more often than water heavily but infrequently.
A succulent that isn’t getting enough water will begin to look shriveled, but will bounce back quickly once watered. An overwatered succulent will look really sickly, with yellowed, dropping leaves and a wrinkly stem, and possibly even black spots.
Variegated bear paw succulents prefer things to be warm year-round, with an ideal temperature range of 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cotyledon tomentosa, like many other succulents, has no problem with thriving in dry indoor air.
Don’t place it directly over, under, or in front of an HVAC vent, but other than that dry air is not a concern.
Succulents are slow growers and thus not heavy feeders, especially when it comes to nitrogen. A succulent that receives too much fertilizer will have very soft, squishy new growth that’s a lot more susceptible to small brown “corking” spots, usually caused by fungi.
Use a low-nitrogen cactus fertilizer every six weeks or so during spring and summer, which will support overall health and encourage flowering. Don’t fertilize bear paws in fall and winter dormancy.
Cotyledon tomentosa doesn’t really need to be pruned–although you certainly can remove leaves that are discolored, or cut off stems in order to propagate bear paws.
How to Re-Pot Bear Paw Succulents
It’s time to re-pot when your bear paw reaches one or both of these milestones:
- The plant grows within a half-inch, or 1.25 cm, of the edge of the pot
- When it becomes heavily rootbound and ceases to put out new growth
Generally speaking, a smaller pot is better than a larger pot for succulents, as there’s less chance for the soil to get waterlogged. So when it’s time to do so, move your plant into a pot that’s only a bit larger than the one before.
One of the primary differences is that the leaves of the bear paw succulent tend to snap off easily when roughly handled, so use your most delicate touch!
Keeping that tip in mind, follow these steps:
- Don’t water heavily beforehand; instead, run a knife around the sides in order to loosen the soil from the pot. Tilt the pot over and place your hand on top of the soil, around the base of the plant, and gently wiggle it free of the pot.
- Brush away some of the soil.
- Place a layer of pebbles (optional) at the bottom of your new pot, before filling the bottom with a few inches of fresh, damp cactus mix. Put enough soil at the bottom of the pot to position the soil line within a half inch of the rim of the pot.
- Add lightly damp soil around the sides of the plant, gently pressing it into place with a finger or pencil. Tap the bottom of the pot on your work surface to make sure the soil settles without air bubbles.
- Use a brush or blow through a straw in order to remove dirt particles from the succulent.
- Don’t water the plant for a few days after transplant, and make sure it gets enough sunlight.
Potential Problems with Bear Paw Succulents
As long as you provide them with the right growing conditions, you shouldn’t run into too many issues with your bear paw. But if you start to notice your succulent looking a little off, check for these problems first:
We’ve gone over this, but it bears repeating: Be really careful over too much watering at once, especially in the wintertime. Your C. tomentosa will be much happier with light, frequent waterings as opposed to heavy, spaced-out waterings.
Keep an eye out for yellowing leaves, which is a surefire sign of overwatering.
Blackening of the basal stem, which is the where the stem emerges from the soil, usually indicates root rot. Root rot is incurable, so at that stage you might as well take a cutting for propagation and dispose of the parent plant.
Spider mites, mealybugs, and scale are the most common pests on Cotyledon tomentosa.
Remove mealybugs and scale with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. For spider mites, spray them off with warm water while the plant is on its side.
After physically removing the pests, apply insecticidal soap to clean up any traces of infestation.
After treatment, keep the plant isolated from others until you are sure it is pest-free.
Yes, it can happen! Even though bear paw succulents like lots of sun, they can still develop sunburn if they are suddenly moved from the inside to the outside, or if they are too close to a windowpane which has a magnifying effect and burns the leaves.
For an indoor plant, keep it at least 8 inches away from the windowpane.
For a bear paw plant that you want to transfer to a patio or garden, place it in an area where it will get morning sun and afternoon shade for at least a week. Slowly move it out to areas where it gets more and more afternoon sun, until it is fully acclimated and can take all-day rays.
The opposite problem of sunburn, this issue is caused by too little light. A bear’s paw that is straining to reach the light will grow tall, gangly, and somewhat crooked as it bends itself towards the nearest light source.
To address this, move the plant closer to brighter light. After its had a week or two in better light to recover some energy, cut back the stem by one-fourth to a third to correct the misshapen growth and encourage new, more proportional growth.
Propagating Bear Paw Succulents
…is super easy, with just a few simple steps. Propagating bear paws works best in spring and summer, when they are actively growing. It’s possible to propagate this plant from one of its leaves, but rooting out a stem cutting is more consistently reliable.
- Sanitize a sharp knife and use it to cut off one of the side stems of the bear paw.
- Set the cutting aside in a dry place, out of direct light, and allow the cut to scab over for two-four days.
- Fill a small pot with fresh, damp cactus soil, them insert your bear paw cutting. Mist or lightly water the soil every few days for the first ten days. If the cutting begins to wrinkle and shrivel, give it a little more water.
- After a few weeks, the cutting should have put out some good roots into the soil of the pot. Once the cutting begins producing new growth of its own, you’ll know you have a successful propagation and you can begin watering it less often.
Side Note: If you’re more of a visual learner, check out our succulent propagation guide. We go through the entire propagation process with photos!
Where to Buy a Bear Paw Succulent
While you may stumble upon a bear paw succulent at the home improvement store or a local nursery, it’s likely to be very hit or miss. So your best bet for getting a healthy specimen is to order online.
In my opinion, Etsy is the way to go when ordering live plants on the internet. Often, Etsy sellers are small businesses that are very invested in producing quality plants, providing good customer service and packaging the plants well for shipping. That last point is especially critical here, since bear paws have such delicate foliage.
Check out Etsy here for a list of sellers that currently have bear paw succulents in stock.
Frequently Asked Questions about Bear Paw Succulent Care
The bear paw succulent is a cute and easy-care houseplant that gives a lot of visual interest, thanks to its quirky looks and fuzzy texture. With enough light and not too much water, it makes a great addition to a windowsill, patio garden, or plant shelf.
Do you already have one of these babies? Any tips and tricks to share with the class, or questions about care that we didn’t cover here? Please comment below!