Succulents are remarkably distinctive plants that provide originality to any home, patio or garden. With more than 10,000 varieties of succulents in existence, there are options to suit anyone's aesthetic taste, interest level and space requirements.
What are Succulents?
The word succulent means “juicy." These plants have evolved in some of the most unforgiving climates — primarily in high rocky terrain or dry desert landscapes — and have acquired unusual characteristics in order to store water for long periods of time. Some of these fascinating plants retain water in their puffy leaves, and others retain it in their swollen stems or trunks. The result of this water-hoarding is some of the most remarkable textures and striking appearances in the plant world.
Sedums and many other succulents grow where most other plants will not.
Succulents' tendency toward drought tolerance makes them wonderful additions to gardens in arid climates and to landscapes with nutrient-poor soil. Their specialized root systems and water-conserving nature make them a captivating choice for xeriscaping — the practice of sustainable gardening with reduced water requirements.1
Succulent plants are also excellent options for rock gardens and crevices in retaining walls. Sedum, sempervivum and jovibarba are especially comfortable in these environments, as the settings mimic their natural habitat high in the Alpine Mountains where they cling to outcroppings and rocky cliff faces. These and most other succulent varieties will flourish when intermingled with different species, even in tight spaces. This characteristic presents a great opportunity to display interesting combinations in containers as well.
In addition to helping with water conservation efforts, planting succulents can also aid in erosion control and weed inhibition. These plants can provide a low-maintenance solution to any garden or yard space that struggles with dry areas or lean, shallow soil.
Many succulents, including hen-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum
), make a stunning ground cover, especially in nutrient-poor soils where other plants have difficulty taking root. Translated from Latin, sempervivum means “ever-living," which is appropriate given that these plants thrive in poor soil, high summer heat and winter's single digit temperatures.
Many varieties of succulent plants have an interesting historical significance and provide the opportunity to inspire good conversation in addition to a pleasing atmosphere.
For instance, Agave tequilana
is necessary for the production of tequila — North America's first commercially distilled spirit.2 Agave havardiana
is known for its milky juice, which is used to make a natural sweetener. These succulents are considered “century plants" because most only bloom once in their lifetimes. But when they do, it is an impressive site in any garden.
Aloe vera is easy and fun to grow for its healing salve.
Most gardeners know about the healing benefits of Aloe vera
. Used to treat cuts and burns, it's a medicine cabinet staple for many. There are around 400 different types of aloe plants, each with distinctive characteristics. While most cannot withstand freezing temperatures, some, including lateritia and peglerae, are hardy down to temps in the 20s, as long as they're kept dry. Aloe plants take nicely to containers, and can over-winter indoors for year-round access to their healing salve.
Many cultures have relied on the medicinal and culinary uses of succulents throughout history. For example, the maguey plant has been used to make clothing fibers,3
yucca to make soap,4
aloe to relieve arthritis,5
prickly pear cactus to facilitate childbirth6
and agave to treat tuberculosis.7
The Roman emperor Charlemagne even mandated the planting of succulents on the rooftops of homes as a type of "insurance plan" against lightening.8
And this is just a small sampling of the valuable role succulents have played throughout time.
From the unusual bird-like blooms of succulent orchids to the severe, protective spines of the various cacti varieties, succulents provide an array of textures and features to liven up your indoor and outdoor spaces.
A few interesting specimens include:
- Purslane. A perennial that has showy flowers, provides ground cover and is also edible, this spreading succulent boasts the most heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids of any green plant.9
- Lithops. Often called “living stones" due to their shocking resemblance to rocks and pebbles, lithops add a truly unique look to any garden endeavor.
- Yucca. Wild and pokey, yuccas are known for their impressive blooms. Some prehistoric-looking varieties send their blossoms more than 12 feet in the air.
- Dragon Fruit Cactus. A night-blooming vining cactus with impressive and delicious fruit, the dragon fruit plant can grow to a height of 20 feet or more.
- Sedum. Also known as stonecrop, sedum plants do well as ground cover and are a favorite for “living roofs." Many sedums offer nourishment for butterflies.
- Haworthia. Small plants perfectly suited for a window garden, haworthias can pack a lot of character into a small space. These plants come in an amazing variety of textures; some have zebra-like stripes, some are fuzzy, and others even have translucent leaves.
Lithops are commonly referred to as "living stones," and you can see why!
By learning where each species thrives naturally and mimicking their preferred conditions, gardeners have the best chance of cultivating healthy succulents and achieving optimum growth.
As a general rule, succulents need soil that is extremely well drained. When grown in containers, drainage holes are a must.
A mixed variety of succulents makes an excellent window garden.
Create a succulent soil mix by adding inorganic matter to a light potting soil. You can break down the organic material with gritty sand, pumice or perlite. Pennington Fast Acting Gypsum
is also beneficial to help loosen compacted soil.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure your mixture doesn't hold water. To test, moisten the mixture, grab a handful and squeeze. It should crumble. If it forms a ball, you'll need to add more inorganic components to the mix.10
After planting, top dress your soil mixture with gravel or small river rocks to help with drainage and reduce disturbance when the plant is watered. You can even get creative and use polished rocks, beach pebbles or other decorative stones.
Succulents need to be watered less often than most plants, so allow the soil to dry completely between watering. Smaller plants do best with just a light misting from a spray bottle.
Succulents liven up retaining walls and other rocky fixtures by filling cracks with their beauty.
Alaska Fish Fertilizer 5-1-1
will provide your succulents with 11 essential plant nutrients. Just 2 tablespoons per gallon of water is all that is needed to deliver the valuable nutrition all plants need. As with regular watering, wait until the soil is completely dry before applying, and only fertilize during the plant's growing season.
In many cases, by growing succulents, you are helping to preserve their species. Many cacti, Aloe vera
, some orchid varieties and several others have been lost to their native habitats and depend on cultivation for survival.11
Whether you are interested in an eccentric window garden or a creative xeriscape, succulent plants provide endless opportunities to let your imagination run wild. Succulents are also relatively easy to propagate by cuttings or, in many cases, simply by breaking off a leaf and planting. This is a wonderful characteristic, because once you start gardening with succulents, you're sure to want more!
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1. Eartheasy, Solutions for Sustainable Living, "Xeriscape Benefits
2. Thomas, Ryan, "Tequila — A bit of History
," Los Cabos Magazine, Oct. 2002
3. Feinman, Nicholas and Haines, "Mexico's Wonder Plant
," Archaeology - A Publication of Archaeological Institute of America
4. Wells, Ken; Frey, Rebecca, "Yucca
," Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
5. U.I.C. Heritage Garden, "Aloe Vera
," University of Illinois at Chicago
6. Wilson, Michael, "Medicinal Plant Fact Sheet: Opuntia: Prickly Pear Cactus
," Drylands Institute, 2007
7. World of Succulents, "Therapeutic Uses, Benefits and Claims of Agave Americana
," June 22, 2015
8. Eland, Sue, "Plant Biographies
," Plant's Eye View of the Planet and Man, 2008
9. Vozzella, Laura, "Purslane: A weed worth eating
," Chicago Tribune, 2016
10. Kuroda, Donna, "Potting Mixes for Succulent Plants
," National Capital Cactus and Succulent Society
11. Sacred Succulents, Rare & Endangered Beneficial Plants & Seeds