By Larry Hodgson
Echeverias are very popular these days. With their thick leaves in a wide range of fascinating colors and their modest size allowing them to be grown in all sorts of artsy and unusual containers and even be placed on narrow windowsills, echeverias seem to have been created just for the pleasure of indoor gardeners looking for a way to adding a few living plants to their décor.
Are they easy to grow? Sure … if you give them plenty of sun. But more about that later. Let’s first learn what they are.
The genus Echeveria is native to the New World, from Mexico to northwestern South America where it is found in mountainous terrain arid and semi-arid areas, often growing on rock faces and cliffs. It’s named for the 18th-century Mexican botanical artist and naturalist Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy.
The name echeveria is usually pronounced, “eh·kuh·VEH·ree·uh.”
Echeveria contains over 150 species. Often the plant produces offsets all around the mother plant and may be called for that reason “hen and chicks.” However, that name is also commonly used for the much better known and distantly related hardy succulent Sempervivum, so it’s best to stick to echeveria as the main common name for these species. Certainly I will in this article.
The genus Echeveria is in the Crassulaceae or Crassula family and is very closely related to the genera Sedum, Graptopetalum and Pachyphytum. Indeed, the four are so closely related that there are hybrids between them, notably × Sedeveria, × Graptoveria and × Pachyveria. They can sometimes be very hard to tell apart.
Echeverias are stem and leaf succulents: both organs are thick and help store moisture for hard times, although the stem is often hidden under the leaves and is not always visible.
Most species and hybrids form low-growing rosettes, at least at first, although some are upright, branching and more shrublike. The rosette can look like a rose or a cabbage and can be smaller than a teacup or as large as a dinner plate, depending on the species or cultivar.
As they age, many rosette type echeverias will eventually form an upright stem. It becomes visible as older lower leaves die and fall off or are removed.
The leaves are often spoon-shaped with a rounded or pointed tip, although sometimes tubular, and can be smooth or fuzzy. Smooth ones are often covered in farina — a whitish waxy powder — that gives them a bluish tint: this is what is meant by the adjective “glaucous” you often see applied to echeverias. But try not to touch the leaves or spray them with soapy water or oil: all three can remove the farina.
Both foliage hair and farina are natural protections from the extreme sun and drying winds of their native habitat. Many echeverias further take on reddish tones in full sun … and those translate to pinks and purples under a coat of farina.
Hundreds of cultivars of echeveria exist, often with especially attractive leaves in a wide range of colors. Some have leaves with wavy or rolled edges or strange warty growths called caruncles.
Under good conditions, and especially, intense light, echeverias also flower indoors. Typically, the flower stalks arch up, but curve at the tip like a shepherd’s hook, at least while the flowers are in bud. They then straighten as the buds open a few at a time and become urn- or bell-shaped flowers with 5 petals, usually in shades of red, pink, yellow or orange, more rarely white. They tend to flower in late summer or fall after a summer of intense sunlight. The same plant can flower many times.
The flowers are self-sterile. In the wild, insects carry pollen from the flowers of one plant to those of another, ensuring fecundation. In the home, you’d have to pollinate them by hand, carrying pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of another, if you wanted seed.
Echeverias are not toxic to either humans or pets, but neither are they considered edible.
Most echeverias sold these days bear no label, so it may be hard finding out exactly which variety you have. And with 150 species and an even greater number of hybrids, putting a name on a particular variety can be near to impossible.
Below are a few of the more commonly available varieties. I’ve included common names where ones exist, but most just go under the name echeveria.
Mexican snowball (E. elegans) is the classic smaller glaucous echeveria. About 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, it’s spoon-shaped, pointed-tipped, blue-green leaves develop red edges in full sun. It produces pinkish-red flowers. It’s one of the hens and chicks types and will eventually form, if allowed to grow on its own, a carpet of glaucous rosettes.
E. gibbiflora is similar, but with a much larger rosette (up to 16 inches/40 cm in diameter) of huge blue-green spoon-shaped leaves, glaucous blue green and often quite pinkish when grown in full sun. Flowers born on tall stems are red with yellow tips. It’s a parent of most of the large hybrids.
Warty echeveria (E. gibbiflora carunculata) bears caruncles (warty growths) on its upper leaf and the parent of many hybrids with a similar attribute. Otherwise, it’s a typical E. gibbiflora.
Painted lady (E. derenbergii) produces small rosettes 2.5 to 4 inches (6 to 10 cm) in diameter with pointed-tipped, blue-green leaves showing red margins when grown in full sun. Flowers are yellow with red tips.
Lipstick echeveria (E. agavoides) produces very fleshy, triangular, apple-green leaves ending in a point like an agave. They redden toward the tip in full sun, as if lipstick had been applied. It’s a ground-hugging type, not given to forming a bare “trunk.” Flowers can be pink, orange or red with a yellow tip.
E. ‘Black Prince’ is similar, but dark purple, although leaves emerge green. It’s particularly popular cultivar. Flowers are dark red.
Plush plant (E. pulvinata) differs from others described so far by its upright, arching, branching stems to 12 inches (30 cm) in height and, eventually, an equal or greater width. Each stems bears rather open small rosettes of spoon-shaped green leaves covered with white fuzz. It has orange and yellow flowers. E. pulvinata ‘Ruby’ is selection of E. pulvinata that develops bright red leaf margins and has red flowers.
E. ‘Doris Taylor’ is a hybrid of E. pulvinata with similar green leaves covered in white fuzz, but on a shorter plant.
E. ‘Perle von Nürnberg’ is an older variety somewhat like a larger E. elegans (one of its parents). It measures up to 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter with rounded glaucous leaves that are blue green in part shade and take on delightful pink and purple overtones in the sun. Coral-pink flowers, yellow inside.
E. runyonii ‘Topsy Turvy’ is a fast-growing echeveria about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter with spoon-shaped blue-green leaves that that appear long and narrow, as they fold in on themselves. Flowers are bright orange.
Caring for Echeverias
Light: People seem to feel free to put echeverias any old place indoors, often far from any direct sun, then wonder why they deteriorate. The problem is that the plant reacts so slowly to poor light that people don’t realize something is wrong until it is in serious decline.
It’s best in the long run to consider that all echeverias prefer full sun indoors (partial shade is fine outside), especially in winter. That is, several hours of direct sun per day. Only in the hottest, sunniest climates would you need to move them back from even a south window. East and west windows are “acceptable,” but you’ll have to expect some etiolation (legginess).
And that’s how echeverias show their displeasure, by “stretching for the light.” If yours are growing with spaces between the leaves rather than a robust, dense rosette, and pale-colored or usually small leaves as well, those are signs of insufficient light.
There is a possibility of sunburn (leaf damage) if you move an echeveria that has long been growing in a shady spot into full sun too quickly or from indoors to outdoors (and they really do appreciate a summer in outdoor sun, though!). As with any plant, you have to acclimatize echeverias to major increases in light intensity by moving them gradually into brighter and brighter light.
You can also grow echeverias under fluorescent or LED lamps on a 14-hour schedule, keeping them about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) from the lamps. If they start to etiolate, move them closer to the light source.
Echeverias receiving natural light will tend to bend toward the window. Give them a quarter turn in the same direction (clockwise, for example) every week to help maintain an upright habit.
Watering: Echeverias are very drought tolerant. You could leave a healthy one for months without a drop of water and it would probably recover when you start to water it again. However, that doesn’t mean they enjoy suffering from a lack of water. For best growth from spring through mid-fall, water thoroughly as soon as the growing mix is dry to the touch, much like any other houseplant, really. In late fall and winter, let the plant dry out more thoroughly.
Shriveled leaves can indicate excessively dry soil: it’s best not to delay watering until the plants reach that stage. (If the leaves are shriveled and the potting mix is soaking wet, that could mean rot. See Problems below for more on that subject.)
Humidity: As can be expected given their origins in very arid climates, echeverias are highly tolerant of dry air. They do fine in humid air as well, as long as there is reasonable air circulation. They will rot in stagnant, humid air such as inside a terrarium.
Fertilizer: Echeverias grow fine with no fertilizer at all, but you’ll get better growth if you apply a very dilute fertilizer in spring and summer, perhaps at a quarter of the recommended rate. Any fertilizer will do.
Temperature: They tolerate both extreme heat and, in winter, moderate cold, especially if you grow them dry. Most will not tolerate frost and even temperatures of 40 °F (5 °C) can prove fatal, especially if the soil is moist. Try to keep them above 55 °F (13 °C) at all times, just to be safe
Grooming: Remove dead lower leaves as needed and also clip off the flower stems when the bloom is over. Some grow aerial roots on bare parts of the stem: you can clip those off too if they don’t appeal to you.
Many echeverias become quite rangy after a year or so, especially if not given enough light. If so, cut off and root the top (see Multiplication). They’ll then grow back from the base as well.
Repotting: Echeverias produce a fairly limited root system when grown in pots and can remain in surprisingly small containers for years. Move them into a bigger pot if they become crowded. Shallow, wide pots are best, as they can allow the plant to expand through offsets.
Like most succulents, echeverias need good drainage, so a mix that isn’t too dense is best. Many people use cactus mix for repotting precisely because of its excellent drainage, or mix a bit of grit (parakeet gravel, for example) into standard potting mix (houseplant mix). Even so, if you just used plain potting mix, that would also be fine, as modern houseplant blends are light and airy.
The current trend toward growing echeverias in teacups and other found objects, while cute, can be deadly, as they rarely have drainage holes. Avoid growing these plants in any kind of pot from which excess water will not be able to drain. And no, putting a drainage layer in the bottom of a container doesn’t help in the least. Water just accumulates in the drainage layer and then rot sets in.
If you want to plant echeverias in found objects, pierce a reasonable drainage hole in it first!
Multiplication: You can cut the top off an echeveria that has become too leggy over time and root it. Just insert the stem into a pot filled with growing mix. Although you’ll often see mentioned that you should let the cutting harden off by exposing to air it to a week or two, in fact, you can simply pot it up right away. Keep on the mix on the dry side until growth is evident.
You can likewise remove and pot up offsets that form at the base of the plant. Since they’re already rooted, you can treat them like adult plants from the start. Any offsets that form on the stem can also be removed and pressed into a pot of soil where they’ll soon root.
Also, most echeverias grow readily from leaf cuttings. Just break the leaf off at its base. You can insert the cut end into a pot of growing mix or even simply leave the leaf lying on top of the mix where aerial roots will soon appear and find their own way into the mix below. In a month or so, a tiny new plant will appear. Young plants grow surprisingly quickly.
Echeverias can be grown from seed too, but most are hybrids and therefore don’t come true to type, so this is rarely done.
Any multiplication is best done in spring or summer.
Pests and Diseases: Rot is the most likely problem and is usually linked to insufficient light or overwatering … or both! If you find your plant collapsing (in an echeveria, that’s what rot looks like), you may be able to take a top cutting (if growth above is still healthy) and save it. If the entire stem has turned to mush, there are usually a few still-sturdy leaves you could still root.
Mealybugs and their cousins, scale insects, will infest echeverias … and indeed, most houseplants. Spraying with insecticidal oils and soaps can damage the foliage, melting notably the whitish farina that covers the leaves. Try spraying instead with rubbing alcohol: mix 1 part 70% rubbing alcohol with 7 parts water and spray on plants, especially between the leaves where the insects often hide. More information here.
If your plant grows weakly and looks pale, unpot it carefully and check for root mealybugs. If you discover any, it’s best to try starting a new plant from cuttings that weren’t in contact with the soil.
You often see echeverias painted in various bright and clearly artificial colors in nurseries. I’m hoping it’s a trend that will soon die out, but you never know. Obviously, if a plant’s leaves are coated in paint, they can’t carry out photosynthesis, so the poor plant is in deep doodoo. It will desperately try to produce new leaves. Under good light, it might succeed and recuperate, but many echeverias are grown in too much shade to start with and so just die.
Just avoid buying these poor mistreated plants.
I’m going to be cruel here, but I suspect that many people who buy spray-painted plants really don’t give a fig about plant survival at any rate: they just want a cute decoration. They’ll probably throw the plant out anyway as soon as new green leaves appear, as the now-bicolored plant will now look awkward and, quite honestly, even ugly.
Echeverias: they’re such fascinating plants and offer so much choice. But they do need their sun!