Succulent plants or simply succulents are fleshy plants adapted to survive in arid environments. Their main feature is their ability to store water in their leaves, stems or roots in the form of sap. In fact, that’s how they got their name: the term succulent comes from the Latin “succus”, meaning “sap”.
Cactus or succulent?
Although you commonly hear the term “cactus and succulents”, it’s actually pretty redundant. Cacti are succulents, belonging to one of the few plant families whose members are all succulents, the Cactaceae. So all the cacti are succulents… but not all succulents are cacti, as there are plenty of plants in other families.
If you didn’t quite get that, it’s like poodles and dogs: all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles.
Adaptive Evolution in Response to Drought
Succulence has evolved independently many times in nature in many different plant families. In fact, some 65 families of plants have at least a few succulent members, including such unlikely ones as the begonia family and the orchid family.
In response to a climate that is becoming increasingly dry, those plants that are best able to tolerate drought survive and multiply while less drought-tolerant plants are gradually eliminated. When this process is repeated generation after generation, the survival of the fittest starts to operate in a big way, leading to plants that are less and less like their ancestors and more and more able to deal with drought.
Obviously, there are many ways to survive drought. Some plants learn to go dormant when water is scarce, others reduce the size of their leaves (most of the water that plants absorb is lost by evapotranspiration through the open stomata of their leaves), others adopt an annual lifestyle and learn to grow, bloom and go do seed rapidly after a rain before dying, others retreat entirely underground during the dry season, etc. Storing water reserves above ground in stems or leaves is however the most visible way plants face an arid climate.
Many succulent plants, including cacti, abandoned their leaves along the way. These plants learned to carry out photosynthesis using only the chlorophyll-rich green cells in their stems. Thus leaves, which generally lose more water than stems because they’re thinner and ave greater number of stomata, were eliminated. In the case of cacti, those leaves were converted into spines.
Other plants, such as the numerous plants in the Crassulaceae (crassulas, kalanchoes, sedums, etc.) and in the Asphodelaceae (aloes, haworthias, gasterias, etc.) families kept their leaves, but modified them, covering them with a thick cuticle, reducing the number of stomata and turning them into water storage facilities. Their leaves are often covered with white waxy bloom or dense hairs, both of which help reduce water loss by reflecting the sun’s excessively intense rays and thus reduce evapotranspiration.
Relearning to Breath
The evolution of succulents has also led to a rather surprising type of photosynthesis, called Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM. (In spite of the name, this technique is not limited to the Crassulaceae, but developed independently in drought-resistant plants from many different families.)
Most plants open their stomata during the day so as to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and use it directly in photosynthesis which only occurs in the presence of light. In order not to lose too much water to evapotranspiration, they close their stomata at night, when there is no photosynthesis going on.
CAM plants, on the other hand, delay their respiration, opening their stomata only at night when the air is cooler and more humid and thus evapotranspiration is greatly reduced. Therefore they carry out respiration at night, but not photosynthesis, since there is no light. To be able to both breathe and photosynthesize, they store the C02 they absorb at night as malic acid. When daylight comes, they release the CO2 again, inside the leaf, and are thus able to carry out photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight, even though their stomata are firmly closed.
Think of it this way: it’s as if CAM plants hold their breath all day long, even though they’re running marathon, only breathing at night when they stop for a rest! (Ain’t nature amazing!)
Caring for Succulents
There are succulents adapted to cold climates, especially sedums (Sedum spp.) and houseleeks (Sempervivum spp.), that can be grown outdoors year round in even the coldest climates. There are even hardy cacti (especially certain Opuntia species)! But most succulents are tropical or subtropical plants and when we grow them in colder climates, it’s as houseplants.
Succulents are now very popular with the general public and are used all kinds of ways, even in environments where they don’t thrive, such as in shady interiors and in terrariums. Stylists* have discovered something very interesting about succulents: they grow slowly… and die even more slowly. Even when they are mistreated, they can often survive for months, even more than a year. Therefore stylists can use them in situations that will be lethal for the plants and still get away with it. After all, when a plant dies 8 months after you bought it, you’re not likely to realize the fault lies with the person who designed the planting!
*I like to make a distinction between the people I call stylists, who tastefully arrange plants (slow-dying plants like succulents and air plants are their bread and butter) in containers without any real knowledge of or interest in the needs of the plants they use, and real horticulturists, who do know how to grow plants and would never treat them inappropriately.
Some con artists go so far as to spray paint succulents in bright colors (blue, red, pink, orange, even silver or gold!) before selling them to make them more eye-catching. You may hear them claim that this in no way harms the plant, but that is obviously nonsense. A covering of paint reduces the succulent’s ability to carry out photosynthesis, yet photosynthesis is the basis of any plant’s survival. Vendors of painted plants rely on the ability of succulents to survive long-term abuse without dying, that’s all. Such a treatment is more horriculture than horticulture!
Some painted succulents manage to put out new (therefore unpainted) leaves and thus recuperate. If so, bravo for them! But it still doesn’t mean painting them wasn’t mistreating them.
I hope that your goal in growing succulents is not just to see them as temporary decorations to be tossed when they’re no longer attractive, but living plants that you can encourage to grow and thrive. Along that line, here are some tips on really making them happy:
For the vast majority of succulents, full sun, that is, a spot directly in front of a window with a southern exposure, is ideal. Still, most will adapt fairly readily to the more modest light found near an east or west window, as long as they receive a few hours of direct sunlight each day. Most suffer, however, when they are more than 3 or 4 feet (1 m) away from any window. In winter, especially, when weak sun and short days mean sunlight is extremely limited (at least in homes outside the tropics), they really will do best placed close to a south-facing window.
When a succulent lacks light, it can show its distress in various ways: stems that stretch for the light (etiolation), abnormally pale new growth, branches or leaves that droop instead of remaining upright or leaves that are smaller than they were at purchase. This is the plant trying to tell you that it’s suffering.
However, some succulents are not so communicative: they simply stop growing when light is insufficient, looking apparently healthy for months, then die all of a sudden, without warning. If yours puts on no growth at all, especially in summer, that’s not a good sign!
One sign that the plant is receiving adequate lighting is when the foliage becomes edged in red during the summer months. This shows that they really get the lighting they prefer. This phenomenon is particularly evident in crassulas and echeverias.
There are, however, a few succulents that tolerate some shade (but must still get some daily sunlight). Some haworthias (Haworthia spp.) and gasterias (Gasteria spp.), especially those with dark green leaves, are quite shade-resistant, as are most snake plants (Sansevieria spp.). If you have to place a succulent well back from a window or in front of a north-facing window, they make good choices. Note however that although these succulents “tolerate” low light, they are not true shade plants and actually prefer at least moderate light (the snake plant, for example, will survive in shade, but will only flower if placed in the sun).
Most succulents have a distinctly seasonal growth pattern. They grow in spring and summer and slip into dormancy (or near dormancy) in late autumn and winter. Therefore, you’ll need to water more often between March and October and less during the winter. Excess watering when they are nearly dormant can easily lead to rot.
When succulents grow in a pot with drainage holes, watering is easy. During the spring and summer, water them like any indoor plant, completely humidifying the root ball each time: just pour out excess water that drips into the saucer. Then, before watering again, feel the potting soil, sticking a finger right into it, to make sure it is dry. For most of these plants, watering once a week should be quite appropriate during the growing season.
During late fall and winter, it’s better to let the soil dry out even more thoroughly, to the point it nears bone dryness. It’s more difficult to judge the watering needs of succulents at that season, but at room temperatures, watering every two weeks is usually enough. And if you keep the temperature very cold in the winter (40 to 50˚F/5 to 10 ° C), many will only need watering every 2 months!
When succulents grow in containers with no drainage hole, not only pots, but terrariums or decorative displays with nothing at all you could call a pot, watering becomes much more complicated. Just a little too much water and rot sets in. Usually you have to rely on the ability of succulents to tolerate abuse and water them less than they would prefer. This may leave them in a perpetual state of water stress, but they’re tough plants and can live that way for months, even years, without their suffering becoming too apparent. Try to water such plants a few spoonfuls at a time, but only when their soil is very dry.
Most of the time, home temperatures are adequate for succulents: they tolerate both summer heat and the relative freshness of winter without complaint. Nor are they much bothered by air conditioning.
Most desert cacti and agaves, though, prefer a cold winter with widely-spaced waterings, at temperatures between 40 and 50˚F (5 to 10 ° C). In the case of desert cacti, especially, a cold winter helps to stimulate spring or summer bloom.
Air humidity is not a factor of great importance to most succulents. The air in the type of arid climate to which they are native often goes from extremely dry during the day to very humid at night when temperatures drop, much more than it varies in the average home, where the ambiant humidity rarely tops 50%, so adapting to your home’s range of humidity levels is easy for them.
What succulents tolerate poorly is when the air is constantly moist, as in a terrarium (see Cactus Terrariums: Easy On the Eye But Sooo Hard to Manage). If you do grow them under constantly high humidity, be very, very care not to overwater.
Succulents are slow-growing plants that need little room for their roots and so can grow for years in the same pot. When you repot them, ideally in the spring, you can use a cactus potting soil or even an ordinary potting soil to which you can add some sand for extra weight if you want. No drainage layer is required.
Many people like to cover the soil in succulent pots with a layer of decorative stones. That can be quite attractive, but remember that you have to push the stones to one side and sink your finger into the real potting soil to judge whether the plant needs watering.
Fertilize sparingly, at no more than 1/8th of the recommended rate, and only from March to October. Any fertilizer will do: succulents aren’t picky. Actually, even if you never apply fertilizer, they’ll still grow very well!
There are many ways of multiplying succulents: stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, division, seeds, grafting, etc. Which method works on which plants is however variable: it’s best to check out the plant’s particulars on-line or in a book about succulents before proceeding.
Insects and Diseases
The three most common insect pests succulents are stem mealybugs, root mealybugs and scale insects. All come in on infested plants, so isolate any new plants for 40 days and inspect them carefully before introducing them to your collection. They can be hard to eliminate and it may be necessary to cull the infested plant.
Root rot and stem rot, caused by a whole range of fungus species, are the most common diseases and are best prevented by not overwatering and by avoiding excessively humid air. Once they set in, about the only thing to do is to try and take cuttings of any uninfected plant part.
A Summer Outdoors
Most succulents appreciate spending the summer outdoors. Just don’t put them outdoors if they grow in a pot with no drainage hole. Since there is no possibility of evacuating excess water in such pots, even moderate rainfall can lead to fatal rot.
Even if your succulent was growing indoors in full sun on a south-facing window ledge, that doesn’t mean it’s ready for that same full sun outdoors. After all, glass filters out UV rays and it’s UV that burns plants, so its needs to acclimate to the change. Place it outdoors in shade for a few days, then in partial shade for a few days, then in a sunny spot protected from midday sun for a few days. Only after that will it be ready for full, unprotected sunlight.
There you go! A quick overview of succulents and how to grow them. Enjoy discovering the beauty and ease-of-care of these simple plants.