Succulents are coming into their own as rock-star plants, and it's about time. Sometimes called "fat plants" because of their thick, water-storing leaves, succulents come in a mind-boggling range of sizes, shapes and colors. But all have evolved to store water. You may decide to install succulents in your backyard to conserve water, but the odds are you will fall in love with this wild, crazily diverse group of truly unusual plants.
Drought Adaptations That Really Work
Many succulents hail from dry, desert areas of the planet and have been forced to adjust to high temperatures and low rainfall. They have developed diverse ways to get by, including by developing water-storing capability in their leaves, roots and stems, which gives the plants a puffy or swollen look. Other water-saving adaptations include:
- few leaves or spherical leaves;
- a compact, columnar or spherical growth pattern;
- a ribbed structure that lets the plants increase their girth rapidly when water is available; and
- a tough outer surface that is waxy, hairy or spiny to reduce air movement and create a humid microhabitat around the succulent.
Incredible Diversity of Succulents
Reducing water use is only one reason to consider succulents. They also happen to be among the most diverse and astonishing plants on the planet.
Found in a wide variety of genera from agave to sedum, succulents can be tiny or towering, with thousands of variations on the theme. You'll find tall columns of succulents like cacti, spear-leaved plants like yucca or perfect rosettes that look like flowers made of fat leaves. Succulents appear in every shade of green, as well as blue, purple, red and rosy gray. And the flowers! Suddenly stalks shoot up out of nowhere topped by brilliant blooms that light up your succulent garden.
Cool Succulents to Try
With such a wealth of succulent options, it's hard to know where to begin. Start with a few from these popular, easy-care plant groups, then add to your collection when you see one you just can't resist.
- Echeveria: Rosette-shaped plants that range from tiny to 2 feet across, echeverias come in a wide variety of pastel tones of green, blue, purple or brown. Watch for floral stems to pop up from the rosettes in late summer or fall, topped by showy, bell-shaped blossoms. Try 'Black Prince' for chocolate leaves and crimson autumn flowers.
- Sempervivum: Look for neat rosettes of pointed leaves that spread by offsets around the mother plant. These plants are sometimes called houseleeks or "hens and chicks." Flowers like small stars shoot up on stems far above the plant.
- Aloes: From short, stemless plants to taller-than-you-are trees, aloes are awesome. Their rosettes are fleshy, pointed leaves that grow from the center of the plant. The long flower stalks carry fiery tubular blooms.
- Dasylirion: The thick stems are woody, in striking contrast to the slender, grass-like leaves that shimmer in the sun and wave in the breeze. The flowers grow along tall spikes.
- Dudleya: Native to the West Coast, these succulents have leaves with pointed tips that form low, dense rosettes. They flower in winter, with star-shaped blossoms on long stems.
- Sedum: Some tiny, some shrub-sized, these succulents have needle-like leaves that are canary yellow in summer, turning rust in winter. The starry, vivid flowers appear in stemmed clusters at summer's end. One cultivar to try: 'Autumn Joy' with bright green leaves and long-blooming plates of flowers that change from pink to golden-brown over the course of the year.
Caring for Succulents
Despite the thousands of species and cultivars available, most succulents share the same growing requirements. They like a sunny or bright location and poor soil (low in organic content) with excellent drainage. Most succulents also need good air circulation and will fail in heavy wet soil.
Care is easy. Water deeply but only when the soil is completely dry from the previous drink. Overwatering is perhaps the biggest problem that cultivated succulents face, so be sure you wait until it is very dry. Some gardeners water succulent gardens only six times a year.