Everything You Need to Know About Succulents
Learn how to care for succulents, plus get decorating ideas for making wreaths, centerpieces and even wedding bouquets.
Succulents are one of the easiest plants to grow. They require little care, can propagate with minimal effort, and they make great decorating accessories that to go with any style.
A succulent is a plant that stores water in its leaves, stems or both. (Yeah, the name makes sense.) They come in many different types, species and cultivars. But what makes them so popular is their wide assortment of colors, sizes and unusual shapes ranging from twisty spikes to soft, fuzzy leaves.
Many people think succulents are desert plants. However, they don’t come from any one particular climate or zone. They’re native to a variety of ecosystems from deserts to freezing mountains to steamy jungles. Some are tropical and will freeze easily, while others can tolerate sub-zero temperatures. So you can’t treat all succulents the same way. Some will work great in a terrarium on your windowsill while others will thrive next to your driveway for years to come.
Most succulents enjoy a generous amount of filtered sunlight. A few varieties like sansevieria (a.k.a. - mother-in-law's tongue) and hoya (a.k.a. - wax plant) can tolerate low light. Plant your succulent in a pot with ample drainage holes, they don’t like staying wet. Also, use a potting mix that won’t hold moisture. Try a cactus mix or add sand, pumice or pearlite to a standard mix.
Known botanically as Hoya, wax plant is one of those houseplants that always makes you look good. It’s next to impossible to kill—unless you water it too much. This plant is a succulent, able to store water in its thick leaves and stems. It grows in low light, but you’ll get to see its waxy blooms in a high light setting. Feel free to leave this one for a week or more without water.
In the Garden
If you’re growing succulents outdoors, make sure to place them in a spot that won’t stay wet for long, otherwise they will rot. Also, many succulents will not survive a hard freeze, so double check before you plant. Two of the most popular kinds of succulents, Sedum and sempervivum (a.k.a. - hens and chicks) are winter-proof and will last and spread for years to come.
Glaucous Echeveria (Echeveria secunda glauca)
It’s tough to beat rugged succulents for drought tolerant good looks. Echeveria blends beauty with strong textural appeal. Rosettes of leaves sparkle in silvery-gray and contrast artfully with the bead-like leaves of pork and beans sedum (Sedum x rubrotinctum). Plant both of these water wise plants in a spot that’s well-drained.
Hens and Chicks
Sunburn can be a problem with hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), so grow these plants in a cool, shaded spot if you're in the desert Southwest. Hardy to -30 degrees F., hens and chicks open cup-shaped blooms from June to August. The "hen" dies after flowering, but lots of "chicks" will soon take its place in your meadow garden.
Caring for a Succulent
Succulents store water in their leaves, so the larger the leaves, the more water the succulent is holding. They like water in their leaves but not on their roots. They’ll rot away if their base sits in water. Thus, it’s best to underwater a succulent than it is to overwater it.
When it comes to sunlight succulents can vary. Some will thrive in direct sunlight where others might need some afternoon shade. Research your particular kind and if you need to experiment, try moving it to a different location in your house.
Succulents are the perfect plant to share. If your friend compliments you on your succulent collection, be generous and offer them a piece to grow their own. Most succulents have a shallow root system so they can often propagate from a small cutting or even just a single leaf. Check the feature below to see the best method for your particular type of plant.
What About Cactus?
A cactus is a succulent, but not all succulents are cactuses, and not all cactuses have spikes and thorns. Technically, what makes a cactus a cactus is that they have small lumps called aeroles, from which their spines and leaf buds sprout. Succulents don’t have these aeroles. That may not necessarily matter to you if you see a plant you like at the store, just make sure to follow that plant’s particular care instructions.
Bred by cactus expert Jeff Thompson, of Pueblo, Colorado, this hybrid hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus canus x russanthus) opens its green and caramel-brown flowers in spring. Grow it in western and hot desert regions for its highly attractive, ornamental spines.
Decorating With Succulents
Because succulents are compact and very hardy, they are ideal for all types of arrangements like wreaths, wall hangings and even wedding bouquets. Vary the shapes, colors and sizes to create an eye-catching display. Here are some good choices for arrangements: dwarf jade (Portulacaria), tiger jaws (faucaria), stone crop (sedum), desert pinwheel (aeonium), hen and chicks (sempervivum), Mexican hen and chicks (echeveria), and ghost plant (graptopetalum).