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What Are Succulents

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Succulents are plants that are able to store water in specialised tissue during periods of drought. These plants may have:

  • fleshy leaves (e.g. echeverias and pachyphytums)
  • fleshy stems (cacti)
  • fleshy stem-root structure (haworthias)

Many people are familiar with succulents such as agaves, aloes and euphorbias that they may have seen on holidays to Spain and the USA and these are mostly associated with arid areas. However, succulents can be found growing naturally in many different environments throughout the world where water is restricted or scarce at certain times of the year.

Succulent plants from the northern hemisphere that gardeners may recognise include sempervivums (houseleeks), sedums (stonecrops) and saxifrages. Many of these plants grow naturally in alpine conditions and are hardy in the United Kingdom. More exotic succulents can be grown as specimens in pots outside in summer and under cover in winter and many make ideal house plants. See the gallery for images of the plants and resources for links and recommended books.

Popular succulent groups

Echeveria

This is a large genus consisting of plants with fleshy leaves that may grow in a stemless or shrubby branching rosette formation. The plants look similar to sempervivums at first glance, and can be confused with this species. Echeverias are native to Mexico and parts of central and southern America where they grow in mountain areas, which means they can also withstand quite low temperatures. Leaf colours vary greatly from pale green to opalescent mauve and black, with wavy edged or plump and hairy leaf shapes and textures.

In the United Kingdom, a number of varieties are commonly grown as bedding plants because of their tight, compact form and are used in floral clocks and civic crests at seaside resorts. These plants are now becoming popular in wedding displays and bouquets. Many echeverias are half-hardy and some can be overwintered outside if kept dry and frost-free. Most plants offset readily and will eventually form clumps with nodding bells of pink, yellow and orange flowers in the spring and summer. The wide variety of species and cultivars mean that echeverias easily complement other succulents when grown in containers, but look equally spectacular as specimen plants. Beautiful varieties include Echeveria agavoides, Echeveria affinis and Echeveria lilacina.

Haworthia and Gasteria

Haworthias are a large group of striking, architectural plants, often with spiky leaves streaked or blotched with attractive white markings. They are native to southern Africa, and are generally small to medium-sized plants that form spiky clumps. Striking varieties include Haworthia reinwardtii, Haworthia arachnoidea and Haworthia truncata and the Zebra plant – Haworthia fasciata – that many people may be familiar with, which has raised white stripes and blotches on its leaves.

Gasterias are plants with firm, angular leaves that may be variegated and covered in raised bumps, or smooth and shiny. These small to medium-sized plants are slow growing and form clumps. Notable varieties include Gasteria armstrongii and Gasteria verruscosa.

Both groups have attractive flowers that resemble tiny flamingos on tall stalks and make stunning, unusual house and conservatory plants.

Sedum

Another large, varied group of plants that includes examples in temperate parts of the world as well as central and southern Africa and the Americas. Many sedums are hardy and are grown as alpines in containers and rock gardens. They are popular as a turf substitute for ‘green’ roofs as they provide good ground cover and can withstand dry conditions. Sedums come in a large variety of forms with many pretty cultivars that complement some of the larger succulents well. Useful varieties include Sedum acre and Sedum morganianum – sometimes known as Donkey’s Tail, because of its trailing habit. The leaves are small and plump and pale green and resemble green beads on a string.

Sempervivum

These small, rosette-forming, evergreen perennials provide colour all year round. They are decorative plants, which are indispensable for the rock garden, raised bed, scree, dry wall or trough.  Sempervivum originate in the mountain areas of Europe, central Asia and North Africa where they often grow in crevices in the rocks. Although the plants have attractive flowers, they are grown mainly for their colourful, architectural foliage. Flower colours range from pink and red through to purple, white and yellow. A close cousin, Jovibarba, is very similar but has the benefit of not being monocarpic – this means, unlike Sempervivums, it does not die after flowering.

Aloe

Most people are familiar with the species Aloe vera as it is used in a range of household products for its soothing and medicinal properties. However, this plant group includes a wide variety of plants, ranging from trees and large branching shrubs to tiny delicate specimens. Mostly native to southern and eastern Africa, aloes look fantastic as specimens and some large, older plants can withstand United Kingdom winters outdoors. They produce bright, colourful flowers in red, orange and pink. This group contains many varieties suitable for houseplants and some can tolerate partial shade as well as being tough as old boots. Popular varieties include Aloe atristata and Aloe variegata (the partridge-breasted aloe).

Agave

Agave americana will be recognised by people who have travelled to Spain, where these Mexican plants have naturalised. It is also known as the century plant to reflect it’s infrequent flowering when huge, towering flower spikes are thrown out from the crown at terrific speed. Agaves are great statement plants but not all are huge, which means they can also be grown in containers in conservatories and on patios. Beautiful forms include Agave filifera, which has white markings and curling fronds and Aloe stricta with red-tipped needle-like leaves.

Mesembryanthemum

These are a huge group of very small succulents, with fleshy leaves and mostly with brightly coloured daisy-like flowers. It includes lithops (sometimes known as living stones), fenestraria, conophytums and lampanthrus species. The hardiness of some mesembryanthemums makes them popular for sunny seaside borders.