Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Myths about Succulents

I adore succulents and am frequently surprised by the myths about their environment and care.  
Teaching about succulents is one of my favorite lectures.  Essentially a succulent is a plant that has developed a system where the leaves, stem or roots become more fleshy when storing water for future use.  Generally plants need to store water when they grow in an environment that is dry - like a desert.  Plants adapted to growing in dry environments are xerophytes; so succulents are often xerophytes (but not always.)  


Queen Victoria Agave Succulent
Myth 1) Succulents need a lot of direct sunlight - FictionSucculent plants need light but they thrive in filtered light not direct sunlight. In the real world young succulents grown next to their parent or other large plants. This provides filtered light. Like other plants, there is no fast rule of thumb for light levels needed.  However, if new growth on the succulent is paler green (or whatever color it is typically) and elongated (stretched out), then it needs more light. If the side of the succulent that generally faces the light source is yellowing, tanning, red or indented (drying out), it is getting too much light. Move your plant around to find it's happy spot and note that this will change throughout the year. Remember to rotate :)

Myth 2) Succulents go dormant in wintertime: FictionMost cactus and succulents have an active period about 1/3 of the year an are dormant for 1/3 of the year and in transition for the rest!  However, they are not all dormant at the same time of year. Some succulents are winter growers and others are summer growers. For example, many Aloes are winter growers. My aloe changes colors and looks fairly sickly in the summer - I have to move it out of the sun at that time. 

Myth 3) Succulents don't need a lot of water - Mostly FactDuring their active period watering can be frequent and dilute  fertilizer applied. As the succulent moves into dormant period, reduce the frequency of watering. Each plant has different needs - so a little experimentation is good. I start with a good watering (water coming out the bottom of the pot) once a week ingrowing season and once a month in the dormant period. Then I adapt to see who they individually respond. Others water when the soil is completely dry, then water thoroughly and then let dry. The challenge here is a dry soil mix can be very challenging to get properly moist. In addition there are some "jungle cactus" like the Christmas Cactus which should never have their soil dry out. (Epiphytic cactus(jungle cactus) evolved where it was warm and humid. They adapted to growing in trees, so they tolerate shady moist conditions. I water my hand-me-down Christmas Cactus every three days.)

Myth 4) All Succulents are cactus - Fiction:  Common succulents include cacti, begonia, bromeliad, agave, crassula, sansevaria, and euphorbia. All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are Cacti.

5) Succulents all grow in deserts - Fiction Jungle Cactus grow off ground in warm/humid situations. Some succulents live under arctic conditions and others are cold hardy. For example, here is a picture of some Hens & Chicks that are in my Chicago garden. sedums are succulents which die back in this zone, but remain perennial

6) Succulent sap or juice is healthy - Fiction: While the sap or juice from the Aloe plant is beneficial for healthy and digestive health, this is not a fact. The sap from euphorbia is frequently a skin sensitizer and in some cases, if in contact with the eyes, may cause blindness. For example the Poinsetta and Crown of Thorns are poisonous if ingested and are skin irritants

7) Succulents should be planted in sand - FictionThe most important consideration potting soil for succulents is drainage.  The soil must be porous so that water penetrates easily and drains away quickly. A soil that remains wet for long periods of time can quickly kill the roots of most succulent plants. There is no one recipe for a succulent soil mix; however 100% sand is not advised.  My succulent soil mix is 2 parts by volume of a potting soil, 1 part perlite, and 1 part small size gravel.  Or if I have no stones I use 1:1 mixture of potting soil and perlite.  If sand is added to a mix, use the coarsest type you can find and treat it as the gravel in the recipe. 

My Great Grandmothers Christmas Cactus
Large Potted Jade Tree Succulent


8) Succulents like tight roots/small pots - Fact: Most succulents thrive in a container that seems way to small for them. See this picture of the mature jade tree I have relative to the size of the container.  These plants should be repotted every two years - however, the size of the container need not necessarily be increased. It is more important to remove spent soil, any damaged roots, and refresh the potting mix. 

9) Succulents thrive on neglect - Fiction: They require less care than roses or some other plants. Certainly the snake plant doesn't need a great deal of care, however, I would say they can sustain a great deal of neglect - but they won't thrive without proper care (light, water, fertilizer, repotting)

Well this is just a little start about succulents. They are a great addition to your houseplant or garden collection. Yes - you can grow succulents even in a cold climate. Check out some tips on propagating the succulent sedums and general succulent propagation for other varieties.

Today I'm singing Marty Robbins' Tumbling Tumbleweed;

Enjoy!



Teresa Marie