The ‘Camels’ of the Plant World.
A succulent is a plant that survives periods of drought by storing water in its leaves, stems or roots or a combination of the three. It is a biological mechanism that has evolved over millennia to accommodate changing climate, geologic and geophysical conditions.
Major centers of succulent diversity are Mexico, Central America, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Somalia, Kenya and Madagascar. However, there are succulents native to Europe, Turkey, Asia, North American and all the countries in North Africa too. Knowing the ancestral home of a plant can be a helpful guide to its cultural needs and how to grow it well.
Imagine a huge tree with 51 branches – this represents the tree of succulents. Only one branch would be cacti (from the family Cactaceae). All the other branches would be succulents from 50 other plant families. For example, the ice plant family (Aizoacea), jade family (Crassulaceae), and aloes (Asphodelaceae). Some plant families have only one member that “went succulent” (Senecio) where in other cases all members are succulent such as Cactaceae and Crassulaceae (Sempervivums, Sedums, Aeoniums, Dudleyas and Echeverias to name a few genera in this enormous family) with members from Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Succulents come from a variety of habitats: cliff sides (Dudleyas), mountains (Lewisias), tree canopies (Epiphyllums), grasslands (Haworthias), lava fields (Sedum oxypetalatum and frutescens) as well as high deserts (Oreocereus) and semi deserts (Opuntias). This is just the beginning of a short list!
Due to their varied homelands on the planet, succulents can assume water wise and other duties in our landscapes. For example, Sedums and Sempervivums, which hail from temperate mountain ranges all over the world, can thrive on walls, roofs, pots of all sorts and just about any other vessel imaginable including baby buggies, worn out boots and chairs.
In addition to drought tolerance, succulent plants can act as fire barriers due to their high water content. Low growing succulents can tolerate high winds and fog plus create a weed suppressing mat. The roots of many succulents are short and dense so they are a good solution for steep slopes or hilly terrains providing natural erosion control and help in reduction of soil evaporation.
Basic culture is the same for all succulents, whether in a pot or in landscapes: good drainage, generous watering but only when necessary, adequate light, good air ventilation and a rest period when no fertilizing takes place and the water schedule is reduced. (Generally this is in winter but if the plant is indoors or a Lithop or other rock mimicry plant their summer is our winter so watering and fertilizing schedule is the opposite of our northern hemisphere approach).
Article by Rella Gadulka, owner of Simply Succulent Nursery at 31250 Highway 20, Fort Bragg. Rella has been growing plants since she was five years old, and is now considerably older. She is a member of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America and the International Sedum Society. Her staff is friendly and can provide trustworthy information and they are all “plant lovers.” Join them Fridays-Mondays, 10-4, Feb-Dec. Sometimes they also offer classes in wreath making, centerpiece design and creation of Bouquets in a Cup. Check the Facebook page Simply Succulent/Fort Bragg for more information.