July 2, 2011
Barbara J. Euser
For the water-conscious gardener, succulents may make an ideal contribution to the garden. Their varied textures, shapes and sizes will enhance the garden's design. Some succulents can contribute colorful
flowers, others add striking foliage or sculptural forms. They may be planted in decorative pots, borders, or in the hard-to-water corners of the garden. More than 60 plant families include plants with succulent characteristics, distributed among 300 genera and thousands of species.
A succulent requires little or infrequent water because it is able to store water. Succulents are divided into those that store water in their leaves, stems or roots. Succulents that store water in their leaves often have thick, fleshy leaves covered with a tough skin, such as aloe vera. Plants that store water in their trunk often have small branches and leaves. Cacti are examples of stem succulents: their leaves have been reduced to spines. Other plants store water in their leaves and stems, for example jade plants. Geophytes, plants that die back during part of the year to their bulbs, tuberous roots, corms or rhizomes, are also considered succulents. Amaryllis, bromeliads and hyacinths are example of this type of succulent. Epiphytes, plants that live in the air, unattached to the ground, are succulents that depend on their ability to store water obtained from rain and fog. Some succulents are highly tolerant of salt and other chemicals and can live along the sea coast, in dry lakes or in highly polluted soil.
Other attributes that help succulents conserve water include:
• leaves that are cylindrical or spherical in shape, reduced in size, or absent
• fewer stomata (the openings in the leaves that allow transpiration)
• form of growth that is compact, columnar or spherical
• shallow roots to absorb moisture from light rain or heavy dew
• waxy, hairy or spiny outer surfaces that create humid micro-habitats, reducing air movement and water loss.
Small succulents may be used effectively as accents in the garden. For example, sedum or stone crop may be used as edging or even planted between paving stones or along foot paths.
Sansevieria — otherwise known as snake plant or mother-in-law's
tongue — is a plant I remember from my childhood. Now I understand that this undemanding plant can tolerate low light, high or low heat, and erratic
watering. Although I never really liked its long, knife-like leaves, it easily
provided some green and life to otherwise sterile apartments. Sansevieria will thrive outdoors in a Mediterranean climate and its stiff straight leaves can add welcome contrast to soft, flowering borders.
Echeveria is a large genus of succulents characterized by lovely rosettes of fleshy leaves. They reproduce freely by offsets, tiny plants that grow around the edge of the mother plant. One of the most popular is Echeveria secunda, also known as Hen and Chicks. Depending on the species, Echeverias may be green, gray, silver, violet or even rose-hued. They are grown mostly for their foliage, although some species and cultivars
develop stalks with flowers that are also quite attractive, for example
Echeveria 'Blue Curl.'
Kalanchoes are succulents with showy flowers that can add a bright splash to the drought-tolerant garden.
Jade plants, also known as money plants because their thick leaves resemble coins, can be grown in pots near the front door of the house. According to practitioners of feng-shui, this welcoming plant in the
entryway will bring prosperity to the homeowner.
Yucca trees store water in their trunks. With their interesting forms, they may serve as point-of-interest specimen plants.
Another very effective specimen plant is agave, which can grow to immense size in Mediterranean climates, 10 feet across or more. Also called century plants, they look like enormous pieces of living sculpture and may thrive for many years. Eventually, the agave will produce a
tall stalk with flowers. After the plant flowers once, it will die.
Succulents tend to reproduce very easily: a stalk, or even a leaf of a plant, may root itself and grow into a new plant. Some succulents, such as ice plant, have become invasive species in California. When planting succulents in the garden, pay attention to how they may spread
and control them with respect and sensitivity to the environment.
Author: Barbara J. Euser