Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Succulents: little effort, big reward

  • Marie Narlock
  • Succulents are like well-behaved teenagers: they're independent, well-dressed, and they drink responsibly. Heck, if all teens were like this, we might have more kids.

    That's exactly why we've seen a massive proliferation of succulents. Everywhere you look, succulents are stealing the show: in backyards and porches, containers on decks in every size and shape, median strips, shop windows and offices, restaurant counters, apartment buildings, living walls, massive commercial landscapes, and even rooftop gardens.

    Regardless of location, succulents can be counted on to supply head-turning color and texture, hummingbird-loving flowers, and unsurpassed durability – all with little effort.

    The UC Marin Master Gardeners invite you to join this trend by attending their Big Outdoor Succulent Sale from 8 am to 12 pm on Saturday, July 11, at the Falkirk Cultural Center at 1408 Mission Avenue in San Rafael. The sale features hundreds of 4" pots plus mixed succulent plantings from simple and understated to large, elaborate creations – all handmade by UC Marin Master Gardeners. Cash or check only.

    Please note that masks are mandatory, tables will be six feet apart, social distancing will be observed, and the number of shoppers in the sale area will be regulated.

    This is a great opportunity to bring fresh beauty into your home or garden, to get started with succulents if you haven't already, and to witness their attributes first-hand.

    Succulent care is a cinch

    Give succulents good drainage, deep but intermittent water (allow soil to dry out between waterings), good air circulation, and bright light. Most do not appreciate heat over 90F. If you live where summer sizzles, provide a little afternoon shade.

    Propagation is literally a snap. Simply snap off a stalk, stem, or sometimes even a leaf. Let it scab over for a day or two, then pop it into soil. Voila! A new plant. When succulents make new baby plants – that is, the "pups" that form alongside the mother plant – snap them off, pot them up, and give them to friends as gifts.

    Succulents store water and food in spongy leaves, stems, or roots. When drought or other long, dry periods occur, they tap these reserves. Some succulents have survived for two years without water. Other water-conserving features include fewer stomata (the tiny openings in leaves that allow transpiration), shallow roots that absorb moisture from light rain or heavy dew, and waxy, hairy, or spiny surfaces that reduce air movement and water loss.

    In the news: California native succulent threatened by poachers

    Succulents come from every continent except Antarctica. There are about 10,000 types, of which 2,000 are cacti. All cacti are succulents that originated in South America before it was connected to North America.

    Today, many succulents face extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, and even illegal poaching.

    One of California's native succulents, the beautiful Dudleya farinosa that lights up coastal bluffs in Pt. Reyes, has been the target of poachers. Thousands of plants have been smuggled from coastal California to various foreign countries. The thieves are disturbing the ecosystem and even tampering with history, as some of the large poached specimens may be 50 to 100 years old.

    Law enforcement is onto this illegal activity, which continues today. Individuals have been arrested and convicted of felony grand theft. Sadly, that does not replace these coastal treasures.

    Food, medicine, liquor, and more

    Among the most popular products derived from succulents is aloe vera, used for centuries for its purported healing properties. Edible succulents include the Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus repandus) that produces bright pink fruit, strawberry cactus (Echinocerreus) with strawberry-raspberry flavored fruit, and garambulos, which produce sweet berries.

    Central America's Agave sislana produces sisal, a fiber used since pre-Columbian times. Today, many homes have sisal rugs and sisal ropes and twines are used for a variety of industrial uses.

    Other agaves have more spirited usage. Tequila is derived from the apt named Agave tequilana, and mescal comes from several types of agaves.