Ginny Shaw presented a program on succulent plants at the November meeting of the Rainbow Gardeners of Shelby County.
There are 57 distinct families of succulents, she said, and more than 8,000 varieties. They share one trait: thick leaves, roots or stems used to store water, making them drought tolerant.
Shaw focused on eight of the most popular families of succulents which she uses in her garden.
Graptopetalum is sometimes called “ghost plant.” Most are tropical (not hardy in the local Zone 6, but may be overwintered indoors). They often develop long stems as bottom leaves die and fall off. Sunlight influences leaf color: more sun makes pink; more shade makes bluish-gray. Leaves at the bottom of the plant die naturally. A cut leaf may be planted in soil to start new plant. Many have variegated leaf color.
Echeveria leaves are always in a rosette pattern and vary in size from 1 inch to 20 inches across. The leaves change color according to temperature; many are hardy to Zone 4. They produce baby plants called “pups” which can be separated from the parent and replanted. They have a very shallow root system.
Sedum/stonecrop are widely variable in height and width from tall plants with autumn blooms to ground covers. It has the widest range of zone hardiness, from zone 3 to zone 9. Many have star-shaped flowers or tight clusters of star-shaped flowers. Most lose their leaves in winter. Strip off lower leaves and plant in moist soil to start new plants. Burro’s Tail sedum is tropical.
Sempervivum is commonly called “hens and chicks” and is often confused with echeveria because of rosette leaf pattern. After it produces a flower, the parent plant dies. Some are tropical; others are hardy. Pups are formed on a long stem and can be replanted. This plant is very drought tolerant, comes in a wide range of colors and can be grown in light shade.
Crassula ovata is often called “jade plant.” Its thick stems become woody with age. The leaves grow across from each other and may have red tips when grown in bright sunlight. Cooler nighttime temperatures are conducive to flowering, but flowers are not very attractive. It does not tolerate frost.
Aeonium is purple or burgundy if grown in the sun; green if grown in shade. A variety called “Zwartkop” is the deepest purple. The plant has a rosette-shaped leaf structure on top of a longer stem. It is often used in the center of a container since it can grow quite tall. The flowers are pyramid-shape, bright yellow, and very striking. It’s tropical.
Cactus offers a few varieties that are hardy in Zone 6. Spines and needles are the leaves of cacti; they serve to keep herbivores away. Pups can be replanted, but must be provided with shade. Pups develop at the base of the plant. Most cacti flower between May and July. Flowering generally will not take place until the plant is at least three years old.
Tillandsia is also known as “air plant.” It is tropical and can receive air and moisture without soil; it may attach to trees or rocks. Soak briefly or mist once a week. It prefers light shade or indirect sun. There are more than 500 varieties. Steam from a bathroom shower is enough to keep them alive and growing.
Shaw offered tips on care:
• Terra cotta pots are best for most succulents, especially those kept indoors, since it allows the roots to breathe.
• Most tropical succulents are happy to be outdoors during the summer as long as drainage in their containers is adequate.
• If planted in a pot with no drainage, succulents need to be repotted monthly.
• Wide, shallow pots are perfect for most succulents because of their shallow roots. Jade plants need deeper pots.
• Use regular potting soil or cactus soil.
• Water sparingly once a week and use a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer for best growth.
• Succulents grown indoors do best with east sunlight.
• Most outdoor succulents do well in full sun.
• Don’t mix cacti or aloe vera with other succulents in the same pot. Cacti and aloe vera require more water.
• Watch out for mealy bugs, aphids and spider mites toward the end of winter on succulents that are kept indoors.
• Touching the leaves of succulents may leave fingerprints that cause permanent color changes.
• If stems or leaves become mushy, that is a sign of overwatering or frost damage. Snip off the top and root in dry soil. Stop watering for two weeks until the plant shows signs of recovery.
• Succulents have shiny leaves. Dull leaves may mean lack of water. It will not harm a plant to give it a bath in tepid water, allowing the water to drain thoroughly afterwards.
• If a plant becomes leggy, it needs more light. Move it closer to a light source.
• Succulents crowded into a container will remain smaller.
• Mix a variety of succulents in one container for a more interesting and colorful display. Make sure that the light, water and temperature needs for the plants are similar.
Shaw said she does not have enough space or patience to let leaves dry out and callous for propogating new plants. She has had good success by immediately planting leaf ends or stems dipped in rooting hormone in slightly moist soil. However, she cautioned that she is very careful not to overwater.