I’m so happy that succulents are trending at the moment. Beautiful, pretty indestructible and drought tolerant. They come in the most amazing shapes and sizes and grow inside and outside without too much effort. Best of all they’re really easy to propagate too.
Another reason I’m happy is because this month’s IBC challenge is all about gardening. And I love gardening. Before I share all my succulent tips, let me quickly tell you about the IBC. Every month a small group of international bloggers from all around the world get together to share a themed project. Last month we did fabrics, which was fun. But I’d far rather get my hands dirty than haul out a sewing machine 😉
Okay back to those succulent tips. A succulent is any plant with thick, fleshy leaves, stems or roots that get used to store water. Common examples include the Aloe, Cactus and Crassula. People often use the terms cactus and succulents together but they’re not the same. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. More about that a little later in the post. And since I’m from South Africa, which is THE succulent “hot spot” of the world, my little patriotic heart is full of smiles right now, because I get to share some pictures of our beautiful indigenous plants with you.
Let me just add, I love succulents but I’m definitely not an expert. The Latin words confuse the crap out of me and every time I find a new succulent I still have to use google to look up the name. That being said, we do have huge collection of succulents and they are all really happy and make lots of babies too. So I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt these last 30 odd years and maybe it will make it easier for you to identify, grow, care for and propagate your own succulents.
Identifying the Most Common Succulents
With more than 10,000 succulent species world-wide, there’s just no way I can list all of them in one post. I’ve made an attempt to put together the most common ones and how you can identify them. Warning – big Latin words coming up 😀 And I’m not even going to try to pronounce them, since I’m Afrikaans and it would just end up sounding like goobeldy gook with a weird flat accent. If you want to give it a bash you can try the Free Dictionary for some sound clips on how to pronounce the more common botanical names. When trying to identify a succulent, I try to put them into 5 broad, highly scientific categories 😉
- Fleshy Leaves with Spikes
- Fleshy Stems with Spikes
- Milky Saps
- Flower Carpets
- All the Others
Fleshy Leaves with Spikes
If your succulent has fleshy leaves with spikes along the edges they could belong to either the Agavoideae (Agave) or Asphodelaceae (Aloe) family. The aloe and agave look very similar but they’re not even related. While they both normally have leaves that are grouped together like a big fleshy rose on the end of a woody stem; the leaves of the agave are fibrous, which is what makes them so popular for rope making. The leaves of the aloe on the other hand, contain a jelly-like substance, and mostly get used for medicinal purposes. Think Aloe Vera. Some people would argue that Agaves are medicinal too. If you’ve ever had a Margarita then you know what I’m talking about 😉
Both Agaves and Aloes have tubular flowers, but the most Agaves only flower once, just before they die. So sad, they literally flower themselves to death. Aloes flower every year once they’re old enough.The easiest way to tell them apart is to break one of the spikey leaves. If it’s gooey it’s an aloe, if it’s stringy it’s an agave.
Fleshy Stems with Spikes
If it looks like you’ll need gloves to handle your succulent it’s probably a Cactacea (Cactus) or a Didiereaceae (Didierea). They have these spikes all along a fleshy stem and either have tiny insignificant leaves or no leaves at all. Unlike the Agaves and Aloes, the Cactus and Didierea are very closely related. They both store water in their columnar stems, which are covered with thorny, prickly spikes and make huge, showy flowers.
The best way to try tell them apart is that the Didierea will have teeny, tiny leaves in between the spikes. Cacti are a little more evolved. They lost those little leaves a long time ago, which is probably why the Didiereaceae are often called the “Cacti of the Old World”.
The Sap is Milky
If your succulent bleeds a white, milky substance, it’s could be either a Apocynaceae or a Euphorbiaceae, more commonly known as a Euphorbia. Not all Apocynaceaes and Euphorbiaceaes are succulents though. Only the ones that have thick fleshy leaves or stems fall into that category. I prefer not to use these succulents indoors since the sap is usually poisonous and our fur babies have a habit of attacking plants. We do have a few outside, in tall pots like this beautiful indigenous Pachypodium or “halfmens” (half person). She’s a member of the Apocynaceae family.
Lots of Beautiful Flowers
Succulents that grow flat and produce masses of gorgeous flowers are usually part of the Aizoaceae or Portulacaeae (Portulaca) family. These beauties normally have a flat spreading habit and when they’re in full bloom they resemble a carpet of flowers. I’ve never had much success growing them inside, since they require full sun for the flowers to open and put on a display. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by counting the number of petals. If the flower has between 5 and 12 petals is a Portulaca.
If your flowers have loads of petals then it’s probably an Aizoaceae. Both the Aizoaceae and Portulaca store water in their fat little leaves.
Not Any Of the Above?
And finally, if your succulent doesn’t fit into any of the categories mentioned above it could be part of the extremely diverse Crassulaceae (Crassula) family. These succulents can look like fleshy trees, shrubs, ground covers or living stones. If you’ve seen the hen-and-chicks plant (Sempervivum), then you have met one of the 5000 odd members of this family 😉
My favorites are the trailing, indigenous Crassula pellucida that we used in our coconut planters and in our clock fairy garden and the upright Crassula lycopodioides shown below that just seems to make babies everywhere. We also filled our vertical garden with a whole bunch of different Crassulas.
Okay so now that you have a basic idea how to identify them, let’s look at how to care for them. Just click page 2 below for all those easy tips.