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 much effort. Best of all, they’re super easy to propagate too.
- Identifying the Most Common Succulents
- 5 Apps To Help You Identify Succulents
- Caring For Your Succulents
- Making Succulent Babies
- Adding Succulents to Your Home Décor
A succulent is any plant with thick, fleshy leaves, stems or roots that get used to store water. Common examples include 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 an app or Google to look up the name. That being said, we do have a huge collection of succulents, and they are all thriving and making lots of babies. So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned these last 30-odd years, and maybe it will make it easier for you to identify, grow, care for, and propagate your succulents.
Identifying the Most Common Succulents
With more than 10,000 succulent species worldwide, 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 it 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 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 their 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 spikes all along a fleshy stem, and either has tiny insignificant leaves or no leaves at all. Unlike the Agaves and Aloes, the Cactus and Didierea are 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 to 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 succulents bleed a white, milky substance, it’s could be either an Apocynaceae or a Euphorbiaceae, more commonly known as a Euphorbia. Not all Apocynaceaes and Euphorbiaceae 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. We have a little dassievygie (part of the Aizoaceae) growing in one of our mushroom planters. Her leaves are so fascinating, and I love the color.
Her big Latin name is Oscularia deltoides, because of her three-sided fat, succulent 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. It also creates the most beautiful eco prints. Another fav of mine is the upright Crassula lycopodioides shown below. It just seems to make babies everywhere. It’s such a pretty little thing and I use it often in our fairy garden vignettes, and her small size makes her ideal for fairy leaf planters.
5 Apps To Help You Identify Succulents
If you still struggle to identify your succulent, then one of these apps will help. They all let you take a picture with your phone and upload it.
Google Lens – android
Google Lens replaced Google Goggles a few years back, and even though it helps to identify other things besides plants, I thought I’d add it here. It’s fun to play around with, and they’re busy rolling out an iPhone version as we speak (December 2018).
Their picture recognition is the best out there and even reminds you when to water your plants.
Plantix – android
If your succulent or any other plant has funny-looking stuff growing on it, or it’s starting to look really sad then this app will help identify what’s wrong. You’ll also find a whole bunch of tips on how to fix the problem too.
With over 500 000 images and growing every day, PlantSnap makes it easy to identify any plant. I didn’t find it as accurate as PictureThis but it has been translated into 30 languages.
SmartPlant is run by a group of horticulturists from around the world. It doesn’t have automated picture recognition (yet), so they do take a little longer to identify your plant. But they’re so accurate, and you can scan the bar code of any plant, and the app will give you tips on how to care for it too.
Okay so now that you have a basic idea of how to identify them, let’s look at how to care for them.
Caring For Your Succulents
Succulents are low maintenance and really easy to care for if you get the basics right. They all need well-drained soil, a little bit of water and bright light
One of the most important things when growing healthy succulents is drainage. These gorgeous plants have spent centuries evolving into a green machine that’s meant to store and conserve water. Why mess with all that work? They hate it when their roots are drowning. When I see all those perfect little succulents for sale in pots with no holes in the bottom it breaks my heart. Those babies are going to turn yellow and squishy and probably die and you’ll end up thinking you have a brown thumb. Trust me you don’t. Some idiot decided to make a quick buck and sell succulents in a pot with bad drainage. If you do want to display your succulents in a pretty pot without holes, please remember to drain the old water regularly.
Succulents thrive in well-drained soil. We normally make our own mix using 1 part bark chips (coconut hair and peat moss work too), 1 part perlite, 1 part small stones and 1 part common old garden soil. Just for luck, we add a dash of the original soil mix.
Succulents are not drought resistant, they’re drought tolerant. So they still need to be watered. Make sure to allow the soil to dry out between watering. Overwatering will make the succulent too fleshy and the colors will start to fade.
Contrary to popular belief, succulents do best in bright but indirect sunlight. They don’t mind a little shade either, especially during the hottest parts of the day. In fact, a few of ours thrive in full shade.
You can always tell if they’re not getting enough light. They become leggy and scraggly and stretch around to try and find some sun. If yours are doing that move them to a brighter spot.
What kind of containers can I plant succulents in?
Succulents will grow in almost anything that has adequate drainage and enough space. I usually make sure there is at least 1 cm or 1/2″ of space between the succulent and the pot or another succulent. Overcrowding too many succulents in one pot may look pretty, but just like us, they need a little space to find their own feet and spread their gorgeous fleshy leaves. If you’re looking for some really unique succulent planter ideas, you’ll love these:
- Branch Mug Planter
- Tin Can Handbag
- Barrel Bag Planter
- Mossy Pillow with Succulent Detail
- Gift Wrapped Succulent Planter
- A Crazy Floating Teapot
- Teeny, Tiny Fairy Leaf Bowls
- Tree Stump Planter
- Wine Glass Stem Planter
- Coconut Planters
- Succulent Mushroom
Making Succulent Babies
Most succulents are extremely easy to propagate. You only need a small piece of the stem or even one leaf to grow a new plant within a few weeks. Most of our succulents were grown from cuttings that our friends and neighbours shared with us. To propagate, take a cutting, remove any dead leaves, and allow it to dry out a little in a shady spot for a day or two. This allows the cutting wound to heal and form a callus, which prevents rot. Place your cutting in the soil mix mentioned above and you’ll have new babies or pups in no time.
You can also propagate succulents by dividing the roots of any overgrown clumps. Simply pull the whole clump out, shake off the soil and gently pull the stems and roots apart before planting the individual clumps in their new home.
I always add some of the original soil if they’re going into pots. I’m convinced it makes the plants settle quicker 😀 We have propagated succulents in water, but I find planting them directly in soil or by division works best.
Adding Succulents to Your Home Décor
Succulents are an easy way to include a bit of Mother Nature in your home décor. All they need is enough light and some water when the soil is dry, and they’ll give you many years of pleasure. Please don’t put your succulents near an aircon. They don’t like it at all. There are so many different ways to display them too. Use a single Aloe or Agave to make a minimalist statement or combine lots of different succulents in a container to create layers of interest. Repeating similar shapes, colors, or textures give continuity, while different colors and shapes add variety and contrast.
And just like any other container garden, the concept of “Thrill, Fill, and Spill” applies.
Choose members from the Cacti, Didierea, and Euphorbias families for the showpiece thriller.
Aizoaceae, Portulaca and the smaller Crassulas make lovely fillers and don’t take away from the thriller. Rocks, stones, pebbles, driftwood, and other natural items are great fillers too.
The final component of creating a beautiful succulent planter with loads of interest is adding trailing and creeping succulents that will spill over the edge. Once again, you’ll find a whole bunch of creeping Crassulas that will do the trick. Remember when planting a whole bunch of succulents together that you won’t need to water as often since the air won’t flow so easily and the soil will stay damp for longer.
Okay, that’s about it for now. Sorry the post was so long, but I wanted to share as much information about succulents with you guys so you can feel comfortable about growing your own. And if you’re still not convinced that you can take care of them, then these wooden, faux succulents might be just the thing you’re looking for.
If you’re itching to add to your succulent collection, I’ve got you covered. Disclosure: If you click the links below, we may receive a commission from Amazon. But don’t worry, it won’t come out of your pocket, and it helps us fund our ever-growing succulent collection.