Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
So just what are “succulents”? Generally, they are tender (not tolerant of cold) plants with thick or fleshy leaves. In recent years a whole range of species have been introduced to gardeners, mainly as outdoor seasonal plants, but which make great plants indoors too. Here are ten good choices, starting with three of the older standards—aloe, ponytail palm, and jade plant.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is an ingredient often found in many skin and hair care products. It also is known to be very effective in treating burns, thus, it’s a good lotion to keep handy in the kitchen near the stove. Or, gently rub some sap from a leaf on the burn, then repeat after a few minutes. The burn will go away, and the skin should heal quickly. In fact, some of the newer sunburn lotions are close to 100 percent aloe sap.
Although aloe is grown in desert gardens in mild climates, it can easily be grown as a potted plant in our climate as well. The aloe will produce offshoot plants, which can be removed and potted.
Pony-tail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is not really a palm at all.. It has a characteristic palm-like shape, stem and leaves, with an expanded and flaring base. The leaves are two to six feet long and are often twisted. The leaves actually do look like a pony-tail. The flowers and fruit are seldom seen in cultivation as plants must be quite large to produce them.
Pony-tail palm has a moderate growth rate and is often used in interior beds or as a potted specimen. Indoors, it usually reaches a height of one to three feet and a width of one to two feet. Under high light in conservatories, or where it can be grown outdoors, it may reach 20 or more feet high, with the flaring base several feet across!
The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) gets its name from the Latin crassus meaning thick or swollen, which refers to the leaves and stems of this and many other species. The leaves are glossy green (dark jade color, hence the name), and occasionally have red margins. One cultivar even has variegated leaves. The flowers are star-shaped and white to pale pink in color.
Jade plant has a moderate growth rate and may grow one to two feet in height and width. The plant may need a heavy soil or pot to keep from toppling as older plants become top-heavy. When watering the jade plant, do not let the leaves get water on them because this will cause leaf spots. If you are successful with this plant and want more, simply take leaf or stem cuttings and root them in potting mix to grow additional plants. Watch for mealybug insects, small white masses particularly where leaves join stems.
Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata) is appropriately named for it thick, dark green, fleshy and quite pointed leaves that arise from low on the plant. They are quite marked with regular, horizontal white stripes. Since its roots are shallow, you can give it a shallow pot. Repot every year or two, as the plants need to get rid of old roots to grow new ones. It only grows about 5 or 6 inches tall and wide.
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) has whitish leaves from the soft hairs covering them, making them irresistible to feel. Leaf edges often have attractive contrasting red hairs. This succulent grows upright, from 12 to 18 inches tall.
Hahn’s bird’s nest (Sansevieria trifasciata) often goes by its genus name of just sansevieria (said as san-se-Veer-ee-ah). It has a rosette of wide, tough leaves with irregular horizontal lighter bands. It tolerates low light. It is compact, only getting about 6 inches high and tall. Leaves are typically green, but you may find ones with some gold.
There are a range of echeveria (said as etch-eh-Veer-ee-ah) you may find, with thick leaves in rosettes of white, roses, and blues. Most remain a few inches high and wide. Don’t let water sit in the rosettes or it may lead to rots. Remove any dead, lower leaves as these are a haven for mealybugs.
There are several senecio (said as sin-Ess-ee-o) you may find, generally with tubular steely blue or grayish green leaves, and going by descriptive names such as “chalk fingers” or “blue chalk sticks”. Some of these remain low, others can reach a foot or more tall and easily stretch if not in full light. If too tall, simply “pinch” them back to promote branching.
Tree houseleek (Aeonium) come in many variations, from upright with shiny black leaves (‘Zwartkop’ black rose), to bright colors of pale yellow, white, green, and pink tips (‘Sunburst’), or pale yellow centers when young maturing to red and green (‘Kiwi’ or ‘Tricolor’). Aeonium often have woody and long, sometimes arching, stems with the rosettes of leaves on the ends. They somewhat resemble echeveria, only with stems.
Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) is actually related to the poinsettia, having a white milky sap (and other common name of Milkbush). Avoid getting the sap on skin or in eyes, as it may cause a reaction. Leaves as you might guess are pencil thickness, or less, and long. Plants can be highly branched and get 2 or 3 feet tall and wide inside (up to 30 feet tall in their native Africa and India), but are easily kept in bounds with judiciously pruning. This also helps correct leggy plants. One selection with fiery red and orange young leaves, turning green with age, is called Firesticks or a variation on this name.
Although succulents prefer high light, they often adapt well to low light of homes. Best is bright light most the day, such as a south-facing window, or at least a half day of good sun as in an east-facing window. If your plant starts to “stretch”, getting tall and lanky with space between leaves, it isn’t getting enough light. Also, rotate plants weekly if they are bending toward a light or window.
Succulents prefer the dry humidity of indoors, and don’t like overwatering. But they do like warmth. Be sure to keep them away from door drafts, and from touching cold windows in winter.
A well-drained soilless mix with sand or perlite is the best potting medium. Although the fertility needs for succulents is low, plants may become pale and red if it is too low or they are too dry. One fertilization in spring, with a general houseplant fertilizer, usually suffices.
Allow the potting medium to dry between waterings. Make sure pots don’t sit in a saucer of water. Water less when the plant is inactive, perhaps only once every couple of weeks, but water well when you do. When plants are actively growing, probably water them once a week. One rule of thumb is that the thicker the leaves, generally the less water the plant needs. The thick leaves that make them “succulent” are designed to store water under dry conditions.
Jade plant and succulents with fleshy leaves are easy to propagate. If you want to make more plants, simply place leaves on damp soil to root and grow new plants.
Consider and look for succulents this growing season for outdoor containers, particularly smaller containers you might bring indoors to enjoy over winter. Many garden centers, greenhouses, and even mass market stores now offer succulents. Look for small ones for smaller containers, dish gardens, or terrariums. Keep in mind they will eventually grow, some faster than others. Although they do well pot-bound, and this will slow growth, in a year or two they may need larger pots or at least repotting.
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