Succulents seem to be a current plant rage. Perhaps it is because we have had several years of unusually hot and dry summers, but the epicenter for all things new and exotic is California, where the xeric climate with low humidity is just what most succulents prefer.
But lest we think that South Carolinians are late to get on the bandwagon, Patti McGee, a Charleston hostess extraordinaire who was tapped years ago by then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to demonstrate Lowcountry entertaining to Spoleto stars, often used succulents in her long-lasting centerpieces. She used a selection of colorful and eye-catching succulents in order to minimize time spent away from gardening, her true passion. Planted in a pumpkin for fall, or in a tureen or decorative china dish for more formal occasions, these centerpieces last weeks.
Currently, many fine garden centers do the same, using colorful containers they have collected or allowing customers to bring in their grandmothers’ finery (since potting soil is certainly less corrosive than vinegary, salty barbecue sauce). Alternatively, you can line a container with plastic if you think your mother-in-law might fuss at you for using a family heirloom in such an inappropriate fashion.
Actually, a plant called mother-in-law’s tongue, with its somewhat sharply armed leaf tip, is perhaps the succulent most often used in years past as a houseplant. In the genus Sansivieria, another common name for this particular species, S. trifasciata, is snake plant. Plants in this species vary; most have tall, lance-like, unbranched leaves, somewhat thick as they function as water storage sites. The leaves can be green with horizontal markings in other hues of green. Therefore, the “snake plant” name, while variegated cultivars, are much showier. The lower the light level, the taller the plants grow, up to 4 feet, requiring a heavy, wide container so they will not tip over.
A very different cultivar, S. trifasciata ‘Hanhii,’ called bird’s nest Sansivieria, has a pronounced rosette growth pattern. It stays much shorter but shares the toughness of its taller relative. One sits on my dressing table upstairs, only occasionally getting watered when I have an ironing emergency and give it a drenching while filling up the iron’s reservoir. This group of succulents, with perhaps the lowest light requirements of all, is native to the tropical areas of Western Africa. Both their leaves and rhizomes are capable of holding water due to the infrequent rains of their native lands, and they easily go two to three weeks indoors without any attention at all. Overwatering for these, and almost all succulents, is a greater cause of failure for growers.
Is there a home in South Carolina where people grill, bake cookies, fry chicken, and — yes, occasionally — iron cotton shirts that keep us cool in summer that doesn’t have an aloe plant sitting in a pot? Another plant believed to hail from Africa, Aloe vera, the most common variety found here, is handy to have around. A leaf cut off and split length-wise gives access to a gel that soothes minor burns. It is actually fairly hardy and probably will overwinter outside, but it is safer if brought in when the colder temperatures are coming. We may find that in years like the one we are currently experiencing, when an interminably long and hot autumn is followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, that plants not suitably hardened off will suffer damage. Better to err on the side of jamming more pots on the back porch than losing an old friend … and better to keep them there and not be fooled by a week of glorious late February weather.
What exactly makes a plant a succulent? Representatives are found in almost all parts of the world except Antarctica. Their most common shared feature is an adaptation that allows them to survive during periods of drought, especially by developing thickened leaves, stems, or roots that can hold water that keeps the plant alive. Sometimes the leaves are reduced in size and the stem becomes the main photosynthetic structure. The exterior of the plant may have a waxy-like coating to prevent evaporation, and/or perhaps a tight growth pattern limits the amount of leaf or stem tissue exposed to sunlight and air movement. Other adaptations, some that occur across families and genera, are a rosette form of growth (one of the most charming aspects of certain succulents) and spines or hairs that slow down air movement, creating a buffer zone to hold moisture around the plant. Also, these structures give the plant protection against thirsty animals, be they vertebrate or invertebrate, that would like nothing better than to tap into that well of stored water.
Another feature some of these plants have is this amazing adaptation called Crassulacean acid metabolism. Plants open stomata, structures like windows in their leaves, during daylight to let in atmospheric air from which they mine carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis. They also open stomata at night to let out moisture, akin to a human sweating, to help cool the plant when temperatures are high. Usually, plants lose most of their water through transpiration during the daytime while they are busily turning carbon dioxide and water vapor, with energy from the sun, into carbohydrates as the carbon dioxide must be put into the process immediately. But some succulents, already starved for water in their arid surroundings, would shrivel up if their stomata were open during the hottest time of day. A remarkable adaptation, far more complex and mind-boggling than just thickened stems and a cuticle resistant to water loss, is this ability to open stomata only at night, storing CO2 in compounds that during daylight can be converted back to a form that allows photosynthesis to proceed in the presence of sunlight. It would be like if we could store oxygen in a complex compound while on land and then while under water convert it to a form that would keep us alive.
The process, Crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM for short, is named for a plant that uses this process and is a very familiar, easy to grow, and regal succulent: the jade plant. I know that most folks now enjoy combining succulents that are smaller and more varied in texture and color in containers, and they are indeed great fun and different. But the old-fashioned, bonsai reminiscent, handsome jade plant, Crassula ovata, can stand as an important part of an indoor landscape for decades. It can take more sun than most succulents, but its thick, dark brown trunk and fleshy leaves store plenty of water to go several weeks without watering. I repotted some back in the fall and was surprised at how limited and shallow the root system was. Since this group of plants grows in places where rainfall is spotty and infrequent, it stands to reason that they do not develop a deep, extensive root system as any rainfall is likely to be limited to the top few inches of soil.
Rebecca Gregory at Winslett’s Produce Market in Easley loves to make containers using some of the new succulents now flooding the market. In her part of the world, she suggests growing succulents in containers as only a few will overwinter in that colder part of the state. Perhaps because her customers have slightly less blazingly hot summers, she prefers to use a cactus mix that drains more quickly than a normal potting soil. In the heavy soils she encounters, outdoor in-ground plantings are difficult, but a vibrant outdoor feature can easily be achieved by grouping containers, remembering that these plants should not receive full, midday sun.
Rebecca told me that several succulents are called “hens and chicks,” especially the rosette growing Echeverias and Sempervivums. Only the Sempervivums are truly hardy for us. The leaves have a pointy tip while those on Echeverias are spoon-shaped and are bluish and green in color rather than the red-and-brown-tinged leaves on Sempervivums. But with both, you could easily take cuttings and bring them inside and propagate them for glorious containers the next summer.
Over in Florence, I visited with Kathy Barnes at Forest Lake Greenhouses. She took me through their propagation shed where more than 100 different succulents were growing to a useable size. The myriad colors, textures, shapes, and growth patterns were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Kathy is a remarkable designer who knows all about the tricks of the trade; she had several different types of glue, long tweezers, wreath pins, and more that help her fine-tune her succulent containers. She has had good luck using regular potting soil that does not contain any water retention products. Again, she reinforced the mantra of all succulent experts: it’s better to water less than overwater. Few insect problems exist on healthy succulents that are not overwatered, not over fertilized, and not burned by the sun. However, the few mealy bugs she occasionally encounters she simply swipes off with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol.
A light application of a slow-release fertilizer once or twice a year is all that is needed. Avoid letting your succulent container overgrow its space or become unbalanced. If a piece breaks off, or you cut a wayward stem, don’t panic about getting it planted immediately. Succulents need to callus off at a wound site before being put into soil, so a week or two is not at all too long for a gift succulent piece to sit on your kitchen table.
My feeling is that the regular houseplant succulents — Sansivierias, jade plants and such — have a place in our homes and offices as a calming and relaxing year-round addition to our lives that also purify the air and give our eyes a break from the constant blue screen with which we live. The new succulents perfect for container designing, in vibrant colors and strange shapes, should be grouped perhaps in similar colored pots to avoid too jangly a patio or porch.
Kathy Barnes loaned me several books by a leading succulent designer, Debra Lee Baldwin, published by Timber Press, which is a stamp of excellence on books related to plants and nature. Succulents Simplified, for example, is a thorough, but not overwhelming introduction with a detailed listing of “100 Easy-Care Succulents.” With such names as “Pig’s Ears” and “Kitten Paws,” you can probably at least capture the attention of family members long enough to get them to stop and pay attention to these plants that evolved in places completely unlike our state but that with a little care and attention can bring a whole new palette of colors and textures to our gardens and homes.