Succulents are the camels of the plant world. They take in water and store it in their fleshy interiors, allowing them to go long periods of time without additional life-giving liquid. Some of our favorite plants are succulents – hens and chicks, agave, yuccas, aloes and more. (And, of course, most cacti are succulents, too.) Add it all up and there are several hundred different species of succulents in the world. (Plant geeks take note: There are more than 60 plant families divided into about 300 genera that have evolved succulent species.)
Sedum rubrotinctum sports gorgeous red tips.
Photo Credit: Altman Plants
Succulents, like this tree aeonium, come in all kinds of interesting colors, shapes, sizes and textures!
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman
Underplant your New Mexico agave with low-growing succulents for a water wise taste of the desert.
Photo Credit: Denver Botanic Garden
Succulents make great container plants – as long as they’ve got good drainage and plenty of sun.
Photo Credit: Denver Botanic Garden
In addition to intriguing foliage, many succulents offer attractive blooms.
Photo Credit: Jessie Keith
As you might think, most succulents evolved in desert and semi-arid regions. Many adore poor, sandy, gravelly soil and like being tucked into tight spaces in baked areas (think between pavers or rocks). No matter where you live, there are at least a few succulents that will work for you. Some are so adaptable, they can even thrive in decidedly non-desert conditions. Take sedums, for example. Many do well in very moist conditions and are cold-hardy even in northern Minnesota – hardly reminiscent of the desert!
There are literally hundreds of succulents that grow well outside. But many of them, like jade plants, Sansevieria and Kalanchoe, have become favorite houseplants as well. While these succulent beauties are grown in tiny pots indoors, if you head to the warm climates of Southern California and Florida, you’ll find these same plants growing several feet high outside!
Don’t know where to start with succulents? Take a look at some of these popular outdoor (and indoor) selections:
Featuring fleshy leaves that form rosettes close to the ground (or occasionally atop short, stout stems) agaves make great accent plants and look impressive in large plantings with other mixed succulents. They’re also lovely in containers and make fine houseplants for sunny windows or conservatories. There are more than 200 species of agaves, ranging from the diminutive to the gigantic. The varieties used in landscapes (like Agave americana) tend to grow large, long, tapering leaves up to 6 feet long with wicked little spines at the tip. Many send up flower stalks – and some of those get quite large. In fact, a mature plant can send up a flower stalk you can enjoy from a second- or third-story window!
Renowned for the sap’s healing properties on burns, aloes are lovely garden additions, too. Like agaves, they tend to have long, tapering leaves radiating out from a central crown with flower clusters in orange, yellow, cream or red. They range in size from 6-inch miniatures to the tree aloe, which can hit 18 feet tall!
All plant members of the Bromeliaceae are known as bromeliads. Like the top of a pineapple, these plants send out arching, typically saw-toothed leaves that can be just inches long or reach out as much as 4 feet. Thriving only in the warmest parts of the country outdoors, they produce flower clusters, but many are grown just for their gorgeous leaf markings.
All the plants in this incredibly diverse group have one thing in common: If you snap a stem, it’ll exude a milky, latex sap. Many (but not all) euphorbias are succulents. What’s generally thought of as their colorful flowers are actually brightly colored bracts. Probably the most familiar euphorbia of all is the holiday poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).
Hens and Chicks
Botanically known as Sempervivum tectorum, this old-time favorite of our grandmothers has tightly packed rosettes that spread readily to cover lots of ground. It grows even in very cold parts of the country, and is a great plant in rock gardens and shallow containers, as well as in tight spots around pavement.
Sometimes also called stonecrop, sedums vary hugely in size and form. Some of the most popular are the tall sedums (Sedum spectabile), like ‘Autumn Joy’. Cold-hardiness varies: Some can withstand the coldest winters, while others are hardly able to take frost. The smaller varieties are the most commonly used plants for drought-tolerant, earth-friendly green roofs.
The distinctive swordlike foliage of yuccas makes these plants terrific garden accents. Since some species are hardy even in the northern US, everyone can enjoy them. (They offer great winter interest, too.) The highlight of these plants is a tall flower stalk covered in cream-colored blooms that can reach anywhere from a few feet up to 30 feet tall, depending on the species.
Whether you’re sweating out the summer in the desert or soaking up the humidity in other parts of the country, consider adding some succulent “camel plants” to your garden this season. They’ll look great in containers, borders, between pavers – and some can even star as a specimen in one of your beds. (And one thing’s for sure: No matter how dry it gets, you’ll have at least one good-looking plant to show off in your garden!)