By Barbara Shorrock
Home Gardening with Barbara
Succulents and Cacti
If you are growing plants indoors, there is a good chance you already have a succulent or two. Perhaps you have a cactus or aloe plant. The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “sucus”, meaning juice or sap. This category of plants has leaves or stems (and sometimes roots) that are thick and fleshy to enable the plant to store water to survive dry conditions. Succulent is a huge family of plants that originate from many parts of the world, ranging from desert to forest. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Many of them flower, such as Schlumbergera/Christmas Cactus, which only flowers at Christmas if forced in a greenhouse environment. In our homes, it blooms according to hours of sunlight, typically October – November and again less vigorously in early spring. After it is finished, it should be given a rest and pruned or re-potted. I have several that are decades old and are pruned annually. They are given a light fertilizing and maybe top dressing when new growth appears, because they live in the same pot year after year.
Another popular indoor succulent is Sedum Morganianum, also known as Burro Tail or Donkey Tail. It has long, rope-like stems heavily laden with plump juicy leaves that can grow up to 6 feet long. A mature plant will be very heavy, and needs to be hung from a good hook that will support the weight. If you cannot turn it regularly, it will grow on the sunny side and will need to be secured to its shelf (I find wire coat hangers useful). These plants do not tolerate transplanting, as the leaves fall off with the slightest touch, so choose your pot wisely when the plant is still small. There are many different varieties, with leaves from tiny to huge, and if you have an outdoor, sunny space that is sheltered from the wind and hail, they will enjoy living outside in the summertime. Remember, though, that they are tropical and cannot tolerate cold temperatures, so must be moved inside in the fall.
We all have some sort of Hen and Chicks in our gardens: small ground-hugging fleshy succulents in rosette form of the Crassulaceae family. You will often find them labelled as genus Echeveria and Sempervivum, among others. The “hen” is the main parent plant, and the “chicks” are the offsets or baby plants, which are attached by a not very sturdy stem. A good strong rain will knock the baby off, allowing it to roll down the slope and come to rest where it will put down roots and start a new colony. These are probably the most shared plants in the gardening community, as some varieties are hardy to our climate and propagate easily. There are many others that come from warmer and drier climes, such as Central and South America and Africa, that make interesting house plants because of their beautiful shapes. Plant them alone, or together in a shallow pot in a sunny window, and they will reward you with years of slow growth and the occasional bloom on a long willowy stalk.
The most important thing to remember about growing succulents is that their original home is typically arid. The quickest way to kill your new succulent or cactus is to water it weekly on the same schedule as your other houseplants. Root rot is deadly. During the winter season when daylight hours are short, these plants only need watering monthly, or at the most every two weeks. Soak the pot and then leave it until it is totally dry; never let it sit in a saucer of water. And do not fertilize them until the days are longer and you see new growth. When re-potting (some of these babies come from the nursery in very tiny pots), use either a commercial cactus medium or regular potting medium mixed with perlite (1:2). Perlite is good for drainage, whereas Vermiculite is like a sponge and holds water. Horticultural sand will also work. Enjoy your succulents; how many things do we have in our lives that thrive on neglect?