Succulents Aren't Just for the Desert Anymore

December 11, 2003 - 15:28

This group is increasing in popularity among plant collectors, home gardeners and professional landscapers for a number of reasons.

If you're looking to diversify your product line and set
yourself apart from the competition, perhaps you should consider growing
succulents. They are adapted to withstand drought by storing water in
specialized cells in their leaves, stems and/or roots. The term succulent does
not refer to a plant family per se, but to a water-storing adaptation that is
found in many different plant families. Cacti are probably the best-known
family of succulent plants, but there are many other types in a huge variety of
shapes and sizes.

Succulents are increasingly popular. With water restrictions
in place across the country, there is an increasing demand for plants that
promote water conservation. Many succulents are particularly well adapted to
withstand climatic extremes, such as drought, heat, wind and frost. They are
generally free from pests and diseases and are less prone to nutrient
deficiencies. They are also tolerant of poor and shallow soils.

Growing A Succulent

Mixed containers of succulents are a high-value product that
consumers love because they stand up to neglect. Even when they are not in
bloom, many succulent plants provide visual interest in the form of bold
textures and colorful foliage.

Although succulents may take longer to produce, they
actually thrive on reduced water and fertilizer inputs; rarely require
insecticides, fungicides or PGRs; and are easily propagated by stem or leaf
cuttings, or produce offsets that can be removed and potted. Most succulents
can also be propagated by seed, but it may take a year or longer for them to
reach a salable size.

To grow succulents, you will probably need to modify your
production protocol. A well-aerated and freely draining medium is critical.
Commercial cactus and succulent mixes usually consist of equal parts coarse
sand, perlite, peat or fine bark. To make your own, try mixing one part
soil-less or soil-based media with one part coarse sand and one part washed
grit, small gravel, claimed clay, pumice or expanded slate. Mixing a
time-release fertilizer in the media will ensure a constant supply of
nutrients. Succulents should be allowed to dry slightly between watering. Under
potting is a good way to ensure that the roots don't become over saturated.

To produce rapid growth and the best form and color,
succulents should be grown in the strongest light possible and warm
temperatures, as they will respond more favorably to high water and fertilizer
inputs. Many succulents tend to go dormant during the shorter days and cooler
temperatures of winter. This is the time when they are most prone to fungal
pathogens that cause rot. To keep them actively growing during the winter
months, extend day length with supplemental lighting and keep your greenhouse warm.
Maintaining a lower-than-normal relative humidity and excellent air circulation
will reduce the likelihood of disease and pests.


The century plant, or agave, is an incredibly diverse group
of rosette-forming perennials. There are agave to suit almost every U.S.
climate, with cold hardy forms that can withstand single digit temperatures.
While most people look at these plants as a Southwestern phenomenon, our
changing ideas of annual are opening markets as summer color throughout
northern United States. Growers may need to look at buying in pre-finished
material, this is a very slow crop from seed to sale -- style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 1-6 years. Plants are durable but
heavy, which can be a problem in shipping.

Another misconception is that all agave are sharply spined and
a problem to work with; while it may be true for most, one of the most dramatic
and easily grown species, A. attenuata, is soft leaved and extremely
architectural. There are agave native throughout the United States, and for
specimen containers, you can't beat these prehistoric, bold textures except by
using paddle Cacti, which is also a great idea, but will have to be another

Sempervivum and Echeveria

Sempervivum and echeveria are both commonly known as hens
and chicks. Sempervivums, also referred to as houseleeks, are native to
southern and central Europe. They are generally frost-hardy but tend to suffer
in extremely hot and dry conditions. The leaves form low-growing, tightly
rounded rosettes in varying shades and patterns of green, gray and red. The
flowers, usually pink or purple, are held just above the foliage. These plants
are monocarpic, which means that each rosette dies after it flowers, leaving
behind a cluster of offsets. There are approximately 40 species and at least
twice as many cultivars of sempervivum. The most commonly grown and hybridized
species are S. tectorum, which has gray-green leaves with red tips, and S.
arachnoideum, which has tiny threads connecting the leaf tips to create an
amazing cobweb effect. Sempervivum are appropriate for landscape use throughout
most of the United States but are prone to rotting in areas with hot, humid

Echeverias are native to Central America. Consequently, they
are able to withstand high temperatures and drought better than their European
relatives but are not particularly frost-hardy. The rosettes of echeveria are
generally much larger than those of sempervivum, and the range of leaf shapes
and colors is much more diverse. The foliage colors include green, gray, blue,
pink, orange and red, and many are edged in a contrasting color. Some echeveria
have leaves covered with soft downy hairs, but most have a powdery or waxy
surface that lends a shimmering richness to the foliage. The bell-shaped
flowers, in yellow, orange, red and pink, are borne in clusters on arching

There are about 150 species of echeveria, which have been
extensively hybridized to create an astounding assortment of cultivars. E.
lilacina has powdery gray leaves with pointed tips, forming a tight, elegant-looking
rosette. E. shaviana has blue-green glossy leaves with frilly edges. One of the
most popular cultivars is 'Perle von Nurnberg', which has broad, pointy-tipped,
gray-green leaves flushed with pink.


The genus euphorbia has more than 2,000 species (commonly
called spurges), about half of which are succulents. Poinsettias and crown of
thorns are two of the best known euphorbias. Characterized by tiny petal-less
flowers enclosed by brightly colored, showy bracts, all euphorbias should be handled
with caution because their milky sap (known as latex) is irritating to the skin
and mucous membranes. Some spurges, such as E. horrida and E. echinus, are
leafless but have swollen spiny stems that resemble a cactus. Others, including
E. obesa, form small rounded, ridged domes that might be mistaken for sea
urchins. The crown of thorns, E. milii, has erect spiny stems with showy red
bracts. New crown of thorn hybrids, Euphorbia x lomi, have much larger,
longer-lasting bracts in a variety of colors. yes">

All of these species are generally grown as container
plants, but many succulent spurges may be grown as landscape plants in
temperate zones. E. myrsinites has spirally arranged, gray-green leaves and
clusters of greenish-yellow flowers. Gopher spurge, E. lathyris, has leaves
with a white midrib and small green flowers and is reputed to repel burrowing
rodents. The Mediterranean spurge, E. characias, grows to 3 feet, with erect
woody stems, long linear leaves and dense showy yellow flowers. Many cultivars of
this species, including a variegated form, are also available.


There are several major groups of sedum with quite different
growth habit. The stonecrops are a fantastic group with all of the foliage,
flower qualities and textural interest you could possibly ask for. Most sedum
are good ground covers in the landscape and easy in containers. They root from
any leaf that breaks off and can be propagated in this way, by cuttings or from
seed. S. acre is a great perennial ground cover with yellow flowers in early
summer for the northern states, and S. spurium and its hybrids provide
brilliant purple to red-toned flowers and are winter hardy. For the southern
states, S. procumbens, S. rubrotinctum and S. mexicana perform the same role.

We trialed Sedum 'Angelina' from EuroAmerican this year, and
it was outstanding for yellow-toned foliage and growth habit. Ball Floraplant's
'Coral Reef' and 'Sea Stars' were both fine-textured and dense-growing plants.
Another great group of sedum to try, which has excellent Northern hardiness, is
S. spectabile. These are upright forms with fall flowering, usually in shades
of brownish burgundy to red. 'Autumn Joy' was the old standard and is still
readily available, but look for purple foliage forms ('Purple Emperor'), variegated
foliage and dwarf types ('Mini Joy').

There are literally hundreds of sedum species and cultivars
out there, and they make outstanding landscape or container plants, with
extremely low water requirements. I couldn't begin to cover all of them, but
you can do an Internet search to find some that work for your operation.

Succulent Mixed Containers

I was so pleased to see that Saul Nurseries', Atlanta, Ga.,
booth at the Southeast Greenhouse Conference had some excellent examples of
succulent mixed containers. I really think more nurseries should look at this
product as a way to diversify from chain retail. These succulent containers are
heavy, fragile and don't ship well, giving local marketers a real edge. In
following the old rule of one upright plant, one mounding plant and one
trailing plant, try using agave or yucca for the upright plant; echeveria,
euphorbia and kalanchoe make excellent mounding plants; and sedum or portulaca
are trailing components. These containers are a bit slow, but easy and can be
planted in anything -- old tires, moss topiary and wreathes, sea shells,
driftwood or custom cement containers -- to make for unique and profitable
retail sales.

About The Author

Rick Schoellhorn is extension specialist at the University of Florida-Gainesville and Marc Frank is an extension botanist at the University of Florida-Herbarium. They can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 or E-mail at

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