WORDS & PHOTOS BY SUSAN TIMMONS
They’re in vogue. The cool kid on the block. Such a hot item that CVS on Langhorne Road featured a vividly blooming batch for sale last week, and they flew out the door.
They’re the Dr. Seuss characters of the plant world. Curious, quirky, even outlandish to eyes attuned to typical Lynchburg flora. Some have symmetrical rosettes or other geometric shapes; others are oddly formed. Some look like foreboding rubbery cartoon creatures from ocean depths or outer space; others are so fuzzy and cute you almost want to cuddle them. They come in every color of the rainbow—subtle to brazen.
Some are edible or have herbal healing properties. One produces tequila, and another is a source of a USDA Schedule I controlled substance.
These plants are called succulents from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice, or sap. Dictionary synonyms for the word succulent are “tender, juicy, moist, fleshy, pulpy, soft, tender…” The common denominator is their capability to store water. Some, such as cacti, are especially adapted to living in arid conditions with poor soil conditions (xerophytes); others, such as bromeliads, can live in moist tropical environments in trees (epiphytes). And some, such as crassula, can even live under water (aquatic).
According to publications by experts, they have a variety of water-saving features, including:
• special metabolism adapted for efficient photosynthesis
• photosynthesis in stems, rather than leaves
• limited number of pores for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange
• compact, cushiony, columnar, ribbed, or spherical growth patterns to reduce sun exposure
• spiny, waxy, or hairy outer surface areas to reduce water loss
• shallow roots to grab moisture from dew or short showers
• water conservation when external temperatures are high (120+ degrees F)
Where They Grow
Succulents can adapt to brutal environments. They can live on salty sea coasts and dry lakes, and they can survive concentrated levels of dissolved minerals. High temperatures and low precipitation force them to collect and store water to survive long dry periods—up to many months.
Since succulents conserve water by means other than the fleshy leaves we typically see in plants native to our Piedmont region of Virginia, they are naturally adapted to dry environments all over the world. Various species are found in desert, semi-desert, and flat grassland areas in the Americas, southeastern Europe, Africa, India, Asia, Siberia, Australia, and more.
The rocky, arid coastline of California is one of those habitats where succulents grow naturally. Yet, for many years Californians turned their backs on their native plants and favored English-style lawns and other water-intensive trappings of our U.S. East Coast gardens as high fashion. Fortunately, in recent years, environmentally sensitive California coastline homeowners, as well as hotel and other commercial building managers, have responded to water shortages by “going native” and designing elegant gardens featuring their native water-saving succulent plants.
Another rocky coastline with a fascinating display of succulents is on the Mediterranean Sea. Jardin Exotique (Exotic Gardens) in Monaco boasts one of the largest, most magnificent, and meticulously labeled collections in the world, with several million succulents planted on a cliff overlooking the royal palace and the sea. The initial collection was acquired from around the world by Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1899, and he founded the Jardin Exotique in 1914 to showcase these trophies. Some original specimens are still there.
This is indeed a mecca for succulent aficionados. Though most of the plants in the collection could not normally be grown on the Riviera because of the cold mistral winds from the north, the Jardin Exotique is fortuitously protected by a mountain range, tempered by mild sea breezes, and hydrated by fog.
I’d always been a bit curious about succulents and somewhat amused by their odd and foreign appearance in our lushly vegetated and water-rich Virginia. But I’d never truly warmed up to them until a top-notch guide at the Jardin Exotique inspired more earnest education, quashed my (embarrassingly) provincial aversion to many succulents as simply weird oddballs of the plant world, and converted me into an enthusiast.
Closer to home, the most spectacular collection of succulents I’ve seen in the U.S. is in the world-class Desert Botanical Garden in the Sonoran Desert within the city of Phoenix, Arizona. The focus of this plant museum is to preserve Arizona’s natural desert habitat with research, exhibitions, conservation, and educational programs. Over 50,000 desert plants, including endangered species, inhabit 50 acres.
I’d never felt the allure of succulents pull my heart as well as my head into their world until this past January when visiting this magnificent botanical garden with my husband Tim’s knowledgeable and engaging Scottsdale cousin Donita as our guide. I was not only cured of my ignorance, but also officially seduced!
Here in Lynchburg
Now that I’m hooked, outdoor succulents grab my attention all over Lynchburg. During the years I worked at Randolph College, I had little appreciation for the flamboyant and commanding May-June white yucca blooms rising above the red brick wall against the backdrop of dark, leafy greens in front of Presser Hall. In retirement, I now honor them as one of the joys of my daily walking regimen.
And I can’t help but marvel at the spectacular stand of prickly pear cactus in front of Betty Bright cleaners near the southeast intersection of Route 221 and the Route 501 Expressway. Betty Bright’s patch of prickly pear blooms sunshine yellow during May and June each year, sets striking red fruit each fall, and delights passersby year after year. Who’d have guessed succulents would grow so successfully in a parking lot along a busy traffic artery in Lynchburg? As one of the hardiest of the cacti, it’s certainly adapted to our summer humidity and winter freezes. And there are other tough succulents along that stretch of road. It’s a veritable succulents road show.
When giving a talk on succulents at the Templeton Senior Center recently, I discovered that my audience was well familiar with numerous yucca, prickly pear, agave, and other conspicuous succulent plants growing outdoors in Lynchburg and our surrounding counties. Have you noticed any?
Although succulents certainly are not yet on Lynchburg gardeners’ “most popular plantings” list, they do show up in traditional Virginia gardens in small doses and happily coexist with neighboring native and other exotic plants. I successfully grew several lovely varieties of sedum, including the ever-popular “autumn joy,” hens and chicks (sempervivums), ice plant, and other succulents whose names I can’t recall, in my own perennial gardens, and they survived our winters.
A bonus of sedum is the beauty of the flowers in late summer and fall and their attractiveness to bees and other pollinators. Once flowers are spent and dry, they add visual interest to the winter garden and offer their seeds to birds.
However, most succulents prefer warm temperatures and are not able to withstand freezing. Due to the water stored in their leaves, freezing will often result in the plant getting mushy leaves and/or dying. So, most succulents around Lynchburg live in pots in homes.
My all-time favorite potted succulent is a decades-old jade plant that has withstood a couple of moves, neglect, and schlepping to church and other places when a specimen’s been needed. It even survived our most recent move with a maladjusted cat who decided its sandy soil was preferable to his kitty litter box for relieving himself. After discovering this assault on my venerable jade, I intervened and nursed it back to health. And it managed to regain its vitality and spread to 40 inches wide. These plants are tough.
I even had large potted bottle/ponytail palm (beaucarnea) for years that lived outdoors in summer and in the dark and cold (but not freezing) garage in winter. This is one of the varieties of succulents that sports a bulbous lower trunk for storing water, and we didn’t water it all winter. In keeping with our family tradition of sharing plants, my son Reid now enjoys it in his sunroom in Mathews County in the winter and on his screened porch in summer.
Until recently, the potted succulents seen most often in Lynchburg were typically passed in families or friend to friend, usually through cuttings. Reid and one of our daughters-in-law, Leisa, are now growing jade plants from cuttings from the mother plant (that’s also been passed around in the family). With the widespread rise in popularity of interesting varieties new to us, succulents are now more frequently purchased through nurseries, florists, and big box and grocery stores (and even pharmacies).
In addition to those already mentioned, popular varieties historically have been kalanchoe, euphorbia, bromeliads, Christmas cactus, aloe vera, agave, and snake plant (sansevieria). In years past, indoor succulent collections typically started with a little aloe vera at the ready for treating burns or a tough snake plant, with other varieties added over time. Today, a wide array of tiny succulents sporting fascinating shapes and showy blooms seem to be everywhere.
Care and Crafts
Since most succulents are not cold-hearty, they’re enjoyed as annuals for only one season if planted in the garden. But if planted in pots for outdoor display in summer and moved indoors for protection during winter, they can be enjoyed for years. As potted houseplants, succulents require little maintenance and don’t demand fertilizing or regular repotting.
When planting succulents in the garden, it’s important to remember that they need good drainage, or roots will rot and they will die. Our native compacted red clay doesn’t cut it for most succulents. We must amend the soil to give them a mixture containing sand or gravel or tuck them into stone walls or other places where their roots will not sit in soggy soil.
Most potted succulents need watering only every few weeks or less frequently. You can even take an extended vacation without a plant sitter and they’ll survive. Succulents are the ticket for those of us who choose to wean ourselves away from drama queens, whether in friendships or flowers.
While many succulents require bright light, too much direct sunlight can result in color change. Some green succulents tend to take on red tones (called “blushing”), especially along the edges, if light is intense. Bright light, but not direct sunlight, is best for many, yet some (like snake plant) thrive in low light, so it’s important to learn and follow the individual preferences of each variety.
One of the amazing qualities of succulents is easy propagation. The most common way to propagate is through a cutting, which is simply a several-inch piece of cut stem with leaves. It’s left for a week or so to “cure” and produce a callus, then placed in a growing medium such as sandy soil—and roots most likely will grow. This is the method I use for sharing my jade. Another method is division, which requires uprooting an overgrown clump, easing roots and stems apart, and separating into several plants.
While I confess I’ve only infrequently upped my floral design game by featuring succulents in arrangements, experts confirm that they’re an excellent choice for bridal bouquets, topiaries, vertical gardens, and other uses where you need plant material that won’t quickly wilt. I do know from experience that succulent rosettes can last without a water source for days. If misted or in wet floral foam, they may last for weeks. They are excellent for crafting and can even be attached with glue for decorating packages, holiday ornaments, or party favors.
Succulents have in recent years captured the imagination of gardeners in Virginia and continue to gain an admiring following. They are versatile and require so little care that it’s no wonder they are such a hit. I lunched recently at Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and tiny potted arrangements of succulents graced all the tables. They charmed us, and we overheard other patrons compliment them, noting how well they work with mid-century modern décor. And how sensible for a restaurant to have live plant material on tables that doesn’t require daily refreshing!
Succulents even have their own fan clubs. The Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA, cssainc.org) founded in 1929, includes over 80 affiliated clubs and thousands of members worldwide. The primary purpose of the society is “to enjoy succulent plants through horticulture, travel and scientific discovery, with a concern for habitat preservation and conservation issues in deserts worldwide.” And closer to home in Washington, D.C. is the National Capital Cactus and Succulents Society (www.washington-dc.cactus-society.org).
Contributing to the increasing popularity of succulents is their unique and intriguing appearance. They can look downright weird. Their shape can be spiraled, spiked, sword, crested, corkscrew, moon, snake-like, wavy, ridged, ribbon, knobby, paddle, plumed, or like a tongue depressor. They can look like snakes, eels, snowflakes, spider webs, pinwheels, a pile of pebbles, or a string of pearls. And that’s not all. They can be covered with protective thorns, prickles, or fluff.
Size can range from minuscule to mammoth. It’s no wonder that standing next to a huge saguaro cactus in Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Gardens, Tim and I felt downright Lilliputian.
Aloe succulents are tagged with names such as partridge breast, gold tooth, blue elf, and hercules. Other succulents boast names like pig’s ear, calico kitten, bear paws, rosary vine, silver torch, and rat tail cactus. With monikers like that, it would be impossible for a curious creature like me not to be fascinated with these amazing plants.
Meet the Gardener
Susan Timmons served in the 1970s as Virginia’s first Environmental Impact Statement Coordinator, then Assistant Administrator and Acting Administrator of Virginia’s Council on the Environment and editor of The State of Virginia’s Environment. During that time she also served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Environmental Professionals and received the National Wildlife Federation’s Award for Environmental Communications. More recently, she worked in higher education and nonprofit management and, in retirement, she serves as a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Hill City Master Gardeners Association with a series of talks on “Gardens of the World.”