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If you’re in the market for houseplants that are both aesthetically pleasing and extremely easy to care for, then succulents are a great choice. The wide variety of succulent types offer an inspiring range of shapes, colours, and sizes—pretty much guaranteeing that you’ll find at least one that makes your heart sing. And once you’ve brought it home, its watering and pruning requirements are extremely minimal: next to nothing, in fact.
So what exactly are these mysteriously rugged and extravagantly beautiful plants? Here are the basics:
Succulents are plants that have thickened fleshy leaves or stems that contain watery sap. They are frequently native to arid desert regions, and their fleshy leaves allow them to retain as much moisture as possible—hence increasing their chances of survival in these harsh climates.
There are about 60 different plant families that contain succulents, for a grand total of around 20,000 varieties! Aloe vera, jade plants, orchids, and snake plants are some well-known examples of succulents.
The word “succulent” is derived from the Latin root sucus, which means juice or sap. This refers to the watery sap held within the leaves and stems of succulents, which allows them to survive for weeks without water.
When it does rain (or you water your indoor succulent) the plant can efficiently store a maximum amount of water within its thick rubbery leaves. This stored water is used to sustain the plant even when the soil becomes dry. In this way, succulents are the camels of the plant kingdom.
What makes succulents unique among plants is the specialized tissue in their leaves, stems, or roots that allows them to store water for extended periods of time. During times of drought, the succulent uses the stored water. Its fleshy leaves gradually shrink or pucker—and then swell up again in the next rain.
Most succulents also produce a chalky substance on its leaves, which protects the plant from disease, pests, and sunburn. All in all, succulents are designed in a way that makes them incredibly hardy.
A majority of succulents are native to harsh, arid areas such as deserts. But they are found in a wide variety of locations worldwide: Africa, Central America, South America, and the European Alps. And some succulents, such as orchids, grow in areas with ample rainfall—but up off the ground, on trunks or in branches, where the rain is less immediately available.
Though most succulents are native to desert-like environments, when they are potted they can thrive indoors almost anywhere. That said, if you’re planting succulents outdoors, it is important to choose varieties that are likely to do well in your local climate, i.e. with the average temperature, humidity, soil composition, and light/shade ratio that the plant will encounter.
The good news is that among the thousands of succulent varieties, there will certainly be at least a few that are perfectly suited to your circumstances.
This is a frequently asked question, and the short answer is: While nearly all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti.
The identifying characteristic of a cactus are its thorns, spines, needles, or prickles. The identifying characteristic of a succulent are its fleshy water-storing leaves or stems. Almost all cacti, along with their thorns, have water-storing leaves or stems. But there are many kinds of succulents that do not have thorns.
This can get a bit confusing, with plants such as the Christmas cactus which—in spite of its name—is officially considered a succulent. Happily, care for cacti and succulents is basically the same, so they’re no need to figure out definitively which category your plant falls within.
“Thirty years ago, the (mostly) un-killable plants were relegated to remote deserts and dusty garden-store shelves. Then came a drought, social media, and a generation of itinerant aspiring gardeners—and suddenly, the succulent became the trendiest members of the plant kingdom.”
Thus begins a fascinating essay exploring how and why succulents have, in recent years, become so wildly popular. Historically used as food, herbal medicines, sources of dye, hallucinogens, and tools for religious ceremony, the beauty and durability of succulents—along with the advent of some fortuitous marketing technologies—have catapulted them to near rock-star status.
There are several reasons for this burgeoning popularity of succulents:
* Their huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colours. Succulents are visually interesting and beautiful, and also practical within various contexts: The tiny ones work well on a desk. If you need a plant of a specific colour to coordinate well with existing décor, the succulents collectively have you covered, with varieties along the full spectrum of green, red, pink, purple, yellow, and orange. And with various leaf shapes and mixed shades of green, they’re perfect for elegant indoor gardens.
* Succulents are super low maintenance. As mentioned above, they require less watering than other kinds of plants, and minimal pruning.
* They’re pest-resistant. The thick, waxy leaves of succulents—along with the chalky protective substance—make it more difficult for pests to feed on. And less watering means fewer fungus gnats attracted to perpetually moist soil.
* Succulents are easily transportable. Because they’re low maintenance, and generally small in size, succulents travel easily—which is good for suppliers as well as anyone wishing to ship a succulent as a gift, bring one along on a road trip, or store some for a while on the porch or in a garden shed.
* Don’t require frequent repotting. Succulents grow slowly, which means they don’t have to be repotted that often (if ever)—and are unlikely to outgrow their indoor location.
When it comes to hardy plants able to thrive in a variety of indoor locations, succulents are a fantastic choice. They can add natural beauty and vitality to your home or office—along with some inspiring aesthetic flare. They can be elegant or playful; understated or surprisingly colourful. And because they basically thrive on neglect, they don’t require extensive time and energy to maintain. Your only “job” in relation to succulents is to find creative new places to put them, and then to enjoy them fully.