Succulent FAQ

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Succulent Plant Frequently Asked Questions

Advice based on my experience

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what is a succulent?

The Italian word for succulents is Piante Grasse, which translates into Fat plants. Succulents are plants that are fat with water storage tissue (called Parenchyma). They evolved in  environments with limited  rainfall.  They store water to survive periods when water is scarce.

See the Wikipedia page for addition information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succulent_plant

Dry habitats are found all around the world and harbor many beautiful succulent plants. These are pictures of some different succulent habits I've visited:

Palm Springs California. Southern California has several stunning dessert habitats. Walking around in the dessert is therapeutic. Bring lots of water and don't get lost.

Cacti in Palm Springs

Small mimicry plants are found among the rocks

Graaff-Reinet South Africa. South Africa is heaven for succulent people. Jaw dropping landscapes that harbor hidden and not so hidden gems. 

 mesembs in karoo

Hidden treasure. Mesembs growing amongst the small rocks in Graaff-Reinet South Africa. You can't imagine how groovy it felt to find these.

 

More pictures from South Africa:

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What is the difference between cacti and succulents?

All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are almost all native to the Americas, many other succulent are native to Africa.

Succulent plants are found in many different plant families. The thing they share in common are their adaptations to cope with their environments. These adaptations make unrelated plants look similar. This process is called convergent evolution. An analogy is fish and dolphins. Both evolved to have tails for swimming but they are biologically unrelated.   

Take a look at the plant below. At first glance it looks a lot like a cactus.  But it's actually a Euphorbia. Many succulents look like cacti, but are unrelated to cacti. 

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Look at the three plants below. Which two plants do you think are more related?

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The first plant is a Frithia. It belongs in the Dicot class of plants.  The next two are wheat and haworthia maughanii which belong to the Monocot class.  Although Frithia and Haworthia  maughanii look similar, Haworthia are actually more closely related to other monocot plants like wheat, corn and rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do succulents look weird?

One of the cool things about succulents is the weird shapes that result from exaggeration of different plant organs to store water. When one thinks of plants we think of leaves, stems , flowers, roots. Because of the way in which succulents evolved,  one organ may be exaggerated and another might be greatly reduced or lost.

For example in Cacti and many other succulents, leaves may be greatly reduced or lost altogether. These plants are basically fat green stems. Cacti and other succulents can sometimes have evocative shapes.


cactus

 

In other succulents the leaves are the dominant organ and the stem is greatly reduced. For example lithops have tiny invisible stems. The lithops body is composed of two fused leaves filled with water storage tissue.

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All kinds of weird variations of the standard plant body plan can be found in different succulents.

 

how do you care for succulents?

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Because there is such a large variety of succulent plants, there is no one size fits all recipe that works for all succulents. The best advice is to learn everything you can about the specific succulents that you want to grow.

These days its much easier to find information on an unusual plant than when I first started growing succulents. Googling the crap out of a plant is a good way to start.

Some succulents are very easy, for example Kalanchoe daigremontiana ("mother of millions") is impossible to kill. Others, like this Lithops, are notorious for being difficult to keep alive.
lithops pot

 

Where can you grow succulents?

In my own collection I have several different "habitats" where succulents live:

 

Outside in pots, northern exposure.

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Gets sun from morning till about 10:30 or 11:30 depending on the position the plants are in and time of year. Some plants like haworthia and Aloes are outdoors all year (we only get light frost where I live). Some plants like cacti  lithops) are left outdoors but completely protected from rain. Some winter dormant plants like Euphorbs and Stapilia related plants are brought indoors in November and put in a sunny window. People living in climates with hard frosts can't leave succulents outdoors during winter since most of them wont survive.

 

Indoors all year in pots by a sunny window. 

windowMy Madagscar euphorbs and Gasteria and a few others. I highly recommend Madagascar Euphorbs as house plants. Most other succulents prefer being outdoors.

 

Outdoors

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IMG_6066 otto1Planted in the ground in my front yard. Aeoniums, agave, aloes, cacti, crassula, dyckia and other succulents . Southern exposure. Occasional light winter morning frost. I am lucky enough to live in a climate where I can do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the best soil for succulents?

I make my own soil.  Packaged soil mixes are crappy and are nothing like the soils the plants see in nature. They are fine for easy succulents but not the plants I grow (Haworthia, Euphorbs, Staps, Mesembs etc.) Avoid organic mixes, peat moss and fine sand.

My high tech soil mixing area:

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My soil mixes are constantly evolving. At this point in time I use two different soil mixes. One for Lithops and other mesembs and one for everything else. My soil mixes work for my environment. I live in the cool California Bay Area. 

My main succulent mix (used for everything except mesembs):

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Mostly pumice. 75 to 100% depending on the plant. The remainder of the mix is constantly evolving. You can add something that helps the soil hold some water. I was adding coir (coconut fiber soil). I think it works well when combined with pumice and I used it for many years. Lately, I have been omitting the coir and instead adding loam to help the pumice retain some moisture and a bit of decomposed granite and gravel. And I add a small amount of gypsum as a source of calcium. I always use a decorative pebble top dressing. In addition to looking nice it helps keep the soil from drying out too quickly. 

My Lithops mix:

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2 parts decomposed granite to 1 part loam (clay garden soil), 1 part gravel ("builders sand"), 1 part pumice. Small amount of gypsum.

Here are the individual components:

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Loam (Topsoil from Ace Hardware)  loam

 

decomposed granite granite

 

gravel (Builder's sand from Ace Hardware) builders sand

 

 

 

How much sun?

Amount of light depends on the particular plant. But most succulents need some direct sunlight. Most of my potted plants are in a north facing exposure and get morning sun till between 10:30 and 11:30 depending on their position.

Although succulents thrive with sunlight, they are sensitive to sunburn. Be especially careful about acclimating new plant to gradually more sun. And be especially careful about the combination of heat and direct sun.  A good rule of thumb to remember is that succulents can tolerate heat and they can tolerate direct sun but they cant tolerate heat and sun at the same time. If it gets above 90 degrees F move the plants into the shade. It's not as much of an issue with plants in the ground because the ground dissipates heat.   

 

 

 

How to get rid of mealies and other pests

Mealies can be horrible frustrating pests.

 

The Wiki page on Mealies is a must read for anyone growing succulents.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mealybug

What you need to know is that there are many different kinds of mealies. Hundreds of species. From my experience some are more stubborn than others. I have found that with mealie infestations it can sometimes be easy to control them, sometimes so difficult you want to tear out your hair. In my years of growing succulents I have seen many different kinds: white and fluffy, some with no white fluff on their bodies, purple, red, orange, grey bodies. Even yellow root mealies with blue webbing and blue nests.

 

There are mealies lurking in the environment, on shrubs and trees outdoors. They may find their way onto your succulents. But these are usually not hard to control. The problem mealies are the ones that come from succulents you buy. That's why quarantining new acquisitions for 1 month is essential. Nurseries that grow succulents and big box stores have populations of mealy bugs adapted to living on succulents.  If these get into your collection they are a nightmare to get rid of. If you have a heavy infestation and are seeing lots of juveniles (juveniles are smaller, fast moving, more pink in color and hairless)  you need to hit them hard. My method of choice is Imidocloprid insecticide. This is a neonicotinoid systemic insecticide. It's a safer option and used in pet products. This  pesticide is controversial because of its effects on bees. If that concerns you, use it and then cut off the flowers when the plants flower to prevent bees from being exposed. This pesticide will be taken up by the plants and will kill any mealies that hatch from residual eggs on the plant.

Scale and Aphids are related to mealies but are usually not as much of a problem. Be on the lookout for ants. Ants will farm mealies, scale and aphids. They will protect the pests, clean them and move them to fresh plants. In doing so they will help spread infestations.

 

Spider mites (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spider_mite) can be a problem, but mostly indoors. Some plants are especially prone and I have given up on most of those.

Thrips (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrips) are terrible pests that cause leaf stunting  and leaf rot. I treat them with an application of Spinosad in the spring when they re most active. 

how do you keep lithops alive?

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Lithops are captivating weird plants that many people love. They are easy  to raise from seed but prone to kicking the bucket once they reach adulthood.

I've had success by doing these things:

  •   Planting them in a gravely soil mix that is roughly 2 parts decomposed granite, 1 part loam soil, 1 part gravel (builders sand), and 1 part pumice.
  • Watering them very little (but soaking the pots very well most times I water them) and keeping them dry when the old leaves are shriveling in the winter. But don't overdo the no watering thing either. Especially when recently transplanted lithops need water to encourage root growth. 
  • Giving them lots of sun but protecting them from hot sun. They are in a position where they get morning light till about 11:00 or 11:30. But if the temperature gets above 90 they go into the shade. Lithops will become etiolated and rot prone if they don't have sufficient light. They need direct sunlight yet are extremely prone to sunburn if the sun hits the when its hot. So keeping them happy means watching the temperature and sunlight and moving them around. 
  • the lithops roots need to be trimmed when transplanting. The roots will develop a thick corky covering. Scraping away a small bit of this corky layer (I use my nails) to reveal the white inner root will help stimulate root growth.    
  • Keep them away from squirrels.  

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Interested in landscaping or interior plantscaping with succulents for your home or business?

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