THE HISTORY OF THE ‘SUCCULENT’
Botanically-speaking, the term ‘succulent’ (from the Latin word “succulentus” for juice or sap) refers to any plant that has evolved adaptations to survive hot arid environments. It is a term that does not refer to any specific family or clade of plants, and in fact many succulent plants are not related to one another at all! Over twenty-five plant families have multiple succulents within them.
The trait of succulence has evolved multiple times throughout the history of plants – each time as a response to climate shifts to more arid conditions. Succulence can include a bunch of morphological characteristics – like thickened, fleshy leaves, and an alternative mode of photosynthesis. Many plants would, by botanic definition, be considered succulent even though we do not normally think of them as such. For example, snake plants (Sansevieria) and ponytail palms (Beaucarnea) have adaptations for surviving in desert conditions. Snake plants have thickened leaves and CAM photosynthesis, and ponytail palms have a thickened, woody trunk for water storage.
Horticulturally-speaking, and in the garden retail world, a succulent is anything that is not a cactus, doesn’t usually have spines, and is considered to be completely different from cacti (even though all cacti are succulents). This definition is arbitrary, and excludes many plants that are succulent, botanically-speaking, or have succulent traits, such as bromeliads and other various tropical plants. It has been used by collectors and in the marketing world for so long that the term ‘succulent’ is simply an accepted colloquialism at this point.
All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are succulents from the family Cactaceae, which are native to the New World/Western Hemisphere. Euphorbs (commonly confused with cacti) are also succulents – but are from the plant family Euphorbiaceae, and are cosmopolitan in their distribution. Examples of plants in other families that have evolved succulent characteristics, include Yucca, Agave, and Aloe. All succulents are adapted to dry environments with full sun and no shelter. If you have a sunny spot – they are excellent starter plants due to their low-maintenance!
SUCCULENT PLANT CARE 101
SUNLIGHT: Bright, full sun to medium, filtered light. (A very select few, like the snake plant, can tolerate low, indirect light.)
WATER: Water weekly or monthly, dependent on species. For example, cacti require less water than other succulents, like fleshy Echeveria or Aloe. Allow potting mix to completely dry out before watering again. Water more frequently during warmer months, and fertilize weakly during the growth season. Do not overwater, which will cause this plant to rot. When in doubt, it is better to underwater than to overwater.
HUMIDITY: Succulents do not care. Normal humidity is fine.
TEMPERATURE: 65°F-90°F (18°C-33°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F (15°C).
SIZE: Dependent on species. Most grow slowly, so will remain the same size, or increase in size in flushes of growth.
COMMON PROBLEMS: Succulents are generally very easy-going plants. May get scale and mealybugs. Treat pests as soon as they appear with weekly sprays of horticultural (Neem) oil.
PRECAUTIONS: Do not consume. Best practice is always to keep houseplants out of reach of small children and pets.
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