Succulents are my new gardening obsession. These unusual plants hold a special place in my heart, partly because I grew up in the Southwest and I love anything that reminds me of the desert — it makes me feel like I’m at home. But also, they’re so…cool. Succulents can have an otherworldly look with their fantastical colors, unique shapes and varied textures — like little alien-plants. From the flower-like rosette formations of Echeveria species to the trailing vines of strings-of-pearls, each type is beautiful in its own way and has its own personality. And when you plant a whole bunch of them together in an arrangement or landscape design, the results can be striking.
I’m also amazed by how little succulents need to survive and how well they can adapt to conditions around them. Even though they are a hugely diverse group of plants (with over 10,000 known species), all succulents have one trait in common: they store water in their fleshy leaves, stems and roots, which enables them to withstand long periods of drought. Actually, the name “succulent” comes from the Latin sucus, meaning “sap” (referring to the “juiciness” of the leaves). They can thrive in some of the world’s most extreme environments where most other forms of life cannot, which makes them low-maintenance and — generally speaking — easy to grow and care for.
Succulents have been exploding in popularity in recent years, and for me at least, it’s easy to see why. Here are nine fun facts you might not have known about these intriguing plants:
1. They aren’t all native to the desert. Nearly half of all succulent species come from arid regions of Southern Africa, but succulents can be found in every continent except Antarctica, and they live in a variety of climates. Some succulents thrive in mountain regions, and others in tropical rainforests or coastal areas. What this means is that, if you grow succulents, it’s important to do your research and know what species you’ve got. Plants from different regions will have vastly different needs and preferences — what one species loves, another can’t tolerate. Knowing what your specific plants need will set you up for success and head off a lot of frustration (trust me on that one).
2. Succulents and cacti are not the same thing. The words are often used interchangeably, but cacti are actually a type of succulent. According to The Spruce, cacti generally have no leaves, are covered in spines and have rounded indentations called areoles along their stems. All cacti are succulents because of their water-storing capacity, but there are many types of succulents that are not cacti.
3. They may change color with the seasons. Changes in temperature, sunlight and watering can cause some succulents to “blush” and turn beautiful colors. Much like human skin, the plant tissues produce pigments to protect themselves from environmental stresses. So, technically, the color change is a sign that the plant is not growing in optimal conditions — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plants can tolerate a certain degree of stress while still remaining healthy.
4. Succulents “breathe” at night. Plant leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through tiny pores in their leaves. Usually, these pores are open in the daytime so that the plants can breathe and perform photosynthesis, and they close at night to protect the plant from the elements. With succulents, it works the opposite way; they breathe at night and close their pores during the day so they don’t lose too much water to evaporation. This is just one of the many special adaptations that allows succulents to conserve water.
5. The leaves are coated with a wax film that resists water and protects the plant from sun damage. This wax coating, which is also known as farina, also provides some natural defense against pests and diseases. To keep your succulent babies happy and healthy, it’s best to avoid touching them any more than necessary because the farina wipes off very easily — and unfortunately, it doesn’t come back once it’s gone.
6) Some succulents don’t need soil. If you’re after something really low-maintenance that doesn’t even need to be potted, try air plants. These succulents fasten to trees, rocks, or whatever they can find for support, but air plants gather water and nutrients through tiny scales on their leaves instead of through their roots. They need to be misted or soaked in a bowl of water periodically, but apart from that, they hardly need any care. And they’re just so cute!
7) They are incredibly resilient. To illustrate this, let me tell you about my prickly pear. I bought it last summer and planted it in a big pot. It thrived in the summer months but shriveled up as soon as the weather turned cold. I assumed it was dead and threw it into the scrap pile in our backyard, where it got buried in dead branches. Fast forward to this summer — one day I was doing yard work and I found my old prickly pear growing up through the scrap pile. That thing survived the winter deep freezes and snow, with roots exposed, and grew up sideways through the branches towards what little bit of sunlight it could find. Unbelievable!
8) Succulents spawn easily. Succulenting (yes, I’m coining that term!) doesn’t have to be an expensive
habit hobby. You don’t have to buy new plants every time you want to grow your collection; with many types of succulents, you can pull leaves or take cuttings from existing plants and easily grow new babies (it’s really fun!). Some types of succulents produce offsets called “pups” that can eventually grow up to become full-fledged plants, which is another way they reproduce; others can multiply via flowers and seeds. Growing new succulents is not exactly a quick process, but if you’re patient, the rewards are worth the wait.
9) Some succulents have medicinal and culinary uses. Aloe is famed for the soothing, healing jelly that comes from its leaves; it may be best known for sunburn relief but according to Medical News Today, it also has antimicrobial properties and is nourishing for the skin. It’s also edible. Prickly pear, also known as nopal, can be peeled and cooked, and is especially popular in Latin American cuisines. And, of course, agave is cooked, milled, fermented and processed to yield tequila. Delicious and therapeutic!
Not all succulents are fit for consumption, though; some (such as jelly bean plants and pencil cactus) contain sap that is poisonous to humans and pets. If you’re intending to grow succulents to eat or use medicinally, make sure to thoroughly research the species in question.
What about you? Are you a succulent addict like me? Or curious about them? I’d love to hear your comments below.