So what is a Succulent? After scouring the internet for a thorough definition, I came across an article written by Mark Dimmitt, a botanist and horticulturalist, who said “there is no clear definition of the term”. So I’m afraid a general definition will have to suffice.
A succulent is any plant with thick, fleshy tissue, in which they store water.
Good enough for me!
Anyway, succulents are awesome plants to keep because they’re beautiful and nearly indestructible. Two qualities I love in a plant! They’ve adapted to survive arid conditions throughout the world, from Africa to the deserts of North America. The adaptations have resulted in an incredible variety of dazzling leaf forms and plant shapes. It also makes them fantastic plants to keep in Australia both indoors and out.
FACT: Cacti are a unique subset of the succulent group. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
Caring for succulents
Most succulents require similar care however as this is an overview there are of course succulents whose care differs from that below.
Succulents prefer bright light. The plant will tell you if it is getting the right amount of light. Too much and the leaves may scorch and turn brown or white. This can happen when keeping them indoors by a window. Too little the plant will start to stretch and the leaves will become more spaced out, as it is trying to reach more light.
Succulents are much more cold-tolerant than you might think. In the desert, there is often a marked contrast between night and day, succulents thrive in colder nights, getting down as low as 4ºC. However most of them don’t like frost.
Succulents ideally like daytime temperatures between 21ºC and about 29ºC and night time temperatures between 10ºC and 12ºC.
Succulents should be potted in a fast-draining mixture. There are ones available designed for cacti and succulents.
If your plants live outside then you probably won’t need to ever water them. If you are experiencing extreme drought and the plants have stopped growing and are beginning to shed leaves then you will need to water them.
Indoor potted succulents should be watered generously in the summer. Allowing the potting mix to dry between watering. During the winter, when the plants go dormant, cut watering back to once every other month. Overwatering causes plant rot which is the single most common cause of plant failure.
NOTE: An overwatered succulent might at first plump up and look healthy. However, the cause of death may have already set in, as the rot spreads upward from the root system.
TIP: A succulent should never be allowed to sit in water.
What to look for:
- Overwatered plants are soft and discoloured. The leaves may be yellow or white and lose their colour. A plant in this condition may be beyond repair, but you can still remove it from its pot and inspect the roots. If they are brown and rotted, cut away dead roots and repot into drier potting media, or take a cutting and propagate the parent plant.
- Succulents prefer generous water during the growing season (spring and summer). An under watered plant will first stop growing, then begin to shed leaves. Alternatively, the plant may develop brown spots on the leaves.
Note: Succulents will lose leaves from the bottom as they grow which is normal. You only need to watch out for it losing from the middle or the top.
Hopefully following these steps will give you happy healthy succulents some of which have incredible flowers.
N.B. This article has been written for Australian gardens. If you're reading this from around the world, we do hope you've found it a useful stepping stone for your own further research.