A Primer on Succulent Plants

California’s recent drought, which promises to stick around in future years, has inspired a surge of interest in succulent plants, which, as a group, grow nicely with limited moisture. If you already know all you want to know about succulent plants, you can skip this column, but if (like many gardeners) are just becoming interested in such plants, here is a primer.

Gardeners who explore the world of succulent plants soon discover that these plants have more to offer than drought tolerance:

  • They bring a great range of forms, foliage colors, blossom colors, and sizes
  • Some grow well in bright sun, while others thrive in filtered light
  • There are are winter dormant varieties (“summer bloomers”), and summer dormant varieties (“winter bloomers”).

These characteristics make succulent plants terrific for landscaping and container gardening.

Cream Spike Agave

Cream Spike Agave, from Mexico

Cream Spike Agave - cu

A closer look

The world of succulents includes some ambiguities to get used to, as follows:

First, the term “succulent” refers to the plant’s biological ability to store water during dry spells, and does not indicate a botanical category. The succulent characteristic occurs within about sixty different plant families. Succulence is a variable trait: succulent plants differ in their needs for moisture.

Second, some definitions of succulent plants exclude geophytes, which are plants that store water underground structures called bulbs, pseudobulbs, tubers, corms, rhizomes or other terms. Interestingly, plants that store water in a caudex (a modified stem that might be partially underground) are considered succulents even when geophytes are not.

Third, all cactuses are succulents, but all succulents are not cactuses. Cactuses are in the plant family Cactaceae. All plants in this family have specialized structures called areoles, a kind of highly reduced branch that produces spines, which are highly modified leaves.

Fourth, except for the cacti, succulent plants do not have spines, but some have leaves with hazardous sharp points or spiked edges, intended to discourage predators.

Always the best way to learn about plants is to grow them. Hands-on experience and regular observation are the best forms of education.

There are faster ways, however. The Internet contains vast informational resources about succulents, accessible by searching on any plant name or botanical term in this column. Very helpful Internet resources for this purpose include Wikipedia for botanical information, Pinterest for photos of succulent plants, and YouTube for video clips on all aspects of growing and displaying succulent plants.

Another very good strategy, especially for Monterey Bay area gardeners, is to join the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society (http://mbsucculent.org/). This non-profit group has monthly meetings in Watsonville, with expert presentations, a fine lending library (listed on its website), and public shows and sales in the spring and fall. The shows at these events include displays of a great variety of expertly grown and often extraordinary succulent plants. The sales present a vast number of small and not-so-small plants in great variety and for attractive prices.

If You Go

What: Spring Show & Sale of Cacti and Succulents

Who: Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society

When: Saturday, April 23, 9:00 to 5:00 and Sunday, April 24, 9:00 to 4:00

Where: Community Hall, 100 San Jose Avenue, San Juan Batista, California

Admission and Parking: Free for all visitors

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