Succulents, cactus, they’re a couple of words we often use interchangeably to describe two different, yet similar types of plants. While all cacti are considered succulents, not all succulents are cacti. Huh? This might sound confusing, but figuring out the difference between the two can be, well uhm, a thorny matter. If you, like many people, believe it is the catus’ bristly armor that distinguishes it from its smooth-skinned relative, you’d be half right. Actually, there are varieties of succulents that also have thorns, and there are even some cacti that have no thorns at all. But you are getting close. The way to identify a cactus from a succulent is by the thorns. Cactus thorns grow in clusters along rows of small, equally spaced cushions known as areoles. On varieties of flowering cactus, this is also where the blooms sprout.
Making the most of the limited resources available is how succulents have mastered the art of survival within the most challenging environments. So how has this extremely hardy group of plants managed to adapt and even thrive in conditions that seem almost impossible to bear? Through their evolution, resourceful succulents have developed thick, waxy stems and leaves made of specialized tissue for storing water to carry them through periods of extended drought conditions. Their waxy leaves also prevent water from evaporating through their surface, something very important considering the types of climates where they grow. Some varieties use deep running root systems to tap into subterranean water sources, while others depend on their shallow roots to gather any moisture accumulating on surface ground.
Most of us probably remember from junior high science class that plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into glucose – the food they need to grow and reproduce. As photosynthesis occurs, plants take in carbon dioxide through pores called stomata. As the stomata are opened to receive the C02, small amounts of water are lost through the plant’s leaves during a process known as transpiration. This works great for plants in mild climates, but when you live in a climate that receives only a few inches of rain each year, losing even trace amounts of water can be deadly. Succulents have developed a secret weapon to help hold on to this valuable commodity. They have adapted their photosynthesis to take in C02 during the evening, when temperatures are cooler and evaporation is less of a concern.
Beauty and Brawn
Don’t let their tough reputation fool you. With an almost endless variety – from the spiny agave with tubular flowers in yellow, pink and orange to the delicate buds of the sedum – succulents prove that just because you’re tough, doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful too. Hardiness and a diverse color palette have made them a favorite of landscape specialists and weekend horticulturalists alike. A succulent garden is the perfect way to add heavy curb appeal to your home without the high maintenance some other plants might require. Beginner gardeners will especially appreciate their easy care and forgiving nature.
To help get you started, we’ve put together a few basic tips for keeping your succulents looking their very best.
- In general these plants grow in dry, arid climates, so it’s important to make sure they have excellent drainage. You can use a soil that is specifically designed for succulents. Adding a bit of pumice or fine gravel to the soil helps to keep it aerated. This keeps the roots from getting too soggy and rotting.
- The number one killer of succulents is over-watering. Remember, these guys are used to an environment where water is scarce. Water them about once a week in the spring and summer, allowing the soil to dry out before watering them again. Succulents go dormant during the fall and winter and you will want to cut back to watering them just once a month and never let them sit in water. If you live in a climate where you have frost or snow, excess water around the roots can freeze and kill the plants.
- These plants have adapted to enduring hours of intense, direct sunlight. Place them in a sunny window or on a bright patio. In eastern climates, you may need to provide additional hours or supplemental fluorescent lighting.
One last note - some succulents like the jade and the aloe plants can be toxic for cats and dogs, so make sure you keep them away from curious pets. For more information, read our blog post about which flowers to keep away from your pet. You can also check out Vetstreet.com’s list of some of the most common poisonous house plants to help you keep your best friend safe.
Succulents are the true survivor, managing to flourish despite the many challenges presented by their habitat. With just a little bit of care, you can enjoy the charm and splendor of these incredible plants for many years to come.
- Yvette De La Garza