• Melanie Walker

Succulents are Trending

Succulents are hot!

Once the preserve of dusty rock gardens, or small pots in the front room, the plants we grew up seeing in Granny’s parlour have become the firm favourite of gardeners, interior designers and stylists. Millennials are taking these minimalist plants on in their small space homes and loving them as they’re cool and hip, partly because they are perceived as not so traditional.

Gardening and interiors blogs on social media are filled with succulents – but what’s all the fuss about?

Well, probably because they’re pretty much dummy proof. Apart from being waterwise – the watchword not just in South Africa, but many other water-stressed countries around the world – they’re beautiful and well near indestructible. They work well indoors and out. They’re appropriate for warm, temperate and cold locations. They can find themselves a ‘home’ almost anywhere – in cracks in rockeries, in sandy soils, or on your windowsill. They can take the heat. They thrive on neglect. They’re being used in bridal bouquets, as centrepieces indoors, as the stars of small urban gardens. And unlike fresh flowers, they last for years…

South Africa is a treasure trove of succulent plant varieties. In South Africa and Namibia there are around 4 000 species – nearly half of the world’s succulent flora. The reason for this richness is our diverse climate, soil and terrain. Succulent plants occur in all the South African biomes from sea level to the highest mountain peaks and in every rainfall area. Succulents are, however, more common in dry regions, especially the succulent Karoo biome where they make up a significant section of the area’s plant diversity.

Plants with fleshy leaves, stems, roots or a combination of these features are called succulents (from the Latin word succos, meaning juice). These are plants that have evolved ingenious and sometimes intriguing ways to survive in their hostile environment. They are able to store moisture in succulent tissue that occurs either in their leaves, stems or roots. They are adapted to resist periods of drought and depend on stored water for their survival. Succulents belong to a wide range of families and in South Africa the most prominent are the vygies (Mesembryanthemaceae), 98% of which are endemic to our country and which make up almost half of the succulent species around. Others are ‘plakkies’ (Crassulaceae), the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae) and the Noors family (Euphorbiaceae).

Maintaining a garden with plants that only need a little water makes your life a lot easier. Not much maintenance, and friendly on your water bill. These drought-tolerant beauties are simple to look after, so you feel like you are a Master Gardener with really green fingers. Good drainage, occasional water and full to partly sunny conditions and they’ll keep going. And multiply! Which is a bonus too, as you can propagate succulents with almost no fuss at all. Just cut off a couple of leaves or rosettes, plonk them in the dirt and voila! They have shallow root systems which means you can use them in ‘difficult’ places, like a rocky space. And it means they’re great for containers too.

Succulents don’t just come in shades of green. These days there a wealth of jewel coloured varieties, with pinks, purples, blues and greys making themselves visible. Don’t be afraid to mix it up, in both colour and texture. Though all succulents flower, if minimally, their appeal is not in their blooms, but in their varied colour, texture and leaf shapes. Put velvety grey next to crisp green and darker green or purple. Echeveria comes in lavender and pink and silver, firesticks come in orange and yellow. Some varieties actually change colour, and get darker depending on their sun exposure. Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’ will be green in the shade, but go black in full sun. Choices are getting even better as breeders develop more varieties that better tolerate cold climates, and come in more colours and textures. And to top it all, you’ll get striking flowers in the garden just when everything else is looking terribly dowdy. Group or mass the same plant for a great effect – the greatest impact for the least amount of input

Our country is lagging behind when it comes to adapting to dry gardening or xeriscaping. Perhaps this is because, in the past, succulents were seen only as plants to stick into your rockery in a dodgy, unused part of the garden. Happily, they’re becoming the first choice of many gardeners as we all become more environmentally aware. They have become the poster children of the water wise movement and those that are into all things retro are putting them everywhere, not just in the garden.


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