Succulents and Cacti

Succulent plants refers to a broad, loose category of plants, including cacti, which have developed thick fleshy leaves or stems. These serve as water storage organs to insure survival under arid conditions.

Succulents are found worldwide. Besides cacti, they include many familiar plants:

  • jade plant (Crassula arborescens)
  • snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
  • medicine plant (Aloe barbadensis)
  • century plant (Agave americana)
  • flowering Kalanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) and the sedums (Sedum sp.), both sold as gift plants
  • hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.), common in the perennial garden

Cacti characteristics

  • The cactus family has nearly 2,000 species, and with one exception all are native to the Americas.
  • They range from the Arctic Circle to the mountains of Chile, but are most common in the southwestern United States and Mexico.
  • Cacti can be tall and lanky or squat and spherical, frequently without any branches and almost always without leaves.
    • These shapes result in a large proportion of internal tissue to external surface area. This reduces the amount of moisture that is lost through the plant itself.
  • They often have scales or spines ranging from microscopically small to wickedly large and barbed.
    • These protect against predators and are thought to aid the plant in withstanding the sun’s heat.

Grouping succulents together

Cacti and succulents are often grouped together in shallow dish gardens. While this may be an attractive way to display your plants, take several precautions.

  • Choose plants that are compatible in growth rate so that one or two plants do not outgrow the rest.
  • Even more important, the plants must have similar water requirements.
    • Most cacti need less water than other succulents.
    • Since shallow dishes seldom have drain holes, do not overwater the plants.
  • Broken clay pot shards or coarse gravel at the bottom of the container may provide some drainage.
    • Excess moisture will eventually be drawn back into the soil, which may keep the roots wet too long.