All About Succulents
Table of Contents:
Succulents are exceptionally thick and fleshy plants optimized to store water and nutrients in their tissues for extended periods of time. They're designed to thrive in arid and desert like climates where nutrients and water can be scarce. Most succulents have thick leaves and stems that operate like water storage tanks. Some species have additional features to help retain water such as waxy leaves or a covering of hair.
Succulents come in a vast variety of shapes, colors and textures. Although around 85% are green, there are many, many species that feature colors like blues, purples, yellows, whites, oranges, reds and more! The conditions the plants are in help determine their color. Usually all a dull succulent needs to start blushing its true hue is some nice sunlight!
Cacti, although frequently differentiated from succulents, are actually a type of succulent - all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti!
Air plants, which don't require any soil to root into, soaking up water and nutrients with their leaves instead, aren't traditionally considered succulents, but they are very similar in their acclimation to arid drought prone environments. They are as easy, if not easier to manage than traditional succulents and cacti. For more information on air plants, check out our Air Plant Info & Care page.
Succulents are becoming increasingly popular, especially in the Northeast, due to their low maintenance requirements and their vast variety of shapes, textures, and colors. They're becoming exceptionally popular in wedding decor/design, where they make excellent, long lasting favors, centerpieces, bouquets, and more!
Succulent and Cacti Care:
Even though they're low maintenance, there's still some important information to keep in mind to ensure that your succulents thrive. Different succulents have different care requirements although for the most part their care is very similar. Some succulents do better than others in low light or drought conditions. Aloe, crassula jade, echeverias, haworthias, sanseverias, cacti, and sempervivums (hens and chicks) are all very easy to maintain and make great indoor plants!
- The bottom leaves of succulents will naturally dry and wrinkle as the plant grows. These unsightly leaves help shade and insulate the stem but if you'd rather they weren't there you can peel them away with no harm to the plant!
- Sometimes succulents stretch due to inadequate light or fast growth. This can result in a less compact plant that has dispersed leaves leading up to a more compact, rosette shape on the top. If you don't like the less compact, lengthy appearance you can utilize stem cutting propagation to get your plant back into tip top shape! To do so, cut the plant's stem at the desired location, then let the top portion callous over before re-potting it. The bottom portion of the stem will continue growing and will actually form new succulents wherever it was cut or leaves were pulled off. Visit the propagation portion of this page to learn more!
- A good rule of thumb for succulents in arrangements with no drainage holes is to water each plant with a tablespoon of water every 7-10 days. The soil should be bone dry when it comes time for watering and its always smart to err on the side of caution.
- For succulents in pots with drainage holes: set the pots in a pan of water so the soil inside is able to suck up water through the drainage hole. Once the water reaches the surface of the soil, take the pot out and let it drain. The soil should be completely bone dry before considering re-watering (7-10 days is a good rule of thumb)
- In the spring and summer, when succulents are usually in their growth stage, they can be watered more in frequency but NOT in volume. During the winter when most succulents go dormant, they require less water.
- How much and how often your plants require water will depend on the specific species you have as well as the conditions your plants are kept in. Following our care instructions of 1 tablespoon of water every 7 - 10 days per plant in a no drainage arrangement is always a good place to start but you should vary your watering habits depending on how your plants respond.
- Signs of under watering: softening of or wrinkles on the petals, drooping leaves or subtle leaning.
- Over watering is the easiest way to kill succulents! When their roots sit in moisture for too long they can get root rot caused by a bacteria that grows in the soil under moist conditions. Signs of root rot include: the stem is soft and has a hard time supporting itself (may also turn black); the petals of the plant fall off after being lightly touched; the plant begins to smell; the cactus begins to cave in.
- When root rot occurs, if the affected plant is in an arrangement with other succulents, take all the plants out to prevent the bacteria from spreading. If the rot is caught early in the process the plant can potentially be saved! In order to do so: cut off the part of the stem that's rotted and place the healthy plant on top of new soil and don't water it for about a week. After that week has passed, water sparingly as the plant begins to develop new roots. For cacti: brush off any dirt from the affected area and clean using a q tip and a water/anti-bacterial soap solution. Replant in new soil and refrain from watering for at least two weeks.
- In general, your succulents should get 4-6 hours of filtered sunlight a day. Placing them in a window sill, especially one that gets good morning or afternoon sun, is usually a great place to keep your plants healthy and thriving!
- If your succulents are in a glass terrarium, consider avoiding placing them in prolonged exposure to direct, bright light, as the terrarium can magnify light and start to overheat, potentially burning the plants.
- Some succulents will actually suffer from too much direct light as they can get sunburn, causing their petals to display white or pale patches. In some cases the leaves will actually turn dry and black. Usually this isn't something you have to worry about unless you're keeping your plants outdoors during the summer, in which case its a safe bet to restrict the plants to either morning or afternoon sun.
- Our recommendation of 4-6 hours of filtered sunlight a day is a great starting point but you should alter the conditions your succulents are in, and the degree of light they receive, based on how they respond. Some succulents, such as haworthias, thrive in the shade and can sometimes become discolored if placed in too much light. Other succulents, such as most sempervivums (hens and chicks) are full sun plants and will happily take as much light as you can give them!
- Signs of too much light: "off color" or "bleached out" appearance, abnormal yellow or orange hues
- Signs of too little light: stretching (reaching for the light), de-blushing (losing vibrant hues and returning to dormant appearance which is usually a greener or paler hue)
- If your plant is stretching you can gradually give it more light and rotate it weekly to evenly distribute the lighting. Refer to the Quick Tips section of this page to learn about a possible solution to overly etiolated (reaching) plants.
- When re potting succulents and cacti its important to use a well-draining soil mix to avoid any of the issues associated with prolonged soil moisture and over watering. A commercial cactus and succulent soil mix is always a good bet and can usually be found at Home Depot, Lowes, or any local garden stores.
- Another option is to make your own! To do so, a good starting recipe is to combine equal parts of: an organic element such as compost, peat, or bark; coarse horticultural-grade sand; and a gritty element such as horticultural pumice, perlite, crushed granite or lava fines.
- Indoor succulents don't need much fertilizer at all and can often survive just fine without any! However, if you want to ensure that your plants grow as much as possible and take on the most vibrant colors, you can fertilize them once in the spring or summer.
- If you do decide to fertilize your succulents, use a balanced blend (10-10-10 or 20-20-20) and only apply 1/4 the recommended treatment.
- In addition, under improper light conditions fertilizer can cause succulents to stretch more than usual. To avoid this issue, place succulents in the brightest spot possible for a couple weeks after fertilizing them to help ensure proper growth.
- For outdoor succulents, fertilizing them once in the spring would be completely fine, but it won't hurt to fertilize them as often as once a month during the growing season (spring and summer) although that level of frequency certainly isn't necessary!
One of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of succulents is the ease with which they can be propagated, or bred, into new plants! This can be achieved by a variety of means such as leaf cuttings, offsets, stem cuttings, or seeds. The genus and species of your succulent(s) will determine the most effective means of propagation. For example, some species, like sedums and some echeverias, can be propagated with a leaf or cutting, while aeoniums require cuttings.
Propagating can be a great way to make the most of a partially damaged plant, such as one that's been sunburned or exposed to rot. In addition, if one of your plants has started to reach because of inadequate light, and no longer looks aesthetically pleasing, don't throw it away! Depending on the species, you can use the leaves as well as the top of the plant that still looks compact and attractive and whatever stem remains after you take off the leaves to propagate into new plants!
Propagating w/ Leaf Cuttings:
Using leaf cuttings is one of the easier and faster ways to propagate succulents. This method tends to work best with succulents that have plump, fleshly leaves (like echeveria)
- Step One: Get some leaves: If you're eager to try out propagating but don't want to take any leaves off your healthy plants, look at the base of your arrangements to see if any leaves have fallen off on their own and use those!
- When taking the leaves off of a plant, make sure to get the entire leaf. If the leaf is incomplete and the base part that was attached to the stem is separated from the rest of the leaf, it probably won't develop roots and propagate. Some leaves will pop off the stem with nothing more than a gentle tug while others may require a bit more work. Hold the stem and leaf firmly and wiggle the leaf from side to side until it cleanly snaps off. A "U" shape at the base of the petal where it met the stem indicates a perfect break!
- Once you've taken all the leaves off a succulent, don't throw away the remaining stem; it can also be used to propagate!
- Step Two: Let your leaves dry out: Before you put your leaf cuttings on soil you want to make sure the ends dry out and callous over. This ensures that the leaf doesn't absorb too much water, get rot, and die. This is an easy process and mostly just requires time and usually takes a few days to a couple weeks.
- Step Three: Let your succulent leaves start to root: After you feel like your leaves have calloused over, you can place them on a tray with a thin layer of succulent soil. If possible, place your tray of leaf cuttings in a window with lots of indirect sunlight. Although not necessary, you can also dip the ends of your leaves in rooting hormone to increase the chance and speed that they develop roots.
- Now you have to wait again! The leaves should start to grow little pink roots after a few weeks from the spot they were separated from the stem. At this stage, you can water the leaves very rarely. Usually a light misting every day or few days works great.
- As your cuttings grow roots and start to produce baby plants, you can start watering the plants on a more regular basis: giving them a decent soak every 7-10 or when the soil is totally dry.
- Step Four: Move your new babies to their own home: Once the "mother leaf" starts to wither (as the new succulent sucks up the water and nutrients) and the succulent baby grows a bit more, you can plant the baby in its own pot.
- You can remove the mother leaf but be careful not to rip any of the new succulent's roots. If you're worried about damaging the plant, you can leave the leaf to fall off on its own.
Propagating w/ Stem Cuttings:
Using stem cuttings is another easy, consistently successful way to propagate succulents. This method tends to work best with succulents that have "branches" or rosette shaped varieties that started to reach because of inadequate lighting and have developed a long stem. Although the timing isn't essential, its best to try out propagation via stem cuttings when the plants are about to begin their growth stage, at the end of winter/beginning of spring
- Step One: Cut off the stem: Decide where you want to cut the stem and then use clean, sterile scissors or a sharp knife to make the cut. You can dip your blade into rubbing alcohol or wash with soapy water to adequately sterilize. Usually, a blade wont even be necessary and you can simply break off the stem.
- If your succulent was potted before you decide to try propagating via stem cuttings, you can leave the base stem after you cut it. The base will eventually grow new succulents wherever it was cut or leaves were removed.
- Step Two: Let your stem(s) dry: Just like with leaf cuttings, you want your stem to callous over wherever it was cut before you place it over dirt to root. This will prevent rotting and usually takes a few days to a couple weeks.
- Step Three: Plant your succulent stem: After its adequately calloused, you can pot your stem into a well-filtering soil. Don't water your succulent until roots have formed. This process usually takes a few weeks. New growth on top of planted stem cuttings is a good indication that roots have formed. Once this is the case, you can water the plant like normal.
- If you're unsure of when roots have formed you can lightly water or mist your plant(s) after the first couple of weeks and wait to start regular watering until you feel confident roots have formed.
Propagating w/ Offsets or Division:
Propagating w/ offsets or division is about as easy as it gets since the mother plant has done most of the work for you! Offsets, also know as pups, are the baby succulents that form around the base of the parent plant.
- To separate pups from the parent plant, remove the top soil until the roots are visible and then gently pull the plants apart while keeping the roots as intact as possible.
- Let the pups dry out for a few days before re potting them in succulent soil to prevent rotting or disease.
Propagating w/ Seeds:
Propagating with seeds is by far the slowest method, but it can be very rewarding! Mature succulents produce seeds at the swollen base of their flowers which can be collected when the plant is finished flowering. Its best to start the seed propagating process at the beginning of spring so the plants can have a lengthy growing period before entering into the winter dormancy stage.
- Step One: Line a tray or planter with succulent/cactus soil, or your home made well-filtering mix! Soak your seeds for 30 minutes to loosen the outer seed coat and then spread the seeds on the soil while providing space between them to encourage and facilitate growth. Afterwards, cover your seeds with a very thin layer of sand or succulent soil, making sure not to bury the seeds.
- Step Two: Place the tray or planter in a warm environment (75-80 degrees Fahrenheit if possible) and cover the tray with a clear plastic to create a greenhouse effect, keeping the seeds moist and warm.
- Step Three: Water the seeds with a spray bottle daily, only letting the top soil dry out between watering. The seeds will start to germinate in 2-3 weeks.
As the succulents grow you can gradually revert to a more traditional succulent watering cycle.
Succulents are less prone to pest problems than regular plants, and when they are affected its usually a quick fix, so pests shouldn't be something you have to worry about it! That being said, its not impossible to run into some problems so its always good to be prepared!
- Mealy Bugs: they shroud themselves in a oval-shaped, cottony covering and eat the sap inside plant tissue. Their cotton covering protects them from predators and contact pesticides.
- the bugs usually migrate to a location that provides an ideal supply of nutrients and then congregate into large groups. These areas tend to be the joints between the leaves and stems.
- Light infestations can often be adequately dealt with using strong sprays of water or manual removal.
- Root Mealybug: a type of mealy bug that affects the roots.
- Spider Mites: spider mites lay whitish webs spun close to the plants surface. Like mealy bugs, they feast on the plants sap.
- Scale: appear as tan or brown spots resembling marine limpet shells. Their shells form a hard covering that protect the insects underneath. They also eat the sap from the plants.
-They can be treated like mealy bugs: dab a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol then use a systemic insecticide.
- Alternative solution is to scrape the scale off with a plastic knife then wash with a mild liquid detergent.
- Fungus Gnats: black or grey flies that thrive in moist environments with organic matter and can cause damage to the roots.
- To deal with fungus gnats: stop watering your plants immediately! Use yellow stick traps to catch the adult flies. Water your plants (once soil is bone dry) with a 1/4 3% hydrogen peroxide 3/4 water solution to kill any larvae.
WHY YOU SHOULD BUY SUCCULENTS:
1) They come in a fascinating variety of shapes, colors and textures
2) They're designed to deal with neglect! They make the perfect plant for black thumbs and anyone looking for something low maintenance
3) They propagate! One succulent can turn into many more, and before you know it you have a house full of them :)
Succulent Fun Facts:
1) There are more than 250 species of aloe! (Aloe Vera is the most classic and widely known species)
2) The word succulent comes from the Latin word "sucus" which means juice or sap
3) Barrel cacti expand and contract depending on how much water they're storing