The rise of SucculentsAlison Marsden
Alongside cacti, succulent plants are enjoying an increase in popularity at the moment. They are primarily used as houseplants or summer patio display but there are a hardy few that will thrive outside in the UK all year round. There is an attraction to their adaptation to ‘feast and famine’ especially if you are inclined to be erratic in watering your pot plants but I love them for the variety and contrast they bring to more traditional garden planting. I have a small collection of succulents that I overwinter under cover, away from frost, and bring out in summer where they remind me of holidays in hot, sunny climes, enhanced by the use of terracotta pots.
All plants need water of course and succulents are no exception but you can see from the thick, fleshy leaves that these plants store water. When rain does fall (or you remember to water them) the roots very quickly absorb a huge amount of water and transport it to the leaves where it is stored to keep the plant alive through any period of drought. It is not a surprise then that succulent plants with bigger leaves are not native to climates like the UK with temperatures and regular rainfall and have not evolved to withstand being frozen. Each cell in the leaf is full of water that expands on freezing like ice cubes in a tray, bursting the cell walls with fatal consequences.
The solution is to overwinter in a frost-free greenhouse or use them as conservatory or windowsill plants in winter and pop them outside for a summer holiday. Commonly available examples include Aeonium, Echeveria and Aloe Vera along with more established houseplants such as the Money Plant (Crassula ovata) and Mother in Law’s tongue, aka Sanseveria. Succulents combine well with strappy leaved plants such as Phormium, Yucca and Astelia which can be planted in the ground to create a Mediterranean or Californian effect in a corner of the garden. These echo the Agaves that are not hardy enough for permanent planting to lend an air of the desert, technically known as Xeriscape.
There are a few groups of succulents that are hardy in the UK: Sempervivums, commonly called Houseleeks, and various Sedums including the now renamed Sedum spectabile, the Ice Plant so beloved of butterflies in late summer, but mainly a number of groundcover, creeping Sedums, the Stonecrops. These establish in the driest of soils and root as they spread, with yellow, grey or red leaves as well as green and many with a surprisingly impressive display of flowers in summer.
Houseleeks are so tolerant of poor conditions that they will survive growing on roofs as long as there are a few clumps of moss to trap leaves and dust and start the process of making a scattering of soil. Indeed the common name Houseleek is believed to stem from the ‘traditional’ practice (not clear exactly where or when this was a tradition) of growing them on cottage roofs to protect from lightning, fire, plague and evil spirits. You name it, Sempervivums on the roof were the answer! Nowadays we are more likely to grow them on a rockery or with alpines in a trough; anywhere with good drainage and plenty of light.
Offering such as wide range of sizes, shapes, colours and textures, as well as thriving on neglect, you can certainly see why Succulents are once again proving popular.
Happy Gardening from Alison
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