What are Succulents: Beginner’s Guide

When we talk about succulents, we are talking about a series of plants that live in areas where rainfall does not usually fall too often.

To survive, what they have done has been to gradually transform, over thousands and even millions of years, the leaves and/or stems in their water stores. 

Thanks to these reserves they can grow in the desert.

But there is much confusion about what succulents are, and even more the care they need. 

To try to solve this we are going to offer you an article that pretends to be the mega-guide of these magnificent plants.

All Types of succulents

What are succulent plants?

If we start from the term, succulent, it comes from the Latin suculentus which means very juicy. 

This means that there is one or several parts of the plant (leaves, stems, trunk) that allows the storage of water in much larger quantities than in the rest of the plants.

What is the difference between succulents and cacti

People often use the terms succulents and cacti interchangeably, which is scientifically incorrect. 

Understanding the relation between the two will help properly distinguish them and help with identification.

Succulents are plants that store water in their stems, roots, and leaves. There are about 60 different plant families within the group of succulents, including aloe, haworthia, sedum, sempervivum, and of course, cacti. 

Cacti are fleshy plants that store water, making them part of this group. 

Therefore, all cacti are succulents.

Cacti are simply a family or sub-category within the group of plants collectively known as succulents

They range from tall and thin to short and round, and they usually do not have leaves or branches.

 For a succulent plant to be considered a cactus, the plant must have areoles.

 Areoles are small, round, cushion-like mounds of flesh where spines, hair, leaves, flowers, and more grow from the cactus. Areoles are only present on cacti, not all succulents.

Some succulents are often mistaken for cacti because they have thorns or spines, but these characteristics do not automatically qualify a succulent as a cactus. 

The areoles are the key to distinguishing the two. Without areoles, the succulent cannot be a cactus.

It seems pretty straight forward, right? Well, there is a small grey area when distinguishing succulents from cacti. 

Scientifically, cacti are considered succulents, yet some botanists and horticulturists categorize the two differently. Botanists categorize cacti as succulents, whereas some horticulturists exclude cacti from succulents. 

We just wanted to cover all of the bases but in general…all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

They differ in three types: cactus, crass and caudex plants or caudiciform plants.

Cactus

Cacti are those plants that, in general, we could say that is characterized by thorns that cause enough damage to those who dare to touch them, or who carelessly rub against them. 

But what if I told you that thorns are not the hallmark of this type of succulent?

You wouldn’t believe me, right? I understand, but … being that way I have to tell you something: some species do not have spines or have them so short that they are barely visible. 

Examples are several: Astrophytum asterias, Astrophytum cv Nudum, Echinopsis subdenudata, Trichocereus pachanoi, Myrtillocactus geometrizans, Lophophora williamsii and L. diffussa,…

The thorns are very useful to those plants that have them: they protect them a little from the sun, prevent animals from eating them and also help them collect more water. What water? The dew, of course. 

The droplets settle on all parts of the cactus, also on the thorns which, when growing slightly upwards, the water slides towards the plant, where it can be absorbed through the pores that it has on its surface.

What do we have to look for when we want to know if a plant is a cactus or another succulent? In the areolas. From them, the thorns arise – in the case of having them – and the flowers. 

They are on the ribs, which are structures that are specially designed to prevent excessive loss of water through evaporation.

Cacti adopt two types of forms: columnar, being able to reach a height of up to ten meters, or globular, but it must be known that some are epiphytes, such as Schlumbergera, and others that form tufts with many little grandparents, such as Mamillaria elongata by example.

They are originally from America, especially from the central part.

Crass

Crass, succulent or non-cacti succulent plants are those that take forms and have colors that could easily be confused by small works made by an artist. 

Fortunately for us (maybe not so much for our pockets) they are living beings that, as we will see later, are really easy to care for.

How do they differ from cacti? Mainly, in two things: they have no areolas and the flowers sprout from a terminal stem, that is, as soon as the flowers wilt, the stem will too. 

The leaves and/or stems are fleshy, and can be of several forms: elongated, more or less flattened, grow in the form of a rosette.

Some have something similar to thorns, such as Euphorbia enopla, but these do not arise of the areolas, but of the stem itself.

For the most part, these are compact plants, which do not exceed thirty or forty centimeters in height. 

However, some are bushy, with a height of up to two meters or more, as is the case with Crassula ovata.

They are mainly from Africa, although they can also be found in Europe.

Caudex plants

Finally, we have plants with caudex or caudiciformes. 

They are one of the most curious plants since apparently, they are plants, let’s say, normal, with common leaves and flowers, but the trunk does something that no tree can do: store water in large quantities.

Due to this adaptation mechanism, they can withstand long periods of drought reasonably well.

In fact, if they have any problems some species choose to sacrifice branches. Yes, yes: if they are in trouble, they stop feeding a branch and get rid of it. Then seal the wound, and voila. In this way, they will not need to spend so much water.

We can find them in Africa, the best known to be the Adenium obesum (Desert Rose), Fockea edulis and Cyphostemma juttae.

How to take care of succulents?

Now that more or less have an idea of ​​how each of the succulents are, it is time to move on to the care they need. 

When we want to have a small collection, or if we want to have some potted plants we have to keep in mind that it will be very necessary to provide them with a series of attention so that they can look and be healthy. 

So, after many years of cultivating them, I will recommend the following:

Put your succulents in a bright area

To grow and have an excellent development, this is perhaps one of the most important things to know.

They do not grow well in shady places, nor in those where they do not receive light from the sun directly for a minimum of five hours.

Of course, if they have been purchased in a nursery where they were protected from the king star, they should not be exposed to him abruptly since otherwise, it would burn.

To gradually become accustomed, for two weeks they will be placed in an area where the sun gives them an hour, two at most. 

In the third and fourth weeks, we will extend the exposure time 1-2h plus; and so on until we can leave them all day. If we see that red or brown spots begin to appear, we will go little by little. 

This must be done in spring when the sun is still not very strong.

There is an exception and they are the Haworthia. 

These succulents prefer to be in semi-shade, without direct light.

Use substrates that have very good drainage

The soil where they grow in their natural habitat is sandy, with excellent drainage. 

You can not put a substrate that does not drain the water well because doing so the roots would rot. 

Another option would be to buy a substrate for cacti already prepared, but these sometimes do not have the drainage they claim to have. 

In case of doubt, it is preferable to mix it with any material mentioned before (arlite, perlite, river sand).

Water when the substrate is dry

Irrigation is very important for all plants, also for succulents. During the summer you should water an average of twice a week and during the rest of the year an average of one. 

But we must know that the frequency will depend more on the weather we have and how long the substrate remains wet.

So, that there are no problems, you must check the humidity by doing any of these things:

Introduce a thin wooden stick: if it is practically clean when removed, we will water because the substrate will be dry.

Use a digital humidity meter: when introduced into the ground, it will instantly indicate whether it is wet or not.

 I advise to introduce it in other areas (closer to the plant, closer to the edge of the pot) to make it more reliable.

Weigh the pot once watered and again after a few days: the wet substrate weighs more than the dry one. This difference in weight can serve as a guide.

When winter arrives do not neglect irrigation. It is not good to let them wrinkle, because if they reach this point it will mean that they have gone so thirsty that they have had to almost deplete their water reserves.

 The frequency of irrigation should decrease, but you should never let plants reach this extreme.

If a dish is placed under them, we will remove the remaining water within ten minutes of watering.

Fertilize 

Throughout the growing season, that is, in spring and summer, they must be fertilized so that they can grow, develop, and when the time comes, flourish and bear fruit.

Only with water, they cannot survive, but if they are given inadequate fertilizer, they cannot do much.

 I explain myself: in the place from which they come there is hardly any decomposing organic matter so that succulents have evolved to be able to absorb the minerals found in the soil.

If we pay them with organic fertilizers, it will be as if we did nothing, because they do not know how to take advantage of it. 

Therefore, you have to use mineral fertilizers, either liquid or in granules. In the nurseries, we find fertilizers for cacti and all kinds of succulents, but we can also use Nitrofoska blue or Osmocote.

In any case, we have to follow the instructions specified on the package and not go over the dose.

Change them from pot every time they need it

One of the problems that succulent plants have is that they do not usually change the pot.

It is easy to think that they are small and that they will not grow anymore, but the truth is that if they spend a lot of time in the same container at the end they end up weakening, developing badly and / or dying due to lack of space and minerals.

Therefore, we must change them from the pot as soon as we buy them – as long as it is spring or summer, and they are not in bloom – and again after two or three years. 

This container can be made of plastic or clay, the latter being especially advisable because it allows the roots to be better grasped; In addition, it is more durable.

Now, if you plan to have a collection, the plastic ones end up becoming more profitable, especially if those designed to be abroad are acquired.

They are priced somewhat higher, but the material is more resistant to environmental conditions.

Multiply them in spring or summer

If you want to have new specimens we can do the following: sow your seeds or make cuttings. How to proceed in each case ?:

Seeds

To sow the seeds you have to do the following:

The first thing to do is to fill a pot with a well-drained substrate, like the ones we have mentioned before.

Then, he watered to consciousness, moistening it well.

Then, the seeds are spread on the surface, trying to make them a little separated.

They are then covered with a very thin layer of a substrate.

Finally, the seedbed is placed inside a plate or tray in semi-shade, and water is poured into the tray.

Germination time varies from one species to another. Some take three days and others may take two months.

Cuttings

Whether they are stem or leaf cuttings, it is advisable to follow these steps:

First, you must choose those cuttings (leaves or stems) that look healthy and strong.

Then, a pot is filled with a suitable substrate.

They are then placed lying in the pot, with the end that held them together with the mother plant a little buried. 

In the case of Aeonium cuttings, they can be planted straight without a problem.

Afterward, it irrigates consciousness.

Finally, the pot is placed in a place where it is direct sunlight.

In a matter of a few days (a week or two at most) they will take root.

Protect them against pests and diseases

Although plants are quite resistant to pests and diseases, (snails and slugs) and aphids must be monitored. 

The former can eat them in a matter of a few days, and the latter are insects that feed on the flower buds and the flowers still unopened. 

To treat them you have to use specific or natural insecticides such as neem oil.

It is also necessary to be alert in not watering in excess, because of doing it the roots would suffocate and the plants would rot quickly. 

If we see that they begin to become very soft, we will cut for the healthy thing, we will remove them from the pots and let the substrate dry completely before replanting them.

Beware of cold and frost

Most do not resist cold or temperatures below -2ºC. 

Hail can cause a lot of damage to the leaves of crass and caudiciform, and also to cacti. In case of doubt, it is always better to prevent having them indoors, in a very bright room protected from drafts.

Curiosities of succulents

The Cactaceae family consists of a total of 170 genera, which have about 2000 species.

The Pereskia genus is considered the most primitive of all. It has leaves, areolas, and thorns, and appeared 40 million years ago.

If the root system is superficial, but it can be quite long. Columns, such as Carnegiea gigantea (Saguaro) can have roots up to 2 meters in length.

All cacti produce flowers but in nurseries and garden stores many times they are stuck to sell more.

The computer cactus (Cereus peruvianus) does not protect against radiation. 

To be useful we would have to put copies of this species covering the entire monitor, something that is not done.

There are hallucinogenic cacti, such as peyote (Lophophora williamsii) or San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi).

Both have been used in shamanic rituals because they are powerful hallucinogens.

The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) has medicinal properties: its fruits are astringent. 

Although not the only one: the Corryocactus brevistylus is used as a laxative.

The saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) can have up to 8000 liters of water inside.

Curiosities of the crass and caudiciform

The photosynthesis carried out by the Crassulaceae consists of two phases: a light produced during the day releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and producing food, and a synthetic one (at night) that is when they absorb CO2. It is known as CAM photosynthesis or acid metabolism of the crassulaceae.

Sempervivum is one of the few that can withstand frost of up to -4 ° C, although yes, hail can harm them unless they are a little sheltered.

The caudiciformes are very slow-growing plants. 

Many do not exceed 5cm / year. 

This is because they have evolved adapting to an environment where conditions are not the most appropriate for rapid development. 

Even so, their life expectancy is usually long: over 300 years.

10 Succulents examples that you can start with 

Lately, people have developed a taste for having plants at home, and mainly succulent. 

They are a type of plant that goes quite well with this trend, either for their easy care or for their beauty, because they provide a very particular aesthetic in our homes, giving it color and life at the same time.

All succulents are divided into genera and families having a huge range of them, so I will only address in this post a particular family.

Families:

-Agavaceae

-Aizoaceae

-Apocinaceae

-Asphodelaceae

-Euphorbiaceae

-Crassulaceae

As I mentioned before, I will show you some succulents of the Crassulaceae family, as well as certain care and characteristics of these, which will help you to plant your succulents yourself without any problem. 

Remember that your care may vary depending on the region in which they are located, the seasons, weather and irrigation.

1. Aeonium arboreum atropurpureum or blackhead

It is a crass plant that can measure up to 1 meter tall with black or sometimes purple leaves if the weather is warmer.

 

a) They can be used indoors or outdoors.

b) It is not a succulent that occurs in cold climates, so you will need the sun or semi-shade.

c) The soil on which it is should be an ideal mixture of soil, silica sand and leaf mulch.

d) It should be watered especially in summer, regularly in spring and almost nothing in winter. It is a plant very resistant to drought so its maintenance could be very easy.

2. Adromischus cooperi or adromischus de cooper

They are small succulents with a special feature on their leaves, being thick with green colors with dark spots usually of red colors (if it receives adequate lighting). They are very resistant that they only fear being drowned.

 

a) They have very fast growth.

b) It is a preferable succulent for indoor use, but it can also be used on balconies or terraces, avoiding direct sunlight in hot weather.

c) They do not resist the cold much, so they must be protected in winter.

d) Your soil should be a uniform mixture of siliceous sand, leaf mulch and peat.

e) Its form of irrigation should be moderate, waiting for the land to be dry when it is thought to give water again. In winter you should water very little.

3. Aeonium canariense or bejeque

It is also known by the name of Siempreviva or Eonio de las Canarias by its place of origin. It is erect, that is, it does not usually branch and its leaves are green and thick with a pointed end of a color that can be reddish or pink.

 

a) It tends to bloom in spring and part of summer, its flowers are small white or greenish colors that leave on top of the leaves.

b) They are both indoor and outdoor.

c) Despite being outside, it is preferable that its temperature does not fall below 5 ° C. But if they can be exposed to the sun or semi-shade.

d) The soil must be well drained since they can grow more on sandy soil.

e) Like Adromischus cooperi, its irrigation should be moderate in spring and summer and almost zero in winter.

f) In winter you can give some fertilizer, preferably compost.

g) The only time they will need to be pruned will be when their leaves wilt.

h) They are resistant, but we must be very careful with fungal diseases that may arise from excess moisture or water.

4. Sedum pachyphyllum or fingers of God

 Also known as cat grape, fingers or fingers with a height not greater than 25 cm. It is a succulent bluish-green with reddish tips are fleshy and are curving upwards as they grow.

 

a) Despite being fleshy they are fragile, because they can easily break if they get to receive some kind of blow.

b) They usually bloom in late winter and early spring, giving a yellow flower.

c) They are usually used as ground cover in gardens.

d) They tolerate environmental pollution and salinity very well, so they are also usually in beach places.

e) They need sunlight or high temperatures, although they can also withstand the low temperature very well.

f) Your soil must contain fertilizer with organic fertilizer and is very demanding since they can easily multiply even in limestone soils.

g) It should be watered once a week in springtimes, twice when autumn arrives and once a month when winter comes. You must be very careful since you can’t stand the excess water, causing its roots to rot.

5. Greenovia diplocycla

This type of succulents is characterized by having a pale green color in their leaves that can have hairs. Its shape is rounded spatula and they become 6 to 18 cm in diameter.

 

a) They bloom from the middle of spring until the beginning of summer. Its flower is yellow that usually grows from a long pendulum.

b) It is preferable that the sun, but can also withstand the cold.

c) The soil may be the same as that given to cacti.

d) Your irrigation will be moderate, except in late autumn and early spring.

e) During its flowering season, it will be important to fertilize it with mineral fertilizer every 15 days.

6. Aeonium percarneum or aeonio

It can also be called Pink Bejeque or Toe. It can measure up to 30 cm in diameter. 

They are green with a spatulated shape that ends at the tip with a generally reddish color. It tends to branch out, forming a rosette, which usually dies at the time of flowering.

 

a) Its flower has a star shape and can become white or pink.

b) It can be located in places where you receive direct sun or semi-shade (if summers are very hot). They are not very good at cold or very low temperatures.

c) Your soil is not demanding as long as it has good drainage.

d) They are resistant to drought, but it is not convenient for the environment in which they are to be very dry, so the risks will be moderate (expecting the soil to be very dry when water is reapplied). Being outside it is not necessary to water them in winter, if it is in a pot it should be watered once a month.

e) If your leaves get closed, they are indicating that they need water.

f) The only occasion on which they will need to be pruned will be at the beginning of spring, eliminating withered flowers or rosettes.

g) They are enemies of fungi, which can be caused by excessive irrigation or too dry environment.

7. Echeveria elegans

Also known as Rosa de Alabastro, its leaves are thick with an artichoke shape and a pale blue with a slightly translucent white.

 

a) They get to have pink flowers that grow in clusters of 10 to 25 cm long that tend to tilt.

b) They are used as floor coverings or as decoration next to rocks and are very suitable for pots.

c) They are succulent that can be used indoors and outdoors, require light and semi-shade. At the end of spring, they will require a little more to be outdoors.

d) Care must be taken so that its leaves are not burned indirect light.

e) They are resistant to droughts and abundant irrigation when outdoors. While in pots you should be careful with excesses, avoiding wetting the leaves. Your watering in winter can be null or almost nil.

f) They need fertilizer in spring and summer.

Look at this other type of echeveria that can also be very original.

8. Sedum morganianum or donkey’s tail

It is a succulent with almost cylindrical leaves of a green or grayish-green color, usually used indoors for the erect stem that allows it to fall, becoming more a hanging plant.

a) Its soil can be the same as we use with cacti or an equal mixture of sand, universal substrate and perlite.

b) Care must be taken with excess moisture as it can rot its roots.

c) It does not tolerate direct sun, but it does need natural light.

d) It is convenient to change the pot every two years to be able to renew your soil and also to be able to provide fertilizer two to three times a year.

9. Crassula erosula or fire crustaula

Also known as Campfire or Bonfire Crásula, this succulent does not exceed 30 cm tall and has very attractive leaves for its green and red colors in an elongated oval shape.

 

a) They bloom in summer, giving a very decorative white flower.

b) It can be used as floor coverings and can be exposed to the sun or semi-shade, which will help to highlight its colors. It does not support very low temperatures.

c) The soil on which it is located must be drained and it is preferable to give it organic matter.

d) It is resistant to drought and should be watered when the soil is completely dry. Avoid excess water.

10. Graptopetalum / Graptopétalo or Madreperla

It is characterized by its wavy spatulated shape, green, gray and sometimes of various colors such as roses or oranges.

 

a) It tends to bloom in spring and its flower is white.

b) They are usually in pots for terraces or near other succulents in gardens.

c) It needs sunlight and does not tolerate excessive cold if it fails to receive water.

d) It thrives on any type of soil.

e) Its form of irrigation is moderate throughout the year and almost zero in winter.

f) During spring or summer, it is recommended to pay every 20 days.

g) It does not resist excess watering.

Conclusion 

These plants we grew up seeing in Grandma’s room have become a favorite for gardeners and interior designers. The social networks, homes, and restaurants are full of these beautiful plants that we call succulent.

But the question arises, what are succulent plants? In this article we also analyze the types of succulents and their basic care. We also answer the question What is the difference between succulents and cacti?

Succulents or crass are a group of plants that store water in their leaves, stems and roots. 

The leaves tend to be thick and fleshy, but some genera and species have thicker leaves than others.

Succulents tend to thrive in dry and slightly humid climates. For this reason some of these beautiful plants do not thrive in the Caribbean, where the humidity index is very high. 

Others acclimatize well, but require more care.

Although most succulents reach us from arid regions, it is also found in forests, dry tropical areas, mountain peaks, coasts and even swamps. However, the most common succulents are those that reach us from arid regions.

There are more than 60 families that are classified as succulent and although it seems illogical, botanists differ on which plants are technically succulent. 

Being so different from each other makes it difficult to classify them. Something they have in common are their leaves and stems swollen by water storage.

Most succulents prefer warm temperatures and are not able to withstand very cold temperatures. 

Due to the water stored in its leaves, freezing will often result in the death of the plant. Some species of sedums and sempervivums are able to withstand freezing temperatures.

The extremes in temperature, exposure to the sun, as well as the lack of water often lead to a change of color in succulents. 

They change to shades of pink, orange, red and purple. This practice is known as stressing succulents. 

That is why some say that “succulents tend to blush when stressed.”