By Jon Peter, Curator & Plant Records Manager, Royal Botanical Gardens
Have you jumped on the succulent bandwagon? For the past ten years or more, succulents have been a hot item at garden centres, big box stores, as wedding decorations and on apartment windowsills across the world. This popularity has come and gone multiple times through history.
Succulents represent the epitome of diversity. Every shape, colour, size, texture, and pattern can be found in this group of plants. Succulents grow on six continents and are loosely defined as plants that have water-storage tissues to assist in survival, typical through arid conditions. Succulents come from many different plant families, including the Cactus Family (Cactaceae), which they are frequently lumped together with. Succulents are generally grown for their foliage colours and textures but if you are lucky, you might even get a floral show.
Succulents are a resilient group of plants that are adapted to surviving in some of the most inhospitable locations on earth, sometimes occupying very unique situations and conditions, and for that reason, many species are rare and endangered in their native habitats. This can be due to loss of habitat, invasive species, pollution, climate change and unfortunately, because of this popularity, succulents, and cactus too, are being over collected in the wild.
My personal collection of succulents is separated into two elementary groups: hardy and non-hardy succulents. I have approximately 40 succulents which spend most of the year inside on windowsills. These range from Senecio to Cotyledon, Aloe, Echeveria and Haworthia. Outside, I grow approximately 25 different types of succulents in containers (so I can easily control the media and moisture) which spend the entire year outdoors. These exterior containers are simply placed elevated, along a brick wall on the south side of the house for the winter months. These hardy succulents range from Sedum to Sempervivum, and of course Opuntia.
Succulents are generally easy to propagate and grow. This low maintenance aspect has contributed to their popularity. All you need is a well-drained media, containers with drainage holes, and a windowsill. The biggest threat to your succulent collection is too much love, in the form of water. Succulents generally will give you some signals that they need water. The succulent leaves and stems might go flaccid or begin to turn different colours, alerting you to their need for water. Too much water, and you will have a mushy mess of rotted roots, stems, and leaves.
At RBG, our Cactus & Succulent Collection resides adjacent to the Mediterranean Greenhouse. An exciting mix of this diverse group representing a fine selection from across the world. Many more succulent species which are hardy in southern Ontario are displayed in Rock Garden, growing in sun exposed sites with well drained soils.
Succulents are a fun group of plants to explore, even for the modest collector or decorator. Please ensure that the plants you decide to purchase come from reputable sources and are not collected illegally from the wild. We need to protect these species and their unique habitats where they play a more important role in the ecosystems than on our windowsills.