How to start growing succulents
For easy-care, colourful and dramatic planting, grow indigenous South African succulents in your garden or containers
JAN 21, 2021 | WRITTEN BY ZOË CHAPMAN POULSEN. PHOTOS BY GIDEON F. SMITH & ZOË CHAPMAN POULSEN
Above: The maiden’s quiver tree (Aloidendron ramosissimum) makes a wonderful feature plant as it branches particularly lavishly. It is suitable for container growing. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Where would you look to find the greatest diversity of succulent species on earth? The answer lies outside your front door – our own country has more than 4 700 different succulent species!
South Africa’s succulents range from towering tree aloes to tiny rosettes that grow away from the harshest of our country’s sun, exploiting shady microhabitats in cracks in the rocks or within tussocks of grass.
Above: Babylonstoren master horticulturalist and succulent specialist Ernst van Jaarsveld (centre) chats to visitors in the succulent house. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Many of South Africa’s succulents have been adopted in gardens around the world because they have such an extraordinary variety of different growth forms. Babylonstoren in the Western Cape, for instance, has several different succulent gardens as well as a succulent house containing about 4 500 succulents.
If you are inspired by such displays, rest assured that many succulents are easy to care for.
Above: Many succulent plant species, such as this bushveld kalanchoe (Kalanchoe sexangularis), can easily be rooted from cuttings. Photo: Gideon F. Smith.
Made to be waterwise
A lot of succulents adapted to grow in some of South Africa’s driest areas. Their leaves, trunks, stems or even underground storage organs are thickened and fleshy to retain moisture for survival through long periods of minimal rainfall.
With South Africa’s climate projected to become hotter, drier and more frequently afflicted by extreme drought, succulents are often an asset in a waterwise garden.
Whether you have just a few pots on a windowsill or a larger outdoor space, succulents help you achieve the goal of gardening while using water efficiently. Several can tolerate minimal water during dry conditions and reward you with undemanding, attractive plants.
Above: Massed vygies (Drosanthemum species) create spectacular spring displays at Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Colour through the seasons
Succulents have fascinatingly architectural foliage and brilliantly coloured flowers. Plan carefully and you can have an indigenous succulent stunner in your garden for most seasons of the year.
In winter, aloes are the stars of the show, from smaller species perfect for container growing to larger specimens for bigger gardens.
During spring, vygies provide spectacular splashes of colour from pink to red and yellow, attracting numerous insect pollinators into the garden.
Asclepiads never fail to amaze, their quirky blooms adapted to attract fly pollinators by mimicking carrion. The largest of this group is the carrion plant (Stapelia gigantea), which can produce flowers the size of dinner plates.
Most succulents are easy to grow and take up little space. Their resilience also makes them a great choice to inspire young gardeners.
Above: The huge blooms of the giant carrion flower (Stapelia gigantea) produce a putrid aroma of rotting meat, an adaptation to attract pollinating flies. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
6 ways to get growing
- Shop responsibly: Some traders sell plants collected illegally from the wild. It is also illegal to collect or take cuttings from the wild for your own garden without a permit. Make sure that you buy from one of the many excellent specialist growers across the country who propagate from cultivated stock.
- Container happy: Smaller aloes, ox-tongues (Gasteria) and living stones (Lithops) can all flourish in containers. Make sure you plant succulents in containers that allow the growing medium to drain freely. If you use a drip tray underneath the pot, check that the pot is never left standing in water.
- Be a mimic: Succulents grow best when their growing conditions closely mimic their natural habitat. The most important factor is good drainage. You can improve drainage by using grit to line the pot and mixing compost with river sand. Find more detail on growing mediums and cultivation information by species on SANBI’s PlantZAfrica website.
- Don’t kill with kindness: It is crucial to make sure that succulents are not overwatered. Give winter-rainfall species more water in winter, with a good soak every fortnight. Water summer-rainfall succulents once a week.
- Carry on cultivating: You can easily propagate most succulents – including aloes, ox-tongues and low-growing haworthia – from cuttings or offsets. Take cuttings during the summer months. After taking a cutting, allow it to dry before planting it in your growing medium.
- Succulent spectacular: You can easily create a massed display of bokbaaivygies (Cleretum bellidiforme) by sowing seed during March-April directly into open, well-drained areas of your garden in full sun.
Above: The extraordinary green-lined blooms of the tilt head aloe (Aloe speciosa) attract bees, butterflies and sunbirds to the indigenous garden. The rosettes of this aloe always point northwards. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
FIND OUT MORE
Grow Succulents by I.B. Oliver, (Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, 2005).
Field Guide to Succulents in Southern Africa by Gideon Smith, Neil Crouch & Estrela Figueiredo (Struik Nature, Cape Town, 2017).
Growing kalanchoe: ‘The big easy’ by Gideon Smith, Veld & Flora, September 2020, pgs.40-43.
Above: The architectural leaves of the flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae) make a wonderful addition to the waterwise garden – especially if grouped for impact as here at the Pretoria National Botanical Gardens. Photo: Gideon F. Smith.
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