“I have this random succulent and don’t know how to take care of it!” – How to care for succulents

Plant Doctor Christopher Satch

What are Succulents?

In short, succulence is a trait, not a state of being.  In fact, there’s a lot to succulents / succulence that the mainstream plant media does not teach you (you would think that with everyone and their sister selling succulents, that someone would know something?).  Let’s begin.  Succulent is a word that comes from the Latin word “succulentus”, which means juicy.  And most succulents are indeed juicy on the inside, and often frumpy on the outside.  Succulence has evolved in multiple independent plant families across the world.  This trait helps the plant store water so that it can survive dry spells.  This has been implemented in several ways, depending on the environment.  For all, succulence has been implemented in juicy interiors, and thick (thicc) exteriors.  For tropical succulents, they often are less juicy, because water is more plentiful, but are succulent enough to survive an entire tropical day without rain (not to be confused with A Day Without Rain, a hit Enya album).  However, tropical succulents’ length of dry-spells are reduced.  In any case, all succulents can be watered when they hit bone-dry.

Besides juiciness, succulents have evolved other tricks to either shun the sun, or secure water.  They have shallow, thin roots, which are cheap to make – to catch as much rain as possible before it runs off or evaporates away.  To hold water, they have evolved, waxy, thick cuticles / epidermis to trap water inside.  To shun the sun, some have evolved either a chalky complexion (such as in Senecio or Curio), or white-colored spines or fur (Old Man’s Cactus, Cephalocereus senilis or Feather Cactus, Mammillaria plumosa), which deflect the tropical/desert sun’s intense light.  Interestingly, most succulents are either high elevation, or close to the equator, where they receive the most intense radiation from the sun. 

In any case, the most interesting adaptation is the modification of photosynthesis.  I would argue that all succulents have modified forms of photosynthesis, but I’ll accept other plants being defined as “succulent” with any of the other water-saving features.  There are three forms of photosynthesis:  C3. C4, and CAM.  C3 is the original photosynthesis that most “normal” plants have.  C4 and CAM photosynthesis have evolved to make photosynthesis more efficient, and lose less water or operate under higher temperatures than C3.  (More on this in an article to come <<LINK TO COME>>).  CAM photosynthesis is more prevalent in desert succulents, and C4 is more prevalent in tropical succulents.  This is due to the difference in carbon acquisition.  Anyway, the point is, is that there is a biochemical difference between C3 and non-C3 plants.

The biggest groups of succulents in the trade are: cacti, euphorbs, and stonecrops/crassula.  Cacti are all related, and come from the New World – The Americas.  Euphorbs are all related, and come from the Old World – Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  They are cacti mimics, and are often confused for cacti.  Crassula are found on all habitable continents, and have the widest array of forms and colors.

For more in-depth info about succulents, check this link <<Link to come>>.

What is their range?

Anywhere dry, but not necessarily hot.  Succulents can be found in the tropics, the deserts, high elevations, and anywhere else where there’s a lack of water, but not too much of a lack.  Again, the environments do not necessarily have to be hot.  There are succulents in the chilly heights of the Andes mountains, and in the tropical lowlands of Thailand.

What are some interesting things to know about Succulents?

Succulents can grow anywhere in the world that can sustain life.  There are even succulent tropical plants!  That’s because succulence is a trait, not a state of being.  Different plants can have varying degrees of succulence, manifested in many ways such as:

  • Thick, waxy leaves
  • Structures for storing water like –
    • Enlarged roots
    • Enlarged stems, such as pseudobulbs
    • Thicker leaves or other organs to store water
  • White hairs for reflecting the harsh sun (moreso an adaptation in exposed environments)
  • Prickles or other deterrents to keep herbivores at bay
  • Alternative photosynthesis, such as CAM and C4 to help save water
  • Tight regulation of stomatal pore opening/closing

Most plants exhibit one or more of these traits to varying degrees. 

The plants that we refer to as “succulents” and “cacti” in the horticultural trade are actually unrelated plants, and within “succulents”, there are many plants from many plant families from arid regions all over the world.  Remember that high elevation areas can be as arid as your stereotypical desert.

Most of the succulents in the trade have shallow roots and propagate easily.  When the deserts seasonally flood (or high elevation arid regions flood and get rain), there’s a lot of water, but it doesn’t have a chance to soak into the soil much.  Many home succulent growers take this fact and make the mistake of spraying their succulents down.  Ahem, I said it FLOODED in nature – the water soaks down a few inches, which for most people growing in 4” pots is the entire pot getting flooded to properly water your succulent.  Spritzing doesn’t penetrate the soil deep enough to really water the plant.  Additionally, succulents have not evolved any fungal resistance genes – there is not enough water for long enough for fungi to grow in their habitats.  Because succulents generally do not interact with fungi in nature, they are very susceptible to rot when water is applied to their planty bodies.

How do I take care of succulents?  I have this random succulent and don’t know how to take care of it!

Media –

Because succulents have adapted to arid environments, they have shallow, poor root systems that generally don’t care what you put them in, as long as their basic requirement is met – that they dry out within a day or two of watering.  Many are native to rocky or sandy deserts, which for millenia, have been the result of drying sea beds.  That gives them the bonus ability of generally being salt/pH-tolerant, which, for you, makes life easy.

I’ve planted mine in usually half sand, half regular potting mix.  However, I’ve gotten away with regular potting mix for about half of my collection.  Again, they do not care much for what they are planted in, as long as they get a flooding for about a day, and then dry pretty quickly, with protection for the roots.  The only thing I strongly encourage against is doing water culture for your succulents.  That is trying to make a desert plant into an aquatic plant.  That’s just sinful and cruel to your plants… DON’T DO IT.

Light –

Succulents are generally full-sun plants, both indoors and outdoors.  That means blast them with as many direct sunbeams as possible.  If your succulent lives in full-shade, it may survive, but it will NOT thrive.  This one is easy – plop them in your SUNNIEST window and BLAST them with as much direct sun as possible.

Water –

When watering, flood the media to get it sopping wet.  Then, let it dry as fast as possible.  The faster it dries, the better.  When your succulents get wrinkly, that’s a good indication to water.  If you are trying to get your succulents to flower, then you need to keep them plump and water more often.  Remember, you may water AS SOON AS the media becomes bone-dry, and AS LATE AS when the wrinkles start to appear.

Other Notes –

If you have a leggy succulent, or a succulent which keeps falling over, or a succulent that keeps leaning, or basically a succulent that CANNOT HOLD ITSELF UP under its own weight, then you are not giving it enough light.  While some succulents may be sprawly/prostrate/shambling in nature, most should be erect.  All succulents should be full of color or chalkiness and should almost never be a pale green.  If succulents get a red/pink/purple blush, then they are at the optimal light levels.  Blushing pink, red, purple, or orange is a sign of optimal health.  Not all succulents will blush, but most will.

Succulents are safe to keep around pets, so long as the pets do not nibble the foliage.  If they do, they will get sick – Many succulents have secondary metabolites which will cause irritation to their inner lining.  Obviously, if the pet hurts itself on the sharper ones, well… that’s the pet’s fault…  Otherwise, succulents are unappealing in general to cats (they are not floofy or tassel-y), and totally boring to dogs.  If your pets are nibbling your plants, they means that THEY ARE BORED, and YOU are not doing enough to stimulate them.  Entertain your pet/change YOUR behavior, and they will leave your plants alone.

How can I identify the succulent that I have?

If you did not buy a plant with a tag (which I strongly encourage that you do) that tells you which species or hybrid it is, then identification can range from pretty easy to extremely difficult (I’m looking at you, assorted cacti and assorted Crassula!).  If you really want to know which succulent or cactus you have, then please email me and toss a donation my way, and I will be happy to ID your succulent for you.

Have any questions about a monstera?  You should message me @botanictonic on instagram or botanictonic@gmail.com !  If you like what I am writing, please leave me a tip on Venmo!  @C-Sat (if it asks for a number, it’s 9898)

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