Taking an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Get Stuck on Succulents

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

February 6,2024

minute read

succulents on a table

(Credit: Adobestock)

According to Webster's dictionary, a fad is "a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal." Fads occur in many facets of our lives, including the plants that we choose to give refuge to in our homes. A group of plants known as succulents has become such a popular fad in the past several years that some people refer to the current trend as "succulent mania." The plant world has the millennial generation to thank for much of this recent interest.

succulents in a white basket

Their carefree nature and minimal requirements have helped to make succulents the current houseplant fad. (Credit: Adobestock)

Seventy-two million members strong, millennials are the largest population group in the U.S. Additionally, most millennials appear to be interested in minimalism. Much of this interest might be the result of their concern for the environment. As a group of plants, succulents are very low input especially when it comes to water and fertilizer. Additionally, millennials are masters of social media and eager to share new things with their "virtual" friends, including the new plants they might have added to their collection. Finally, millennials are very proficient at ecommerce and succulents are ideal plants to ship great distances without harm.

From a botanical standpoint, a succulent is defined as any plant that possesses morphological and/or physiological adaptations that allows it to survive severe drought conditions. There are about 55 plant families that contain succulents of one form or another, with the Cactaceae plant family being the most familiar. All cacti are succulents, however, not all succulents are cacti. It is estimated there are over 10,000 species of plants that can be classified as succulents.

Referred to above, an adaptation is any characteristic of a living organism (plant or animal) that adds to its ability to survive. Morphological adaptations of succulents pertain to the physical structure of the plant (e.g. very thick cuticle, pubescent leaves, reduced leaf surface area) while physiological adaptations are related to the physiological processes that occur in the plant.

pale green leaves with purple leaf margins

Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) has several adaptations including a thick leaf cuticle and pubescent leaf surface that allow it to survive in arid regions. (Credit: Flickr Creative Commons)

A good example of a physiological adaptation is found in the Crassulaceae plant family. Members of this family open their stomata at night when conditions are less conducive to water loss via transpiration. Carbon dioxide taken in by the plant is stored in the form of organic acids. After the sun arises the next morning, the acids are broken down so that the carbon dioxide they contain along with water and the sun's energy can complete the photosynthetic process.

Succulents can be categorized furthered according to the nature of the adaptation that causes them to be classified as succulents. The three major categories include leaf succulents, stem succulents, and root succulents. Leaf succulents store water in enlarged, specialized spongy portions of their leaves. In certain cases, leaf succulents lack stems, as is the case with Lithops spp., also known as "living stones." Most leaf succulents also have thick cuticles to help retard water loss.

light green stone like succulents on the ground

Living stones (Lithops spp.) have waxy, succulent, and almost fused leaves and hardly any stem as adaptations to retard water loss. (Credit: Pixabay)

Stem succulents generally lack leaves and carry out photosynthesis in their green, succulent stems. Many members of the Cactaceae plant family (e.g., Cerus peruvianus, or Peruvian apple cactus) are stem succulents. As is the case with leaf succulents, most stem succulents possess thick cuticles and other adaptations that help to conserve water.

succulents in pots on the ground

Most members of the Cactaceae plant family have no leaves and are classified as stem succulents. (Credit: Adobestock)

Finally, root succulents store water in a thick, enlarged structure known as a caudex which is formed at the base of the plant between its roots and stem. In addition to the water storage structure, most root succulents also have small leaves with reduced surface area to minimize water loss. As a group, root succulents are relatively rare in nature.

tree like succulent with yellow flowers

Bottle plant (Pachypodium rosulatum) produces a caudex and is a good example of a root succulent. (Credit: Adobestock)

Succulents make good houseplants and are relatively easy to care for. Like all plants, they need certain basics such as light, a growing medium, water, plant nutrients, and proper temperature to thrive. While all are important, light often is the most limiting factor for successful succulent growth.

When grown indoors, succulents should be placed in brightest location available. Ideally, they should receive ten or more hours of bright, indirect light. When indoor light levels are inadequate, supplemental lighting is beneficial. High-output, full-spectrum light from fluorescent and LED fixtures works well in the home. Situate the fixtures six to twelve inches above the plants and keep them illuminated from between fourteen to sixteen hours daily. If succulents are moved outdoors for the summer, initially avoid direct sun which can harm plants not acclimatized to high light levels. After several weeks of indirect sunlight, the plants can be moved to sunny locations without harm.

two succulents in pots

Although relatively easy to care for in the home, succulents do require abundant light. (Credit: Pixabay)

Succulents require a very porous growing medium that dries quickly and does not hold too much moisture. In nature, these conditions are provided by very well-drained, sandy soils. This type of root environment should be duplicated when growing succulents in containers. Typical potting mixes retain too much water for long periods of time and can cause root rot and death of succulents. Alternatively, a self-formulated growing medium of one part potting mix and one-part coarse sand, turkey grit or perlite works well. To test a potting medium for moisture retention, moisten the mixture and squeeze it in your hand. Upon release, the soil should fall apart.

Proper watering probably is the most important and often misunderstood factor when it comes to the care of succulents. After selecting a well-drained growing medium, the best approach to watering succulents growing indoors is to set up a wet-dry cycle. Begin the cycle by watering plants thoroughly, making sure the entire soil volume is fully wetted. Water should run out of the drainage holes in the container. Following watering, allow plants to dry thoroughly, making sure the entire volume of soil is dry before watering again. When in doubt, wait to water. Succulents do not tolerate wet growing media for extended periods of time. Therefore, take care not to allow water to sit for more than a few hours in trays, sleeves, or anything placed underneath the pot to catch drainage water.

As a rule, succulents are not heavy feeders and require relatively little fertilizer. Only when plants are actively growing should they be fertilized. This normally is in the spring and summer months. When the succulents are actively growing, application of a water-soluble fertilizer at one-quarter to one-half the rate listed on the label every three or four waterings normally is satisfactory. Avoid the temptation of applying fertilizer to succulents in the winter months when they are not actively growing.

Temperature is another important consideration for success with succulents. Although most succulents are native to hot climates, they do not require above-average temperatures. Temperatures maintained in an average home are adequate for nearly all succulents. When growing indoors, succulents often prefer to have cooler temperatures at night and warmer temperatures during the day. In general, keeping succulents between 55°F and 75°F is best. However, many species will tolerate temperatures as low as 45°F and as high as 85°F.

Succulents are adapted to tolerate the low humidity conditions typical of a home environment, especially during winter months. If homes are equipped with humidifiers, good air circulation around succulents is needed. Air circulation helps the potting mix to dry, lowers humidity, and reduces the risk of insect pest infestation such as mealy bugs and spider mites.

Inducing succulents to bloom is somewhat of a challenge, but worth the effort. First, most succulents must achieve a certain age to bloom. As an example, century plant (Agave americana) requires decades of growth before it is old enough to bloom. Second, in nature, most succulents undergo a cool, dry period as part of their yearly growth cycle. Creating these conditions indoors during the winter often induces succulents to bloom. Move plants to a cooler, yet bright location in the home for three to four weeks and withhold water. Then, move them back to their original location in the home. If the treatment was successful, buds should start to form relatively soon.

cacti with red flowers

Peanut cactus (Chamaecereus silvestrii) is notorious for being easy to force into bloom if proper conditions are provided. (Credit: Adobestock)

Finally, a word of caution is in order. Most cacti along with a few other succulents possess spines. In nature, these spines serve as a defense mechanism that deters herbivores from feeding on succulents. In the home, they can pose a risk to children or pets. Therefore, succulents with threatening spines should be placed out of harm's way in the home.

Subscribe to receive similar articles sent directly to your inbox!

Other Articles You Might Enjoy
   About IPM     Contact Us    Subscribe     Unsubcribe

Copyright © #thisyear# — Curators of the University of Missouri. All rights reserved. DMCA and other copyright information. An equal opportunity/access/affirmative action/pro-disabled and veteran employer.

Printed from: https://ipm.missouri.edu
E-mail: IPM@missouri.edu

REVISED: February 6, 2024