Fashions for plants come and go. At one stage, cottage garden plants were all the rage. Native plants have become more popular recently, as have succulent plants.
Succulent plants are a group of plants known as xerophytes, or “dry plants”. Succulents store water in their stems or leaves, and can therefore tolerate very dry conditions. You will find these plants naturally growing in the deserts, such as in Central America, which has very low rainfall, and suffers extremes of heat as well as cold. By day it is very hot, but by night temperatures drop rapidly.
One of the more popular succulents is Agave attenuata, fromcentral America. It has grey leaves up to 1 metre across, without the spines that Agave americana has. This latter plant is sometimes called century plant, because it takes not a hundred but ten to fifteen years to flower. Like other agaves, once it flowers, the central part of the plant dies out and new plants arise from the base. This flowering condition is known as monocarpy. Another example of a plant that dies back after flowering is Aeonium arboreum, which has attractive yellow flowers in late spring. A colourful example of this plant is Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’ ( “ black head’), with its narrow purple leaves.
Aloe vera from Southern Africa is well known for its medicinal and cosmetic purposes, as it is used topically for skin conditions and internally as a cleanser. Aloe arborescens is more commonly grown ornamentally, with its yellow or red flowers.
All these three succulents grow in a rosette, with the leaves arising from a central axis. A succulent with smaller rosettes is Echeveria secunda, with its blue leaves and red flowers.
As well as rosette succulents, there are many groundcovers. We have a good example with the native iceplant, Disphyma australe, which grows near the beach. Another iceplant is Carpobrotus edulis, which is also known as the Hottentot fig. With a name like that it has to come from South Africa! It has yellow flowers followed by fig-like fruit, hence the name edulis, although I can’t vouchsafe for the taste of the fruit!
If you prefer blue, try Senecio serpens, or blue chalktsicks with its blue leaves, and white flowers in summer. If you like bright colour, try the Livingstone daisy with its dazzling mixed flower colours. Like the senecio, it comes from South Africa.
One other native plant that has a semi succulent habit is Xeronema callistemon. It has fleshy leaves, and requires similar growing conditions. Succulents are ideal in hot, dry conditions such as near the beach. The are excellent on sunny banks. Most of them are frost tender, so you should avoid frosty areas. They can also be used in pots, especially the larger ones. A good-sized Aloe attenuata or Aloe thraskii in a large glazed pot looks great, but will set you back a few dollars!
Succulents have few problems other than rotting due to poor drainage. Keep them in a free-draining growing medium, and avoid using too much nitrogen. It is better to use a slow release fertiliser such as Osmocote. They can get slugs and snails, so keep an eye out for them.
Enjoy the warm Autumn weather.