Before describing the many, many types of succulents it helps to state what a succulent is. The technical definition is “plants that have some parts that are more than normally thickened and fleshy”. This is not a strict botanical identification because succulents may be in many different plant categories. They are sometimes simply referred to as ‘fat plants’. The ‘fat plant’ title also identifies a fascinating feature all succulents share – the remarkable ability to retain water and survive extreme arid conditions.
There are 3 ways to identify types of succulents:
- Stem succulents
- Leaf succulents
- Root succulents
The succulent varieties of stem succulents, such as euphorbia obese and stapelia, store water in their stems. This means they uniquely have no need for leaves. The plants are almost or entirely leafless. This may sound unusual and unappealing to have a leafless plant in your succulent collection, but some beautiful examples are poinsettias and crown of thorns. Many are strikingly beautiful unique forms so you can enjoy adding a dramatic element to your garden. I’ve listed some of my favorites below
The first thing you need to know about all plants in the Euphorbia family is that the sap can be mildly irritating to some people or even poisonous to others. Keep them in a safe place away from children and pets. The milky, white, latex-like sap is the offending part of the plant. Whenever trimming the plant it is very wise to wear protective gardening gloves. If you take protective measures euphorbias provide a unique element to your garden.
You have probably seen the many colors and varieties of this beautiful succulent. The colors range from the classic red color, to pink, fuchsia, yellow, purple and white. They can be as small as just one foot to larger varieties that reach a height of 3 feet. Monet is one of the more unique varieties that have spotted leaves with several tones of pink bracts, dotted with white.
Crown of Thorns
The crown of thorns is an attractive small shrub with a woody stem and very sharp thorns. The unattractive, and dangerous, thorns are more than made up for by the dense leaves and colorful clumps of bracts. The bracts provide the striking flowerlike form that makes the plant so attractive. The plant displays their colorful bracts all year. The colors range from the very appealing bright red color to delicate pink, yellow, white and even a mottled pink and white variety.
Milkbush or Pencil Cactus
All of the more than 7,500 varieties of succulents in the Euphorbia larica, or Pencil Cactus/Milkbush category have the same pencil-like stems and very small leaves and flowers. In my opinion, they are one of the most dramatic, beautifully simple succulents in their design. They are perfect to combine with other plants as the center of a potted arrangement with trailing succulents around the edge of the pot. They are also one of the few succulents that can withstand full sun even in the desert southwest and can still thrive.
The plants are freely branching, upright trees or shrubs and can reach up to 30 feet tall. I have a cutting from a 20-foot plant given to me by a close friend. The plant was next to a section of her house that was completely destroyed by fire. The whole plant was scorched and black, but I found one branch that had some green remaining. I brought it home, trimmed the burned sections and it is growing beautifully. An amazing plant!
Sticks on Fire
The name of this succulent perfectly describes its appearance. The stems turn bright yellow in the summer and may be bright orange-red in the winter. They can be grown in a pot on a porch or patio or incorporated into your landscape if you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-13. If you live out of these Zones they will need to be brought indoors during the winter. If planted in the ground they can reach an amazing 25 feet.
Snow on the Mountain
Snow on the Mountain is a lush ground cover that ranges in color from pale green leaves with a white border to a solid green. Clumps of white bracts also form giving the appearance of small patches of snow. An outstanding quality of this succulent is that it will thrive in full shade. Small white flowers appear in the spring and early summer.
Like the Sticks on Fire, the Medusa’s Head varieties are dramatic and graceful plants. The branches can grow up to one foot long. They curl and drape in interesting ways. Yellow-green flowers appear in the center of the plant.
The leaves of ‘leaf succulents’ are almost entirely composed of water. They probably are the succulent responsible for the nickname ‘fat plant’. Here are some examples.
Aloe vera is the perfect example of a liquid filled leaf. The bright green to grey-green leaves extend out from a central point. The largest part of a mature leaf may be as much as one inch thick and filled with transparent gel. Mature, healthy plants produce tall flower stems from the center of the plant often more than once a year. There are several varieties that add interest and color to gardens.
Hens and Chicks
Hens and Chicks grow close to the ground in clumps of rosette-shaped plants. There are innumerable sizes, leaf colors and bloom colors. However, they all share the same rosette shape and ground-hugging growth. They can grow in amazingly difficult areas such as between rocks, on a piece of wood, or even in vertical planters. Once they bloom the plant will die. All is not lost, though, because surrounding ‘chicks’ will continue to thrive.
Zebra Cactus (Hawthorthia)
The interesting varieties of the Hawthorthia succulents are small, interesting plants. Hawthorthias include the Zebra Cactus, Pearl Plant and Star Window Plant. Most varieties have firm, fleshy, tough leaves. Some are dark green in color and others even have translucent panels or ‘windows’. They have small, white flowers. Their size and shape make them a perfect choice for container gardens.
Lithops or ‘Living Stones’
To say that these interesting plants are unusual is an understatement. Individual plants consist of one or more pairs of bulbous leaves opposite each other and very little stem. This shape and the lack of a stem gave rise to the nickname of ‘living stones’. The subtle colors of gray, brown, rust, green and pink are accented by intricate patterns. Most people consider them an oddity in the plant world, but they are fascinating and can be paired with other succulents for beautiful groupings.
As the name implies, plants in this category store their water in their roots, but not all roots remain underground. They have few leaves and the plants are often deciduous and shed their leaves during drought.
Fockea (Bergkambroo, Kambroo)
The varieties of Fockea are grown mostly for their decorative effect because of their large, bulbous stems. There are small varieties such as the desert rose that resemble a bonsai. They have shiny, dark green leaves and bloom with trumpet-shaped flowers of either pink, white, purple or red. There are even bicolor varieties. Fockeas can grow into trees with incredibly shaped stems. This diverse plant is well worth exploring.
Caudiciform Succulents are different from Fockea succulents in that they store water in both roots and swollen stems. They can be either deciduous or have fleshy succulent leaves that are not shed.
Mexican Boulder (Calibanus hookeri)
This evergreen plant with gray-green leaves protruding out of the top may be mistaken for a large rock with grass growing out of it. The stem and plant can grow to almost 3 feet high and across. Under the right conditions, the plant will produce flowers stems 2 to 3 feet tall with small white flowers.
Pygmy Porkbush (Portulacaria pygmaea, previously called Ceraria pygmaea)
Like the Calinabus hookeri the ceraria pygmaea produces growth atop a corklike rounded stem. The leaves on this plant are fleshy and filled with water. They form a compact, attractive mass of green growth in a wide variety of bright green leaves to soft gray leaves. Many appear to have been trained into compact bonsai forms, but it is the normal structure of these interesting plants.
Madagascar Palm (Pachypodium lamerei)
Pachypodium mean “thick foot.” Some of these unusual succulents resemble cacti with soft thorns or spines. Flowers and leaves will usually appear at the top of the plant. There is a wide variety of sizes and shapes to choose from. They provide an interesting and easy-to-care-for addition to your succulent collection.
Wild Grape (Cyphostemma juttae)
This bonsai shaped plant is commonly known as ‘tree grape’, ‘wild grape’, ‘Namibian grape’, or even rarely ‘Droog-my-keel’. It can reach a height of 6 feet but they do make attractive container plants. Bunches of large grape shaped, wine colored fruit may appear at the end of the summer. The plant has large shiny leaves that add to its attractiveness.
Halophyte succulents are unique in that they not only are able to survive the salty composition of desert soil, but they can also thrive in marine environments. Unlike other succulents, they can actually be immersed in salty water or just grow near salt water lakes.
Salicornia or commonly known as glasswort, sea beans, sea asparagus, chicken feet and sea pickle, has up to 60 species. The plants are small but may grow to one foot in height. The green stems may turn to red in autumn. Tiny flowers appear in August. The Salicornia europaea can be grown as a houseplant and is prized as an edible herb.
Samphires, Saltworts (Sarcocornia)
Sarcocornia is very similar to the description of Salicornia but grows as a ground cover mat along salty coastal areas.
This is by no means a comprehensive description of all varieties of succulents. It was compiled to encourage you to start exploring the fascinating array of succulents. You might also be interested in succulents that clean the air. You should also know it is very easy to learn how to grow succulents indoors. Whatever type of succulent, the color, or size you choose you can expect to be amazed at their versatility, durability and grace.