What is a Succulent Plant?

What is a succulent plant is a common question. The actual definition of a succulent is not easy.

Have you wondered, what are succulents?

Please do not be embarrassed or ashamed if you need to ask the question; “What is a succulent?”  The truth is it is not an easy question to answer since even experts and scholars will give you different definitions about how to identify succulents.

What is a Succulent?

The actual word “succulent” is from the latin word sucus which means juice or sap.  That is appropriate since many succulents have juice, sap, or a gel-like substance in their leaves.  A non-scientific answer to this question is that a succulent definition can refer to all plants with fleshy leaves, roots or stems that have the ability to store moisture to endure times of drought.  Because of these thickened fleshy parts, succulents are sometimes referred to as “fat plants” or “water storage plants”.  Typically or most commonly they grow in arid parts of the world but there are some varieties that can actually grow almost anywhere.  Succulents have adapted to thrive in a variety of environments all around the world.

Xerophytic succulents thrive in rather dry areas while halophytic succulents live in moist, marshy areas or even in saline soil. The xerophytic type of succulent is the most popular as houseplants and for outdoor landscaping.  The word xerophyte is of Greek origin with xero meaning dry and phuton meaning plant.

Most succulents thrive in the desert.  There are, however, many succulents that live in jungles, mountains, rain forests as well as near lakes and oceans.

Popular Succulent Types

  • Agaves
  • Aloe
  • Bromeliad
  • Cacti
  • Echeveria
  • Euphorbias
  • Sedum
  • Sempervivum
  • Yucca

What Are Succulents According to Experts?

Botanist:  Most botanists are very strict in their identification and designation of what plants are succulents.  They will only include plants that have the clear ability to store excess water.  As an example, since most arid-loving cycads, bromeliads and yuccas do not store excess water they do not consider them true succulents.

Horticulturist:  The amateur horticulturist will consider many more plants as succulents than a strict botanist.  Most growers and collectors consider any drought resistant plant to be a succulent.  In other words, succulents are any type of plant with puffy (fleshy) leaves or stems that can still thrive with very little water.

As you can see, the word succulent is a somewhat broad term that not everyone agrees on.  Most succulent plants are categorized as such but there are some that may or may not strictly be identified that way by certain experts.

Although by definition all cacti are succulents, they are often referred to separately since they are distinct in many ways.  All cactus belong to the plant family Cactaceae.  Succulent plants as a whole, however, belong to over 40 botanical families.  In the Cactaceae, Crassulaceae and Aizoaceae families almost all the species are succulents.

What Do Most Succulents Have in Common?

Almost every species of succulents used as houseplants needs about 8 hours of sunlight, warm temperatures, sparse but consistent watering during their growing season and also well-drained soil.  Almost all succulents have shallow roots systems that have the ability to absorb the maximum amount of water during the slightest rainfall.

Succulents are continually growing in popularity for several reasons.  They are inexpensive and easy to propagate.  They are extremely easy to maintain and care for especially when you follow basic succulent growing tips.  Finally, they come in striking colors, fascinating shapes, interesting textures and many produce beautiful blooms.

A caution about outdoor succulents.  There are many types of succulents that will not survive freezing temperatures.  If the abundant water stored in the plant freezes it may die or the leaves might become mushy and lifeless looking.

If you still want to grow succulents outdoors where it often dips below freezing choose plant species from the Sempervivums or the Sedum families.  Many Succulents of these varieties will make it through freezes and will often bounce back when there is minor damage.

Expect many succulents to change color with extreme sudden changes in sunlight, temperature and over or under watering.  When they are not getting enough sunlight many varieties of succulents simply become dull in appearance.

Many amazing succulents also bloom with beautiful flowers.  Some of the most popular are succulents with red, yellow and pink flowers.

Summary

There is no reason to stress over whether a particular plant can truly be called a succulent.  The most popular succulents sold as houseplants and for outside landscaping really are succulents.  For the rare plant sold as a succulent that really isn’t – does it really matter?  Scientifically identifying succulents is best left to the experts.  In our view, if it looks like a succulent and is easy to care for then just enjoy the plant as you would any other one.