Growing indoor succulents
Often shunned due to their thorny nature, cacti and other such plants have gained respect in recent years.
Dave Brigner of the Franklin Park Conservatory has been growing succulents since he was 14 years old. He purchases unusual varieties for the conservatory's extensive collection.
Bold green spires. Spiny gray rosettes. Cascading silvery pendants. Succulents—these striking botanical curiosities are becoming popular rooftop garden plants, container plants and indoor gardens due to their architectural appeal and their fuss-free care. In the Central Ohio climate, local residents enjoy getting any glimpse of green they can get for the next few months.
“Succulents provide interesting geometric forms and minimal care for today’s busy lifestyles,” says Dave Brigner, of the Franklin Park Conservatory. Brigner started growing succulents when he was 14 and now purchases rare and unusual specimens for the conservatory’s collection of 300 succulents. He also cares for an impressive personal collection of succulents, orchids and tropical plants.
Featured throughout the conservatory, primarily in the desert section, succulents have special adaptations to store water so that they are prepared to survive during times of drought. They often have fleshy leaves, such as those found in jade plants, engorged stems and swollen stem bases, called caudiciforms. Add to this their often unique and spectacular flowers, and it’s easy to understand why succulents have captivated some of today’s gardeners.
Succulents tolerate far more neglect than other commonly grown indoor plants. To start growing them during winter, Brigner recommends looking for a healthy plant. He says to watch for common varieties at area garden centers and home improvement stores. More unusual species can be found through mail-order and online sources, such as the Ohio-based glasshouseworks.com. When purchasing a plant, he says to avoid those with wrinkled stems or foliage—signs that the plant is stressed or too dry. He also says to steer clear of those with physical damage or scarring.
The new plant should be potted in a free-draining, soilless mix. Brigner recommends adding gravel (pea or aquarium) to the mix to improve drainage. “Good drainage is important,” he says. He suggests a shallow pot, one with holes in the bottom and one that isn’t too large to store an overabundance of water. Gardeners will want to add a saucer under the pot to keep moisture off furniture but should remove any water that collects in the dish, as it could harm the plant. A top layer of dressing such as sand, pebbles or shells enhances the appearance of the planter and further encourages good drainage.
Care for the plants depends on the season. During the dormant winter season (November through March), many succulents thrive well indoors, preferably along sunny south- or west-facing windows. They should be thoroughly watered monthly, then allowed to dry between waterings. During the growing summer season (April through October), the plants can be moved outside and will need more frequent waterings (1-2 times per week) as they start growing. Brigner says the general rule is to under water the plant in the winter and to over water it in the summer. By May 15, he says, the succulents should be moved outside gradually to prevent burning. He suggests acclimating them to the outdoor sunlight over a couple of cloudy days or placing them close to the east side of a home where there’s afternoon shade.
Fertilize succulents during the spring and summer every four to six weeks with a balanced fertilizer that has been diluted with water by 50 percent. Brigner says occasional pests can be treated with a spray of soapy water and alcohol mix.
Because of their interesting shapes and textures, succulents offer great display potential. Brigner says bonsai dishes are good for displaying gnarly, fat-bottomed caudiciforms that, in turn, mimic the look of aged bonsais. He also recommends a dish garden of miniature succulents or seedlings with similar growing needs. Another option is a single, dramatic, larger succulent planted in an attractive pot to create an eye-catching design feature much like a piece of sculpture. A group of succulents also can be arranged indoors by mixing color, height and texture.
Bruce Brethauer, who started growing hardy cacti when the drought of 1989 killed many of his woodland plants while he was away on a summer vacation, has several recommendations for beginning succulent growers. He personally has nearly 75 succulents indoors during the winter. In addition, he manages the Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society’s website (columbus-cactus-club.webs.com), wrote a book on hardy cacti and lectures on the topic. He also helps organize the society’s annual plant sales in May and September at Franklin Park Conservatory.
While Brethauer appreciates the common jade plant and flowering kalanchoes sold as gift plants, he encourages growers to seek out lesser known varieties. His recommendations are listed below with the plants’ common and botanical Latin names.
Brethauer’s first three favorites—all relatives—make great windowsill plants. They are easy to grow, compact in size and non-toxic. They also tolerate relatively low light levels, and several produce attractive flowers.
Bow-tie or Cow Tongue Plants (Gasteria)—These South African succulents produce tubular flowers resembling a stomach. The leaves’ tongue shape reflects the plants’ nicknames. Look for those with variegation or warty textures.
Pinwheel Plants (Haworthia)—These tough plants look like their hens and chicks relatives but offer more intricate leaves. Try the zebra plant (red and green striped leaves), limifolia (wide triangular, file-shaped leaves), cymbiformis (fast-growing, soft, grape-like leaves), or the truncata (fan-shaped arrangement of low-growing leaves).
Snake Plant (Sansevieria)—This enduringly popular plant produces tough vertical leaves. In Africa, the leaves’ fibrous interior is harvested and used to make a coarse hemp-like fabric. Try trifasciata (Mother-in-law Tongue for its sharp leaves), Kenya #1 (a hedgehog type) and trifasciata ‘Hahnii’ (Bird’s Nest Plant).
This list of unique plants is recommended for gardeners looking for a special touch:
Baseball Plant (Euphoria obesa)—Fun for sports fans and easy to grow, this globe-shaped succulent features recognizable cross-striped ridges.
Mother of Thousands or Mexican Hat (Kalanchoe daigremontiana)—Featuring triangular leaves lined with miniature replica plants, this prolific wonder is a native of Madagascar.
String of Pearls (Senecio rowleyanus)—This dramatic trailing plant gains its name from its spherical, bead-like leaves. Often sold in a hanging basket, the plant and its fragile leaves should be handled with care.
Burro Tail (Sedum morganianum)—Another trailing plant, the burro tail sedum features pendant stems covered with plump, egg-shaped, silvery-white leaves. The plant looks great cascading from an urn.
Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)—Appearing to be a palm, this curious member of the lily family is noted for its caudiciform, a bulbous base that resembles an elephant’s foot.
Vicks Plant (Plectranthus tomentosa)—This scented succulent member of the mint family features fleshy, fuzzy leaves and an intense menthol scent. Try other pungent Plectranthus varieties such as the oregano substitute “Cuban Oregano” or the pet repellent “Piss Off Plant.”
Starfish Flower or Carrion Flower (Stapelia gigantea)—This easy to grow plant produces 12-inch, starfish-shaped blooms. The flowers’ rotten meat scent is designed to attract flies to pollinate its flowers. To experience, but not grow, this stinky plant, check out the one in the desert room at Franklin Park Conservatory.
Living Stones or Pebble Plants (Lithops)—While garden centers often carry these interesting South African succulents with pebble-like leaves, Brethauer doesn’t recommend them for beginners.
If gardeners want to try the enduringly popular jade or kalanchoe plants, Brethauer suggests a different variety such as the panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) with brown-spotted, fuzzy gray leaves or the Red Rimmed Jade Tree (Crassula ovata ‘Obliqua’) with red-margined green leaves. Both are just as easy to grow.
Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer.