By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Ailene King, Student Intern
University of Vermont
So just what are succulents? Generally, they are tender (not tolerant of cold) plants with thick or fleshy leaves. Three common examples that make ideal houseplants are aloe, pony-tail palm, and the jade plant.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is an ingredient often found in many skin and hair care products. It also is known to be very effective in treating burns, thus, it's a good thing to keep handy in the kitchen near the stove.
Got a minor burn or sunburn? Gently rub some sap from a leaf on the burn, then repeat. The burn will go away, and the skin should heal quickly. In fact, some of the newer sunburn lotions are close to 100 percent aloe sap.
Aloe, which comes from the Greek allal or Arabic alloch meaning bitter, is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions. It has a number of forms, usually with either red or yellow flowers. However, these plants rarely bloom indoors.
Although aloe is grown in desert gardens in mild climates, it can easily be grown as a potted plant in our climate as well. The aloe will produce offshoot plants, which can be removed and potted.
Pony-tail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is not really a palm at all. This Mexican native was first listed under the genus Beaucarnea, then Nolina, and now it is back to the first designation. But the plant hasn't changed. It still has palm-like stems with an expanded and flaring base.
The leaves are two to six feet long and are often twisted. The leaves actually do look like a pony-tail. The flowers and fruit are seldom seen in cultivation as plants must be quite large to produce them.
Pony-tail palm has a moderate growth rate and is often used in interior beds or as a potted specimen. Indoors, it usually reaches a height of one to three feet and a width of one to two feet. Under high light in conservatories, or where it can be grown outdoors, it may reach 20 or more feet high, with the flaring base several feet across!
The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) gets its name from the Latin crassus meaning thick or swollen, which refers to the leaves and stems of this and many other species. The leaves are glossy green (dark jade color, hence the name), and occasionally have red margins. One cultivar even has variegated leaves. The flowers are star-shaped and white to pale pink in color.
The plant has a moderate growth rate and may grow one to two feet in height and width. The plant may need a heavy soil or pot to keep from toppling as older plants become top-heavy.
When watering the jade plant, do not let the leaves get water on them because this will cause leaf spots. If you are successful with this plant and want more, simply take leaf or stem cuttings and root them in potting mix to grow additional plants.
Although succulents prefer high light, they often adapt well to low light of homes. They prefer the dry humidity of indoors, and don't like overwatering. But they do like warmth. Be sure to keep them away from door drafts, and from touching cold windows in winter.
A well-drained soil mix with sand or perlite is the best potted medium. Allow the soil to dry between waterings. Water less when the plant is inactive. Although the fertility needs for succulents is low, plants may become pale and red if fertility is too low or they are too dry.