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Succulents kept at 25 °C (77 °F) in a Connecticut greenhouse

Cacti-like plants in picturesque pots may appear appealing in your local grocery store.

Are they as easy to care for as they seem?

A recent webinar hosted by Penn State Extension gave an overview of what to expect if you bring home a succulent.

Webinar presenter Susan Wilson is a master gardener from Lehigh County and a high school biology, anatomy and environmental science teacher near Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Wilson said succulents are among her favorite plants. More and more hyrbid succulents have been created in recent years and succulents have become “trendy.”

The definition of a succulent is “any plant which temporarily stores water in the leaves or stems,” she said.

The plants are fleshy and plump with well-defined leaf and branch systems. They have no needles, come in multiple shades and are very fragile.

However, do not confuse succulents with small cacti.

“A cactus is in a subcategory of a succulent. But succulents are not cacti,” Wilson said.

She said that cacti have little to no leaves and consist of one unit or one body. They tend to have long white hair and are usually green.

However, one similarity, Wilson said, is that “they have similar light needs.”

Succulents cannot withstand very cold temperatures. They are not frost tolerant, but some, Wilson said, can survive temperatures into the mid-40s.

Temperatures in the 35-37 degree region are considered the danger zone, Wilson said. “There’s no redeeming them after that,” she said.

Despite their need for water, a dehydrated succulent is not the worst thing that can happen. Wilson said they can actually recover from lack of water faster than being exposed to cold temperatures.

Succulents originally grow in dry, arid regions as well as in some coastal, high alpine, dry tropical regions and some forests.

Know Your Succulents

Wilson gave examples of popular succulents.

The most common example is aloe, which is best known as a skin treatment. Wilson also noted it is currently trendy to drink bottled aloe juice.

Because of its need for bright light, Wilson said aloe is not meant to sit on a bookshelf. The plant rarely flowers indoors and can grow six to seven inches tall.

“It’s a great starter plant,” she said and does not need to be watered often.

Echeveria, Wilson said, “is perhaps my favorite.” Its purple hue makes it stand out because of the different chlorophyll produced in the leaves. When in full sunlight, more color is produced.

The rosette-shaped plant is easy to propagate, she said.

“They occasionally flower and need full sunlight,” Wilson said.

During the winter months Wilson said she puts echeveria under fluorescent grow lights inside her home.

These succulents do especially well in clay pots, she said.

Euphorbia is another flowering succulent that is easy to grow.

“They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes,” Wilson said. These succulents are typically what are found in grocery stores.

These plants grow to be very tall and may require a trimming.

“Don’t be afraid to chop them off and let the wounds heal,” she said. It can be later replanted. The bottom of the plant can either be given away or tossed.

Wilson also spoke about the holiday cactus that requires daytime temperatures of 70 degrees and night time temperatures between 60 and 65 F. These typically have flat leaves. If the leaves appear to be triangular or in the shape of a plus sign, these shapes indicate exposure to cold temperatures.

“A lot of people complain they don’t flower,” Wilson said. The Christmas plant flowers when the day length is short, usually in November, she said.

Easter plants flower when the day is longer. They are usually for sale too soon, Wilson said, when it’s cooler. Grocery stores tend to sell the Easter cactus in March or early April.

“The ride home in your car might be enough for buds to fall off,” Wilson said.

Pruning is essential for these plants in June.

“Avoid artificial light,” Wilson said of the holiday cactus.

The jade plant is bright green and can grow as tall as 5 to 6 feet.

“It’s very susceptible to powdery mildew,” she said.

Sansevieria can grow in low light and is a good choice for those who feel they do not have a green thumb.

“It’s an awesome plant,” Wilson said, adding that it is very forgiving and a great clean-air plant.

“It is very slow growing,” she said, and is likely to collect dust. “They like to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen at night.”

Lithops are succulents from Africa with two main leaves.

“They can be tricky if you overwater,” Wilson said, adding, “I didn’t water mine for four months.”

It’s fine to hold off giving the plant water until the outer leaves begin to shrivel, she said. Over-watered plants will rot. These succulents need to be kept separately from other succulents.

Caring for Succulents

Wilson then discussed other necessities for growing healthy succulents.

The factors for successful growth are bright light, limited water, well-drained soil, shallow pots and pruning dead leaves.

The best lighting for the plants to keep them at a south-facing window. Many succulents need eight hours of bright light to flower.

“If you have a table with a lamp, sit them under there,” Wilson said. However, do not put your succulents in the center of your coffee table, and avoid drafty locations.

Do not overwater a succulent.

“Do not ever mist a succulent,” Wilson said, stressing this point more than once during the webinar.

“Do not put them in a bathroom where you have a shower and there will be steam. This is not native to where they grow,” Wilson said.

Wilson said when she checks the soil of succulents, she reaches past the plant and touches the soil to see if it is dry.

“The most important thing is good drainage,” she said. This can be accomplished with a pot in a pot. Wilson said she has used a yogurt cup in a planter to allow drainage.

The soil itself should be sandy, perlite.

If you choose to use regular soil, add sand. Use little to no fertilizer.

“If you fertilize, you’re going to get crazy growth,” Wilson said. Occasionally during the months of June or July, Wilson said she will choose to fertilize, if necessary.

Succulents undergo a process known as CAM or crassulacean acid metabolism. It is a different process than photosynthesis, Wilson said.

“Little cells open up in the bottom of the leaves,” Wilson said, and there is an open stomate.

Wilson lastly spoke about common problems with raising succulents. Spider mites can be handled by using Q-tips to roll the webbing from the plant. Mealy bugs leave waxy secretions on the plant.

A crawler that resembles a spider mite, known as scale, is the most annoying, she said.

One way to combat the problem is to put the plant outside to allow lady bugs and ants to feast at the scale.

Rot is a problem from overwatering, high humidity and poor drainage. The leaves get translucent and turn brown.

Wilson also pointed out a personal pet peeve. She has discovered that some succulents sold in grocery stores are spray-painted. She noted she has also seen kits for children to paint on the plants.

Wilson said she discovered this by scratching the plant with a fingernail. Some of the colors were shades that are not typical in the actual plants.

“Whatever grower who thinks it is OK, I disagree,” Wilson said.

Wilson encouraged participants to enjoy arranging their succulents. She suggested taking a black and white photo of the arrangement, which emphasizes the textures rather than colors.

Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer in central Pennsylvania.

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