Succulents and Cacti -- What's Not to Love?
If you’re living in the midst of a drought or are trying to cut down the water bill, your garden doesn’t have to suffer. Enter the succulent or cacti, a plant variety often associated with being so hardy that it can live on little water. In fact, they can die from too much water, and most prefer to be left alone once planted. If you’re forgetful or have a black thumb, you’ve found your match. But if you love a bit of color and sculpture in your yard, you need look no further. We’ve gathered up nine stunning varieties of different colors and shapes that look beautiful alongside other greenery, in containers, or as the focal point of a xeriscape. The hard part is choosing just one, so mix and match to make a living art piece you can enjoy for many years to come.
Pictured above is an Echeveria, popular for their rosette shape and various leaf colors ranging from dusty blues to vibrant reds and purples.
1. Jade Plant
Jade plant (Crassula ovata) is commonly a house plant, but can just as easily be grown outdoors in containers or in the ground as an accent piece along walkways and planters. This succulent is unique because of its thick woody branches that can give it a tree-like appearance. The leaves, as you may guess, are dark jade green, but can also be yellow-green or have a red edge. Jade plant is known for easy propagation, meaning that leaves or cuttings can be taken from the plant to reproduce -- perfect for getting the most bang from your buck.
2. Aloe Vera
Most people know aloe vera in its gel form as a temporary relief from sun burn, but it’s as ornamental as it is healing. There are more than 450 species of this succulent, most of them characterized by large spiky rosettes with prickles or spikes on leaf edges. Pictured here is the Aloe arborescens, a variety that can grow up to 6 feet tall with orange, yellow, or red tubular flowers. Because of its potential to grow tall and wide, aloe vera is a great option for creating a living “fence” or filling up empty space.
3. Barrel Cactus
All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Confused? The difference is that succulents can store water both in their stems and leaves, while cacti can only store water in their stems (most don't even have leaves at all). Most cacti have spines covering its surface that prevent water loss by shading the plant and defending against dry air flow. This survival method doesn't make them the friendliest of plants, but they're no less stunning in appearance, with some (namely the saguaro) growing in the wild more than 50 feet tall. The barrel cactus pictured above is much more humble, spanning anywhere from 3 to 10 feet tall. Notable to the barrel cactus is it's short flowering period during April and May, with delicate blossoms appearing in sharp contrast to its spiky exterior.
4. Donkey Tail
While the barrel cactus grows upwards, donkey tail (Sedum morganianum) grows downwards. This plant is so named for the shape of its trailing stems that can reach up to 4 feet in as little as 6 years. Although not ideal for climates with extreme heat or frost, it grows well in full sunlight indoors or outdoors. The leaves can be quite delicate, so it’s best left alone in a hanging basket or container sitting up high.
So named for its flat, paddle-like leaves, the flapjack succulent (Kalanchoe luciae) is a dramatic addition to any landscape because of its shape, but also because of its vibrant red-tipped edges. It can grow up to 2 feet wide and tall, so allow plenty of growing room if you’re starting out with a small size in your yard. Tip: Gently squeeze one of the leaves to determine if it needs watering. A plump, full feeling means it has enough moisture. Flexibility means it can use a drink.
6. Hens and Chicks
If you picture a mother hen and her babies scurrying at her feet, then you’ll see why this succulent is often referred to by its cute nickname. But its Latin title, Sempervivum, is also apt because it means “live forever,” thanks to their tendency to easily grow and propagate. On some varieties, the babies grow on runners that can be popped off, while other varieties house the babies within the mother plant to be cut off with a knife. Either way, the little semps can grow on their own by simply being placed in the dirt. There’s no easier way to feel like a pro gardener!
7. Prickly Pear
Our second cactus selection is one that actually produces food you can consume. The fruit of the prickly pear (Optunia) are ripe when they turn a bright red, and taste like watermelon or kiwi. Although they aren’t as sweet, the paddle-shaped pads can be eaten too, and when cooked taste like green beans. The prickly pear grows low to the ground and can spread up to eight feet. Unlike many cacti and succulents, the prickly pear is both drought and frost tolerant, making it extremely hardy and easy to grow. Tip: Peel the fruit carefully to eat the flesh, or put it in a blender to create a a refreshing juice, ice cream flavoring, or a base for jam and syrup.
8. Bue Finger
Senecio mandraliscae is what many regard as a "usefeul" succulent because it's essentially ground cover that offers up a lovely blueish-green hint (as the name suggests) to your yard year-round. But while it grows wide, it can also grow tall at up to 18 inches. It can look just as striking planted in a container on its own as it does filling in empty space between other plants, so play around with its presence in your yard and take advantage of its ability to go for extremely long periods (some say 3/4 of a year) without any water.
9. String of Pearls
String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), also known as string of beads or rosary string, will give you a double take because of its unique appearance compared to other succulents. Like donkey tail, it grows down rather than up, with fleshy round beads on a thin, vine-like stems, so it’s best planted in a hanging container or somewhere where it won’t be stepped on. If you’re lucky, small white flowers (that smell like cinnamon!) may appear. Tip: If your guests marvel at its strange beauty, cut off some strands for them to plant in their own container. Like most succulents, cuttings from this plant will quickly grow into another.