We’ve all been there – you see a weird and wonderful plant and you buy it without hesitation. You get it home and then realise you haven’t got a clue exactly what it is, except that it is a ‘succulent’ , according to the very minimalist sticky label on the pot. Maybe this isn’t an issue for some – you like the plant, you know it’s a succulent and so you have a general idea of its requirements. If it dies, it dies. If it doesn’t then great!
If you are anything like me, your whole life will depend on knowing what you have on your hands. I’m fairly sure I am not the only one that feels the same way, judging by how many questions there are on identification on succulent forums and Facebook.
Now, I am not an expert on succulents, but I have been working with and collecting them for over four years now, and while I still get completely stumped now and then on the identity of some eccentric specimen (and cacti – I’m rubbish with them!) – there are a few little things I have noticed over the years that help me identify succulents. If you can identify the genus of a succulent – or any plant for that matter – it is much easier to work out the species is, and knowing exactly what your new succy pal is expecting from you for it to perform at its best.
So I thought I would create a blog post discussing some of the more readily available succulents on the market by genus. That way, if you have a succulent you don’t know the name of, you might recognise it, or get some idea of what it could be from reading my post. As there are quite a few succulents I would like to talk about, I will divide this blog into two parts, so stay tuned for part two.
The chances are, an Echeveria was the first succulent that caught your attention – it certainly was for me. These low growing, rosette-forming plants are some of the most popular succulents, to beginners and seasoned collectors alike. They come in many colours – from green to grey, blue to purple. Although they are prized for their plump foliage and growth habit, they do throw up some fairly spectacular flowers in red, orange, yellow and pink on long slender stems. Native to Mexico, they do best in full sun, and while some cultivars may withstand an occasional light frost, generally they are not suitable for northern hemisphere gardens during the colder months. There are many cultivars of Echeveria, and they take on quite varied forms in terms of leaf appearance. Generally, they have thicker leaves than Sempervivums, but not quite as fleshy as Pachyphytums and Pachverias, Graptopetalums and Graptoverias. They also have quite a distinctive flowers (right).
Sempervivums are widely used in northern hemisphere rock and alpine gardens, as they can tolerate temperatures well below freezing – not a trait that many other succulents can boast. Therefore, if you picked up one of these in the outdoor section of a garden centre, and you get cold winters, chance are it’s a sempervivum.
These succulents sometimes get mistaken for Echeveria or Aeoniums, both of which are tender. Semps form small tight rosettes with thin leaves. The colour palette is earthy and will range from greens, reds, yellows, burgundies and browns – often they are attractively bicoloured, with darker saturation to the tips and edges of their leaves. Echeverias by contrast are often more pastel toned in hue (although you do get green Echeveria). Aeoniums come in similar colours to Sempervivums, but are leggier, with long stems, while Sempervivums tend to form tightly packed colonies.
Semps are Monocarpic – they die after flowering. Aeoniums are the same. However semp flowers are quite distinctive. When they appear on the end of think stems, are brightly coloured and star shaped.
Most people are familiar with the Jade Plant, Crassula ovata, and its blue-leaved cousin Crassula arborescens. Both are distinctive but similar to each other in appearance. However, Crassula are a very mixed bunch – in fact I have added extra images below to show you just how variable they can be. Some are tall and structural, others low growing and clumping. Crassula are so widely cultivated that I am confident that you will have come across one anywhere succulents are sold.
The one characteristic all Crassula share is actually very subtle. Crassula posess hydathodes, which are pores found on the surface of the leaves. In most plants these expel moisture but in Crassula, do the opposite, and absorb moisture to keep these plants alive in the arid environments they originate. These pores can often be seen on the leaves of Crassula, as little dots.
However if you aren’t too keen to look that closely (and in fact sometimes the leaves of Crassula species are so frikin’ small – you would need a very powerful microscope to see the plant’s hydathodes) there are other characteristics that many Crassula share, one being the pattern of leaf growth as I hope to demonstrate here ( below right): You may notice the way the leaves grow in sets of two, on opposite sides of the stem, and how one pair grow at an angle to the successive pair. I have noticed this growth pattern in many Crassula, and so when I see it, I know it is a sign of a Crassula.
Crassula flowers are quite distinctive. They are also, in my opinion, pretty but a bit underwhelming – with the exception of the white pompom flowers of Crassula pubescens (shown below centre) which are adorable. However check out the blooms on the Crassula ruprestre below it – dainty profusions – sweet but a bit blah in relation to the geometric forms and interesting textures of the plants’ foliage. Many flowers of Crassula are similar – and most come in a dirty dull white, with the exception of a few that bloom bright red. While the flowers are a good tool for identification, Crassula do not flower year round, so this is not always an available way to identify these plants – try checking out the leaf growth pattern and the hydathodes instead!
Haworthia are some of my favourite succulents, and I think they are quite distinctive although they can be confused with Aloes – to which they are closely related. Haworthias tend to be daintier and smaller than Aloes – although they have the same torpedo shaped leaves. Haworthias form rosettes and they are usually green, although not exclusively. Sometimes the leaves, or parts of the leaves will appear almost transluscent. Other times they will have white stripes and warty markings on their leaves (which look much more attractive than they sound). Most Haworthias tend to prefer some shade, while many Aloes are happy in full sun. Therefore if you leave a Haworthia on a hot south facing windowsill in summer, chances are it will show sun damage much quicker than other succulents. The leaves may discolour, it may wrinkle or shrivel. Place it away from direct sunlight, and it should recover. Finally the flowers on Haworthias are small and white and pretty – but quite inconsequential compared to the rest of the plant. Like many rosette forming succulents, the flowers appear along or at the end of long slender stems protruding from the centre of the plant. Haworthia flowers are distinctive from Aloe flowers – which are bright and much more dramatic. Haworthias are rather more demure as hopefully demonstrated here:
The genus Kalanchoe (pronounced Ka-Lan-Ko-ee) is made up of an varied bunch of succulents, just like Crassula. Most people think of the supermarket Kalanchoes – or Kalanchoe blossfeldiana – which have those dark green fleshy leaves and jewell like little flowers. However there are far more interesting specimens belonging to this Genus. According to the experts, it can be divided into two groups -Kalanchoe ‘proper’ and Bryophyllum – and apparently the experts themselves are divided as to whether these two groups are one Genus or two… But lets not confuse things.
One characteristic I began to associate with Kalanchoes was the fleshy flat leaves with a scalloped edge and a low, quite bushy habit. However I found this doesn’t always hold up, as plants like the flapjack plant (Kalanchoe thyrisflora and Kalanchoe luciae), the panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa), and the spider Kalanchoe (all pictured below) definitely do not all fit this prototype – the flapjack plant has smooth curves to its leaf margins, as does the panda plant compared to other Kalanchoes. The spider Kalanchoe does have some scalloped edges to its leaves – but they are elongated and slender rather than flat and wide.
As usual, the key to the mystery is to be found in the flowers. All Kalanchoes have four part flowers (below left). Sometimes the flowers face up, sometimes they face down – but they always have four petals! Another clue you have a Kalanchoe on your hands (in particular a mother of millions plant or Byrophyllum) is if it starts producing tiny little plantlets along its leaf margins (below right). When my Kalanchoe daigremontiana started to do produce these cute little plantlets, I didn’t know what to make of it. They I realised they rooted and formed new plants so I got excited and promptly got busy propogating!
So in conclusion, it seems it is the flowers that confirm the identity of a succulent – although there are other features to look out for. I hope this has been in some way helpful to you. Keep a look out for part two and please do share on social media below.
Have a great week!