Succulents have gone through a renaissance of late, in the garden at least: Pinterest is awash with pictures of containers, vertical walls and roofs full of them. But living in Bedfordshire, not California, my succulent kicks are largely satisfied inside (apart from Sempervivums, about which I’ll write in another post). These fellows won’t mind you whacking up the central heating so the room’s as hot as the Sahara and just as dry (although for the sake of the environment, why not whack on a cardigan instead?). That’s no excuse for not watering them in the summer, however, as they will reward you with lots of growth over the summer if you give them regular food and water. Don’t kill them with kindness: they hate sitting in a saucer of water, so make sure it can drain away. I have a lifelong love affair with succulents, and my favourites change week by week, according to what’s catching my eye. But now, at least, these are my top succulent choices.
Euphorbia obesa (Turkish temple)
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Urban Hafner)
When I first met ehtnobotanist James Wong at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years back, we bonded over our mutual childhood experience of poring over the pages of the classic indoor plant book DG Hessayon’s Houseplant Expert – even though he grew up in Malaysia and I lived at the leafier end of the Metropolitan line. (I know. Weird. We both turned out fine, though, really…) One of the plants I dreamed of owning was this one, known as baseball plant or the gingham golf ball in the US, although Hessayon called it by the far more romantic name Turkish temple. although I know some houseplant aficionados have a thing for living stones (aka members of the Lithops clan which look like, er, stones – who wants a plant that looks like a pebble? I may as well just have a pebble) but for me, E. obesa is so much better. Its fleshy dome thrusts out of the soil like some kind of rejected set design for a scene in Star Wars. Sadly, this intriguing plant is now rare in the wild in its natural home, the Karoo region of South Africa, because it was targeted by plant collectors, although now it is a protected species.
Aloe aristata (Lace aloe)
This one has sentimental value: gifted to me by boyfriend’s former neighbours Fiona and Juggs* more than a decade ago, this plant has been with me through thick and thin, and a lot of neglect. This aloe may not have the medicinal properties of its close relative but it is much hardier. I keep my main plant in my unheated and frequently subzero greenhouse-cum-potting shed every winter and it troops through, provided it’s kept dry, it’ll be fine down to at least -5C (some say even lower). A terracotta pot seems to help. It produces strange coral-coloured flowers on fishing rod-style stems every summer, but it’s the fractal whorl of the fleshy leaves that packs the visual punch. Put it in a dull metal or textured pot in just the right shade of green and it will look great. If you need any more reason to try this plant, you may like to know that it has an RHS Award of Garden Merit. It will have “babies” aka offsets, which can be carefully removed from the parent plant and potted up to make more plants.
*He had big ears, hence the nickname. I don’t even know his real name.
Adromischus cooperi (Plover’s eggs)
This one’s a toughie, too. In winter it will survive for several months with no water, and admittedly the “eggs” will shrivel a little, but a splash of water and they are back on their feet.I have a feeling my specimen may be a cultivar as most of the pictures I’ve seen have more spathe-shaped leaves, but if anyone can help me out with that, let me know! In a forthcoming post I am planning on how to choose great containers for houseplants, I’ll show you a picture of this plant in another setting … it looks amazing!
I love the strange Leopard-spotted pattern you see on this and some other succulents (check out silver squill (Ledebouria socialis), another close contender for this top five, for another cool spotted leaf pattern).
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Toni Villaró)
If you’ve ever wanted a living, growing first aid kit, this is it. There are many claims made for the healing power of this plant, but all I know is if you keep one of these plants on the kitchen windowsill, every time you burn yourself, break off a leaf and squeeze out the gel inside to apply to the skin – it really does help such injuries to heal.
In the summer you can put these outside – they look great massed in a big zinc pot – but don’t do as I did last winter and forget to bring them in, resulting in a mushy mess.
Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Mother of thousands)
(Photo used under Creative Commons from blumenbiene)
There’s more childhood nostalgia attached to my final choice. This isn’t the ubiquitous (and naff) ‘flaming Katy’ (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) of petrol station forecourts and market stalls, but a relative whose special trick is an odd form of increasing itself. The edges of every leaf are festooned with what look like tiny green flowers at first sight, but they are actually tiny plantlets, which will at a moment’s notice leap off , fall to the ground and sprout roots. As you can imagine, these plants are just fascinating to kids – and, trust me, they are a hell of a lot easier to keep alive than the Venus fly trap, or “one hell of a waste of a fiver”, as I always call it. As this blogpost testifies, these fellas can be devilishly invasive – if I lived in California I’d never have one in my garden, they’d be everywhere, a bit like the deeply annoying Oxalis corniculata, even with its small silver lining of edibility*.
But in a pot it’s easy enough to deal with any extra plants. This – like ginger beer plants and Jamie and the Magic Torch – were ubiquitous in the 1970s and 80s (perhaps it was a local phenomenon where I lived in Buckinghamshire – perhaps you can let me know?), you’d get them at every jumble sale and plant stall this side of, say, 1987. I don’t have one right now, but if anyone wants swapsies for something a bit less, well, fecund, just let me know. As Anna Laurent writes on the Garden Design blog:
The mother-of-thousands is a superlative nurturer by necessity; somewhere on the evolutionary timeline, the unique succulent lost the ability to produce viable seeds, and so the burden of reproduction fell to its leaves. As the plant matures, spoon-shaped spurs develop along the periphery of its leaves, each yielding a miniature clone of the mother. These adventitious plantlets grow larger and form roots, all the while clinging to the mother’s leaves, which now hang heavy under the weight of so many young plants.
*This is edible – the tiny, paper-thin leaves taste like sorrel on a diet: delicately citrusy. Sprinkle it on the top of a risotto You can try to eat it into submission, but be aware that this isn’t a plant to dominate your salad bowl as the leaves contain small amounts of oxalic acid which is not good for your stomach if you eat it in excess. I haven’t got a full idea of how much you’d need to eat to make yourself ill, but I am thinking it’s bucketfuls. Nevertheless, don’t blame me for an overdose, and also beware of any potential issues with allergies: try a small amount first before you dive into a big plateful.