Botany for the Willfully Ignorant: Why I Don’t Grow Succulents

Let me start with a few acknowledgments. First, I know almost nothing about succulent plants. However, this does not prevent me from exercising my rights as an American to have opinions about them.

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These opinions may not be based on fact. However, I feel that they are true. Therefore, while they may not be accurate, they have (to use the phrase coined by Stephen Colbert) truthiness. And that’s good enough for me.

That said, I don’t grow succulents for the same reason I wouldn’t have a lizard or snake as a pet. Succulents strike me as cold-blooded plants.

The spines are really leaves and the leaves are really stems, or possibly the other way round. Ruth Bancroft Garden.
The spines are really leaves and the leaves are really stems, or possibly the other way round. Ruth Bancroft Garden.

I like plants that are more like golden retrievers or maybe a well-behaved cat, Plants that would cuddle up to you as you watch TV on the couch. Plants that are warm and lovable.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I have this reaction, but here are a few possibilities.

Pointy, pointy, pointy. From our visit to The Wave garden, Richmond, California.
Pointy, pointy, pointy. From our visit to The Wave garden, Richmond, California.

Succulents tend to have sharp pointy bits. Of course, roses have thorns and so on. That makes roses more like the cats of the garden, still cuddly but with sharp claws that will strike when there’s been enough petting.

Admittedly, many succulents have nothing pointy going on whatsoever – for example, Sedum spectabilis. However, I prefer to avoid even the non-pointy succulents just to be on the safe side – because you don’t know when they might turn on you. You say guilt by association? I say reasonable prudence.

The waxy coating makes them seem standoffish. Ruth Bancroft Garden.
The waxy coating makes them seem standoffish. Ruth Bancroft Garden.

Succulents have weird leaves. At best, leaves of succulents have a waxy outer coating that makes them seem standoffish, plus they tend to be relatively inflexible. At worst (as with cacti), the leaves are actually spines, or is it the other way round?

Aeonium on the march. "Take us to your leader."
Aeonium on the march. “Take us to your leader.”

Succulents look like sentient beings from another planet. Some of them, anyway. They just do.

If I lived in a hotter, drier climate I would no doubt have a different attitude towards succulents. Their presence would seem more comfortable and familiar, I would probably be grateful for the niche they fill in more arid ecosystems.

Also, there are only a limited number of succulents that will grow here in Chicago. So perhaps the succulents have the last laugh. I may not want to grow them, but most of them wouldn’t want to grow in my garden anyway. Probably best that we each go our separate ways.

73 Comments on “Botany for the Willfully Ignorant: Why I Don’t Grow Succulents”

  1. That’s how I used to feel about them, but I enjoy succulents more and more the older I get. A healthy collection of Hens and Chicks attracts me. Sedums will always have a place in my garden. And Opuntia Cactuses (native in both Wisconsin and Illinois) are so fun to find in the wild (or in the appropriate garden setting). But, I understand your thoughts because I used to have those impressions. Weird how age can change a person’s perspective.

  2. I LOVE cacti and succulents however I have to keep them in the house as it is too wet here even in Summer, a few of them are strong enough to take a vacation in my garden and they love it ! If I would live somewhere hotter and dryer I’d have a cacti and succulent garden, that is my biggest dream !

  3. Oh, I don’t like plants with pointy things, either. I have one climbing rose that draws blood almost every time I pass by with the mower, and I selected a thornless raspberry for the berry patch. BUT I *love* my sedums, from the tall ‘Autumn Joy’ that provides interest and beauty almost all year round, to the low growing ‘Angelina’ and ‘Dragon’s Blood’ that creep about in their contrasting colors. The yucca I am less thrilled with, but I’ve discovered a yucca is forever – trying to remove them just makes them multiply.

  4. I’m learning to love the plants that grow well for me, in quite specific conditions. I thought I hated cactus and most succulents excluding Sedums, which I love, but when I saw them growing in the Phoenix botanic garden I thought they were stunning. Right plant right place, Jason, that’s what its all about!

  5. I live in one of those hot and dry places but succulents leave me cold. I think they are overused in Austin and they are surprisingly NOT xeric. A lot of succulents actually take up more water than many garden favourites. Since they are adapted for desert environments they are all about drawing in and storing water. They can look nice in moderation or as a focal point I suppose but mostly I would rather not include them.

      • I know right. It seems to defy common sense but these plants have adaptations for living successfully in desert environments that get heavy seasonal rains. They can take in enormous amounts of moisture and if you give them the chance they will. Home gardeners as a rule don’t allow them to desiccate or drop their leaves — which is what they normally would do between rains. These well meaning gardeners tend to keep giving them water through the year and sometimes end up using more water than people with traditional gardens. Here’s a link you might find interesting:

        Click to access Xeriscaping.pdf

  6. Thats funny but I love Sedums and I keep trying to grow houseleeks (Sempervivums) in terracotta pots and failing because England is mainly rainy and damp and I ignore them too much. One of my all time yuk plants is Aeonium though, even if it does look like an elongated Houseleek.

      • Just looked that up as I did not know either and they certainly do not look like the vegetable. Apparently Hardy sempervivums are called houseleeks because there is an ancient tradition of growing them on the roof to ward off lightning and bad luck. Their Latin name Sempervivum tectorum translates as ‘alive on the roof’. Their common name (houseleek) is derived from the Anglo Saxon word Leac meaning plant – so sempervivums were the original house plant. Admitting I treat them so badly has made me resolve to do better in the future.

  7. I like many of the Sedum and Sempervivum, but that’s it. Partly out of nostalgia (my grandmother had a huge patch of Hens and Chicks) and partly because they are so easy and grow in spaces nothing else will.

    Oh, I also like the Crown of Thorns as a houseplant, in spite of its namesake thorns, because it has the most charming tiny red flowers all winter long.

  8. I can relate on your statement that succulents can be cold-blooded.

    I’ve had a few pinches and pricks from tiny pointy thorns and bled a little while replanting cacti weeks ago. But I still love them even though they don’t love me back. huhuhuhu =)

  9. You “don’t” grow them, I “can’t” grow them. While there are many that can take our mild winters, all the ones I’ve killed have died during overly wet summers. I have had better success keeping them in containers where I don’t have to work as hard getting the drainage right (yes, I am a lazy gardener).

  10. You know you’re in danger of having your trendy gardener card revoked, right? I’m not fond of plants that reach out and intentionally do you harm like some of those glochid- laden opuntias but do like the soft leaved succulents (some even have fur) and of late have become a fan of agaves because of their strong forms. I grow them mostly in pots so that I can kick them around if they try to hurt me.

  11. “These opinions may not be based on fact. However, I feel that they are true.”

    Ugh, I have talked to too many people lately who believe just that. And tragically, not in jest!

    I don’t grow succulents either, because they don’t fit in my garden. They look *amazing* in Kris’ California garden (Late to the Garden Party) though. And your picture of the Aeonium is gorgeous, if alien.

  12. Succulents suck, at least they do when they draw blood – oh, I am going off on a vampire tangent…
    I met up with one in a nursery outside of Beaufort SC that the staff warned me was sharp, and it managed to slice me anyway…

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