As I write this, it’s June 17, and I’m thinking about how, so far, our spring and early summer have been relatively mild.
But then the brutal, 90- to 100-degree weather appeared (I’m not a fan), so my gardening thoughts are turning to a group of plants that have evolved to thrive in long, hot, dry summers: succulents. From the soaring saguaro cactus to the “baby toes” groundcover, succulents are tough, sun-loving, long-lived plants that are great for drought-prone areas. However, not all succulents can withstand our cold, wet winters and heavy soil, so it’s best to know which ones can.
But first, a few definitions.
The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “succulentus,” which means juice or sap. They are defined by their ability to store moisture and are represented by more than 40 botanical families around the world. While native succulents can be found worldwide, one family is indigenous only to the American and South American West: cactus (Cactaceae). What makes cacti different from all other succulents are round, cushion-like structures called “areoles,” from which spines, branches, hair and flowers grow.
If there’s one trait all succulents share in addition to their capability to store moisture in their fleshy leaves and stems, it’s that they must have excellent drainage. A rocky and/or sandy soil is best, so if your soil is heavy clay, you can add coarse builder’s sand and/or gravel to lighten it. Most succulents will thrive in a rock garden that gets plenty of sun. Another plus is, because of their tough, sometimes prickly or fuzzy “skin,” succulents aren’t typically appealing to garden pests or deer.
Generally speaking, only gardeners in the lower foothill elevations will have success growing desert-born cacti, because higher up it’s often too shady and/or cold and wet in winter for them. Most other succulents evolved in cooler, wetter places than deserts, so they’re better candidates for foothill gardeners.
Here are some succulents that, if sited correctly and not over-watered, should flourish here:
Sedum — Also known as “Stonecrop,” Sedum is a large genus (400-plus species) of flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae. Some of the most attractive, hardy — and unusual — groundcovers around are varieties of Sedum, and because there is such a range of leaf and flower colors, you can create a veritable tapestry with them to replace a lawn, cover a hillside or adorn a rock garden. A few popular varieties include: S. angelicum (“Angelina”), with delicate whorls of green to yellow leaves reminiscent of pine needles, only in miniature; “Firecracker” Sedum with tiny, oval, burgundy leaves that form what look like dense flowers; and “Tricolor” Sedum, with green leaves edged in pink and white. Taller than the 3- to 6-inch varieties above, the beloved “Autumn Joy” Sedum grows to 18 to 24 inches and is a show-stopper in fall, as its large, showy flower clusters emerge mauve-red and soften to a dusty pink. Autumn Joy in bloom, like many Sedum, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
Sempervivum — “Hens and chicks” is the more popular name for this more cactus-looking plant that is also in the Crassulaceae family. Ground huggers, hens and chicks have grey or green leaves that form around each other in a rosette, and they propagate by forming offsets. The “hen” is the main, or mother, plant, and the “chicks” are the offspring, which cluster close to the mother plant. Echeveria is a similar-looking succulent, although it’s a different genus and has been hybridized extensively. Graptosedum is related to Echeveria and has the same bluish-grey, thick, fleshy leaves; but it propagates by sending out a stem from the center of the rosette.
The Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills are home to a number of native Sedum, including “Canyon Liveforever” (Dudleya cymosa) and “Bitter Root” (Lewisia rediviva). The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website (calscape.org) is a good resource for researching native Sedum, as is our local CNPS chapter website (www.sierrafoothillscnps.org.)
It occurred to me that I could literally plant nothing but succulents in my garden and end up with everything I would want — color, texture, variety, food for the butterflies and birds — minus the water bills, pesky insects and the need to fertilize. Hmm …
Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.
UCCE Master Gardeners of Tuolumne County can answer home gardening questions. Call (209) 533-5912, or go online to ucanr.edu/survey/survey.