South Africa is world famous for its indigenous succulents. It is estimated that of the 10 000 succulent species to be found across the world, nearly half originate from southern Africa.
South Africans also rank high among the world’s most famous succulent specialists, including Gauteng professors Braam van Wyk and Gideon Smith.
Gardening interest in succulents is on the rise. Young homeowners value their interesting shapes, survivor characteristics and low water needs.
“Succulent plants are hard to beat if you are looking for low-maintenance, hardy additions to your rockery or street frontage,” says expert Michael Marais, from the Succulent Society of South Africa. “Most succulents found in local gardens come from the drier areas in South Africa or Mexico and thrive on little more than rainfall and a well-drained, sunny position,” he says.
The key to understanding succulents is to learn about their families. This is Marais’s A-Z guide to the most popular succulent families for your garden.
l Aloe: These beautifully sculptured plants have a strong claim to be our national flower, so widespread are the 130 or more indigenous species. Look out for aloes that offer stately single accents (Aloe marlothii, A ferox, A arborescens and A rupestris) or group smaller aloes for impact (try A striata, A maculata). The local hybrids have brilliantly coloured flowers and are repeat-flowering.
l Aeonium: Sun-loving shrubby plants from North Africa and the islands of the Atlantic. They have rosettes of bright green or blackish-purple leaves and spires of bright yellow flowers.
l Crassula: A large South African family varying in height and spread. The jade plant (Crassula ovata) is best known, with its shiny red-margined green leaves. For dry shade, there is little to beat the starry flowers of the fairy crassula (C multicava) and trailing crassula (C pellucida).
l Cotyledon: Look out for their huge variety of leaf shapes (rounded, wavy or finger-like) and colours (silvery-grey, bright yellow green or green with red margins). The best-known member of the family is the pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata). With its pendulous pink, orange or red flowers, it is still used to treat burns and skin ailments.
l Echeveria: Mexican desert roses have been much hybridised and their leaves vary from light green to bluish and silvery. Look out for those with purple tints, often with pink or red margins. Echeverias are easily propagated from slips, stalks or even leaves, and their only serious enemy is hail.
l Euphorbia: The euphorbia or milkweed family has evolved into a multitude of bizarre and arresting forms. The tree-like species include the giant naboom (Euphorbia ingens) and popular Mexican poinsettia (E pulcherrima), grown for its scarlet bracts. The new Thai hybrids of the brightly coloured crown of thorns (E milii) have made this favourite fashionable.
l Kalanchoe: Garden centres sell potted Madagascan Kalanchoe blossfeldiana in a range of bright colours. Look out for the K sexangularis, with deeply channelled leaves that turn a deep maroon in winter before the spires of yellow flowers appear. K thyrsiflora has much larger bluish leaves, which colour bright red in the cold months, alongside spires of pale yellow flowers. Look out for K marmorata, with its beautiful marbled leaves and K tomentosa with furry leaves adorned with rich brown marginal spots.
l Kleinia: A couple of species from this member of the daisy family do well in rockeries and have striking flowers. Kleinia fulgens and K stapeliiformis have swollen stems and produce bright orange or scarlet thistle-shaped flowers.
l Lampranthus: There are many tribes of the vast Mesembryanthemum family that can be used in the garden, but the Lampranthus (vygie) species are popular for their brilliant splashes of colour. They form low bushes, which for a few weeks are covered by glittering daisy-like flowers in pink, purple, red and orange. Here in the summer-rainfall area, they need to be regularly watered in winter to ensure they flower properly.
l Yucca: These Central America plants make sculptural accents and are almost indestructible. Look out for the variegated cultivar of Yucca elephantipes, with yellow-margined spiky leaves which make it a useful security hedge.
l Interested in increasing your succulent collection? See rare plants from the Karoo, Madagascar and the Americas at the Succulent Society of South Africa’s Spring Show. Today and tomorrow, 9.30am- 4.30pm.
The Floreum, Botanic Gardens, Olifants Rd, Emmarentia. Call 082 850 8475 or 011 728 7692. - Saturday Star