Name: Succulents get their name from their specially adapted tissue that stores water.
Botanical name: Succulents are specially adapted plants that have evolved to cope with long periods of drought. They come from a range of plant families. In some cases it is the leaves, in others it is the stems that are enlarged and contain cells that swell up when filled with water and shrink when water is scarce.
In general, succulents have a thick waxy coat on their skin to reduce moisture loss. A few have a hairy coat that reduces the drying effects of wind. Some have grey or whitish colouration to keep the plant cool by reflecting some of the heat of the sun. All of them make good house plants, easily cared for when it comes to watering and feeding. If you are the sort of person who forgets to water house plants then these are more forgiving than most, even though they grow best when properly watered and fed.
The crassula group is one of the best known, especially the jade plant or money tree, which has large rounded thick leaves and grows like a miniature tree. There are several species with this tree-like structure and some are capable of growing to nearly one metre tall in a large pot.
The propeller plant has opposed blue-grey leaves that look like propellers. The rat-tail plant has small leaves along the stem. The silver crown is a related plant with stunning blue-white leaves. While there are a few kinds that tolerate the cold outdoors, most cannot, but they make excellent house plants. Kalanachoe is grown as a flowering house plant with red, yellow or pink flowers. The panda plant has hairy ear-like leaves tipped at the edges with bunches of brown hairs. The velvet leaf has arrow-shaped leaves with brown markings. The bryophyllums are similar, some with arrow-shaped leaves and some with narrow leaves. These have the unusual characteristic of producing small plantlets at the edges of the leaves. These fall off and take root easily.
Aloe is a common succulent house plant. The true aloe, Aloe vera, can be grown as a house plant with tall tubular leaves, each filled with healing gel. The partridge-breast aloe gets its name from the striping of dark-green and pale green on the leaves. The leaves are pointed and handsome flowers are sent up on tall stems. Hedgehog aloe is also spiky, with more leaves of a blue-grey colour. Gasteria, the ox-tongue plant, is similar to aloe but has its raspy leaves set in opposition pairs from a narrow rosette. Haworthia is similar to gasteria, often with rough and warty leaves.
Of similar shape to the aloes, the agaves have a sharp spine at the tip of the leaves. The century plant, Agave americana, makes a huge plant outdoors but can be grown as a much smaller plant indoors when restricted by the pot. If there is any danger from these plants where there might be small children, the tips can be nipped off.
The sedums are very varied. The jelly bean plant has leaves the shape and size of jelly beans and shiny like them too. They are grey-green with wax and often have shiny red tips. The beans drop off and root easily. The burro’s tail is similar with grey-green leaves and long stems that droop over the sides of the pot. Sedum sieboldii has trailing stems with broad leaves in threes along the stem and pink flowers. The variegated kind is very pretty.
Aeonium is another of the rosette succulents. It has tongue-shaped leaves, flat in shape, arranged in rings to make a very flat rosette. The saucer plant looks like an upturned saucer. There are deep red-black versions which can be put outdoors in summer to develop the colour as they need good light to achieve this. The saucer-like rosettes are carried on tall slender stems.
String of hearts, Ceropegia, has long trailing stems with marbled heart-shaped leaves. The string of beads is similar with rounded pea-sized leaves on dropping wiry stems and it is a senecio, related to the daisy bush. Perhaps the most remarkable succulents of all are the living stones, Lithops, and their close relatives Conophytum. Lithops have just two leaves and these are mostly below soil, funnel-like. The flat top has evolved to look like a pebble and it is translucent, the light funnelling down to the green inside. There are other house plant succulents but these are the most popular ones.
This is the time of year to appreciate the decorative value of seed heads of flowers that have long since withered. Many perennial flowers die back in winter, in some cases completely below ground, in others to a clump of basal leaves a ground level. The seed-heads that formed after flowering are abandoned and the nutrients drawn back into the plant roots to be used the following year. The skeleton of the flower stem is left. Phlox, lysimachia, bergamot, sedum, dierama, agapanthus and many others can look very well, especially in association with grasses.
Trees, shrubs & roses
It is still a good time to plant trees and shrubs as long as the weather is not too wet or the ground waterlogged. Roses too can be planted and the bedding kinds and repeat-flowering climbers pruned.
Fruit, vegetables & herbs
In good weather, fruit trees and bushes can be planted, if well-drained sites in full sunshine are available. The vegetable area can be tided, compost turned, and weeds controlled. A supply of pea sticks could be gathered. Prune apple and pear trees.
There is not much to do with flowers. Messy old stems can be tidied away or chopped up and allowed lie where they fall. It is possible to divide some kinds of perennials – clump-rooters that have died back completely below soil.
Mow the lawn if a spell of dry weather allows the soil to dry out, but do not walk over wet lawns as it damages the soil. Sulphate of iron can be applied for moss control. Trim or recut the edge of a lawn where it meets borders, paths and paving.
Greenhouse & house plants
Watch house plants for water shortage and water as necessary but do not stand the pots in a saucer or bowl as the roots will rot. Check greenhouse plants for water and keep a watch for pests, such as greenflies and scale insects.