Article for The Featherbrooke News
WHAT IS A SUCCULENT?
The dictionary will tell us that the term ‘succulent’ means ‘juicy’. Succulent plants are plants that have one or more organs adapted to contain a juicy tissue in which it is able to store water for times when external supplies are short. This tissue may be contained either in the stem or in the leaves, and succulent plants are therefore divided into stem or leaf succulents. Fleshy stems act as water reservoirs, are green in colour as they contain chlorophyll and function as leaves. Leaves can also function as water stores when they are thick skinned, fleshy and persistent. This characteristic of storing water enables succulents to live under conditions of drought and gives these plants their chief interest and beauty. Succulent plants are not related to one family of plants, but is a form of growth that occurs in quite a number of unrelated families such as the euphorbia, lily, crassula and mesembryanthemum (vygie) families.
It is common to hear succulents referred to as ‘cacti’, but while all cacti are succulents, it must be stated clearly that all succulents are not cacti. The difference is easily seen in the flowers, of which cacti flowers are usually large and showy. When there are no flowers present, there is, however, another distinction. All cacti possess a small cushion of woolly felt or hair (areole) from which the spines arise. Only one species of cactus is found in South Africa. Rhipsalis baccifera (Hanging Wild Cactus, Mistletoe Cactus or Bostou), is a segmented epiphytic cactus with cascading, thin, cylindric stems that bear small greenish-white flowers throughout the year. The flowers are followed by round, fleshy, translucent white, pink or red berries that attract birds. In nature it grows on trees and rocks in evergreen forests from the Eastern Cape to tropical Africa. In gardens Rhipsalis is usually seen in hanging baskets and it does well in a dappled shade position. Its natural habitat can also be imitated when planted in the fork of a tree in leaf mould or compost. An unusual but effective use for Rhipsalis is that of a groundcover planted under trees. It becomes a dense mass of small branches and the yellow-green colouring makes this an attractive groundcover.
The ability of succulents to survive when left unattended for a considerable period of time is one of the reasons why these plants are so suitable for house decoration. It is possible to go away and leave them for a week or more without water and on returning find them still flourishing.
In addition to the ability of many succulents to withstand considerable neglect, there are some other reasons why they are growing in popularity. The contemporary symmetrical shapes and geometrical patterns of various succulents blend in well with modern architecture and interior decorating. Many large succulents like Aloe barberae (Tree Aloe), Aloe arborescense( Krantz Aloe), Euphorbia ingens (Naboom) and others can be used with great success as striking focal points.
Besides the bigger succulents, a very large number of small to miniature species are available that appeals to man’s collecting instinct. Particularly children are fascinated by these tiny plants and some become quite expert growers before they reach their teens. This interest in succulents often continue and the acquisition of a rare specimen gives the seasoned collector great satisfaction.
Many succulents are so easily propagated by leaves or stems cuttings that bits are given away by people growing them. In this way a new enthusiast may be born. Most succulents should not be grown in full hot sun as the general belief is. Vast areas of the Karroo are covered with low-growing bushes under which many succulents are found. It is under these bushes that they receive shade from the burning sun. In our gardens we should treat succulents with care and give them the conditions they need to grow to their optimum.
Do make the time to attend the Succulent Society Show on 2 and 3 July at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden in Malcolm Street, Poortview where many strange looking plants with wonderful adaptations to survive their harsh world will be displayed and sold. Many members will make some of their precious plants available and Random Harvest @ the Garden will also be taking part in the event. For more information on plants available phone Suzette at 011-958-1750 or 0833309751. Phone Maddy of the Succulent Society for information about the Show at 0823363042.