Succulents for indoor winter growing

Inside the greenhouse at Wavehill, NY

The cold temperatures outside (-40 celsius with the windchill the other day!) make lingering in a warm greenhouse very enticing.  This one is home to a huge selection of succulents and cacti, plants that thrive in hot, dry climates with free-draining and infertile soil.  Both succulents and cacti store water in their leaves and stems, allowing them to survive long periods of drought in their natural environments.

Knowing the origins of the plants we grow, either in our homes or in our gardens, makes cultivating them successfully much easier.  Succulents are perfect plants to grow in a sunny window during the wintertime.

This picture shows a selection of mainly succulents from echeverias to kalanchoes as well as agaves to hawarthias and senecios.  Agaves (commonly known as Century plants and related to yuccas) come in many different shapes and sizes; some have short, broadly shaped fleshy leaves and others, long and thin leaves (like the largest specimen shown here in the terracotta pot).   Most share certain characteristics: that is, sharp points at the tips of their leaves as well as serrated margins and pointy spines.  As a consequence, they are prickly plants to have in the house and you must afford them space so you don’t impale yourself! 

Here are some agaves in their naturally arid habitat with their incredibly tall flower spike!  These plants’ basal foliage is about five feet tall and their flowering spike towers to over ten feet. 

This picture shows a selection of cacti and agaves; the blue-tinged specimen on the ground is probably a variety of Agave victoriae-reginae, named after Queen Victoria around 1875.  Agaves were given that name by the so-called father of botanical taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, in 1753; the word ‘agave’ comes from the Greek agauos, which means ‘of kings and heros’, thus noble or heroic. 

The sight of these majestic specimens as a mass planting outside a Caribbean private residence is truly regal. Encircling your house with these plants would definitely keep the riff-raff out!

Back to smaller plants that you can cultivate indoors …

The plant in the foreground with the cluster of leaves at the top of thick, spiny trunks is a Crown of Thorns plant, known as Euphorbia milii.  Related to the common Christmas plant, the poinsettia, it also exudes a milky sap when cut (or even when a leaf detaches) that can cause dermatitis and is toxic if ingested.  But, it is an unusual and fairly easy plant to cultivate indoors — give it a bit more water than you normally would a cactus and it will retain more of its foliage and flower reliably. 

Although I’m not certain, I believe the plant above with long sprays of narrow, opposite leaves to be the ‘ZZ’ plant, botanically called Zamioculcas zamiifolia (now you know why it has been given that acronym!).  This plant is the ultimate easy grower, requiring very little attention.  It will grow reasonably well in low light, without much water and rarely succumbs to any kind of pest or disease.  The base of the leaves are swollen, a characteristic that tells you they store water, reinforcing their ability to care for themselves.  This is not to say that they won’t enjoy your concern; give them light from all directions, be patient and feed a dilute, natural fertilizer (like seaweed or fish emulsion) during the summer months and this plant will reward you with its graceful form and shiny leaves.  There is a great discussion of the ZZ plant and its cultivation here

If not the ZZ plant, then the other plant that this could be is a form of the cardboard palm, called Zamia furfuracea.  This plant is in the Cycad family, to which the Sago Palm also belongs.  It differs from the ZZ plant in that its leaves are rigid and dry, like cardboard, not smooth and fleshy.  It is a plant with a long history, truly a dinosaur plant, having existed here on earth for many thousands of years. 

Now go back again and look at that picture (above).  The strange, flattened blob that sits on top of a pot and seems to have a few stringy stems coming out of it — that’s a plant!  I’m betting it’s Ibervillea sonorae, or possibly Bowiea volubilis; whatever it is, I’m quite certain it’s such a curiosity that you’ll never find it in a store!

The purple leafed plant in the foreground looks like a variety of kalanchoe, known as Kalanchoe thyrsiflora.  There is a new variety called ‘Copper Haze’, released by Proven Winners that you can see here.  The glaucous colour of the species is equally striking; I noticed my local Home Depot was selling this plant, along with a variety of echeveria, last summer.  I hope customers didn’t expect it to come through the winter, like sedums and sempervivums; they can be grown outdoors in the garden during the summer but are tender and must be taken indoors well before the first hint of frost.

The striking plant with the red rosettes atop short stems is called Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’.  It is considered a ‘choice’ succulent — that is, everybody wants it, including me!  Aeoniums are a bit tough to grow (it figures…) not least of which because if they don’t get enough light, they get very leggy and tend to lean. Plus they require a specific watering routine due to their summer dormancy period.  If you’re really lucky, you can even get it to flower — like this:

Image courtesy: www.succulent-plant.com

The variegated agaves that are shown in the larger photo above are much less hardy outdoors than the solid colour Agave americana, but are good choices for indoor growing.  The variegation can be cream or yellow and it can be in the centre of the leaf (like these specimens) or along the margins.

I leave you with this photo of aloe plants on the dry hillside of the island of St-Martin.  If you’d like an easy succulent that is both attractive and useful medicinally, try this one.  It will soon be spilling out of its pot and reminding you of the tropics.

For more information on succulents online, go to www.succulent-plant.com; this site has a thumbnail image encyclopedia, making it a snap to identify any plant you may have but don’t know what it is.

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