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Succulents 101

No longer taking a backseat to more traditional plants, succulents are front and center with homeowners. These water-storing beauties are quickly becoming a favorite, lending to their minimal care and variety of shapes, colors and sizes. They are ideal for every space and situation, and because of the little care they need, every occupation.

What are Succulents?

Succulents are drought-resistant plants that have adapted to dry, arid environments. They store water in their leaves, stems and roots, causing them to appear fleshy. Succulents thrive on neglect and dry soil. Overwatering is a common way to kill a succulent. They can be grown indoors and outdoors and are suitable in any window that receives at least six hours of light.

Benefits of Succulents

These plants can bring more than visual appeal to your home. They are known for improving air quality, their medicinal properties and mental wellness.

Air Quality

Succulents and household plants improve indoor air through a chemical process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a chemical process that takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into the air.

Medicinal Properties

Some varieties, such as aloe, have been used to help with ailments like cuts, burns and stomachaches. Healing properties can be found in the juice and gel of the leaves of the aloe plant.

Mental Wellness

Planting and tending to the care of succulents lowers stress, lowers blood pressure, improves mood and gives a sense of accomplishment.

Succulent Care

Succulents are low maintenance plants and require little attention. They need little amounts of water and fertilizer, but large amounts of sunlight. They are ideal for both indoor and outdoor spaces. Pests are typically not a concern. If mealybugs or scale appear, wipe the plant with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.

Soil

Succulents need good drainage and proper soil. If planting in pots, the containers should have drainage holes at the bottom. Proper drainage prevents root decaying and rotting, as well as other fungal and bacterial issues. If there are no drainage holes, place coarse gravel at the bottom of containers. This creates some drainage; however, excess moisture can still be drawn back into the soil. Ensure that overwatering does not occur, especially in shallow containers.

Pre-bagged succulent growth medium can be purchased at a local hardware or garden store. Similar medium can be created by mixing one part potting soil and one part coarse sand. Fertilize plants only a couple times a year throughout the warmer months by using a household plant fertilizer and diluting it to half the recommended rate. 

Light

Succulents need plenty of light to thrive. If indoors, a bright, sunny windowsill is preferred with at least six hours of direct daylight. Artificial light also can be used to mimic sunlight if the location does not provide adequate natural light.

During the spring and summer, succulents benefit from being outdoors during their growing season. Plants can be transferred to outdoor spaces to liven up patios, decks, porches, etc. Transition plants to the outdoors by placing in a shady place for a few days and slowly move to a sunnier location. Avoid outdoor areas that receive intense, hot sunlight during mid-day. Bring plants back indoors during the fall before the first freeze occurs.

Water

During the active growing season of succulents, plants will need more water. During the spring and summer, watering is typically done once a week. In the winter, plants need watered just to prevent leaves from wilting, typically once every two to three weeks.

Proper watering in containers is achieved by soaking the soil until water is running out of the drainage holes. Water only once soil becomes completely dry. Avoid watering small amounts frequently as this can cause distorted and poor growth of the succulent. Dependent on the variety, watering recommendations may be slightly different,

Certain varieties may require slightly different care, refer to full care instructions for the variety.

Succulent Propagation

Plant propagation is the process of producing a new plant from an existing one. Plants utilize two routes of reproduction: sexual (seeds) and asexual (cuttings/offsets). Succulents can be easily propagated by stem cuttings, leaf cuttings and offsets. These methods of propagation create a clone of the parent plant, resulting in the new plant being genetically identical to the parent.

Offsets

Many succulent varieties reproduce naturally by generating new tissue known as offsets or plantlets. These offsets occur when root tissue forms leaf buds, causing them to sprout at the base of the mother plant. Once the offset plants are big enough to easily handle and have established roots, they can be separated and repotted. A quick test to determine root establishment can be done by gently tugging on the offset – if resistance is felt, roots have formed, and the plant is ready to be repotted. If an offset has not formed roots or has been damaged and broken off the mother plant, it needs to callus before repotting. See section on stem and leaf cuttings for information on callusing succulents. Some varieties of succulents, such as Pink Butterfly Kalanchoe, will produce offsets on the margins of leaves (see photo below).

Succulent offsets.

Stem and Leaf Cuttings

Most varieties of succulents can be propagated by leaf and stem cuttings. Leaf cuttings will take longer to mature than a stem cutting.

Stems: Find an actively growing part of the mother plant and cut a section 3 to 4 inches long and remove any lower leaves, leaving the upper foliage.

Leaves: Cut an actively growing leaf from the mother plant. A healthy leaf, one that is fleshy and green, needs to be used to ensure a good result. 

For both stems and leaves, the cuttings need to heal or callus before planting. Allow the cuttings to air dry on a counter for a minimum of four to seven days. Remember to use a sharp knife when cutting to create a clean cut, which will ensure proper callusing. Once the cutting is callused, stick the callused end into a slightly moistened growing medium suitable for succulents. Ensure that the end is not too deep or the cutting will not develop roots and grow.

Suitable medium can be created by mixing either one part potting mix and one part perlite or three parts potting mix, two parts coarse sand and one part perlite. Rooting hormone is optional to expedite rooting, but it is not necessary. Water sparingly throughout the growing process, excessive watering will cause rotting.

Consider potting each individual cutting in small, separate containers to prevent the cuttings from receiving too much moisture. It will take at least a month for cuttings to develop sufficient root growth. Once mature with plenty of root growth, the new plants can be removed and repotted in larger containers and with other succulents or cacti, if desired.

Succulent Varieties

Companion succulents in a container.

It is common to plant several different varieties of succulents in the same container to provide visual appeal. Get creative, but be sure to pair varieties that require similar care, especially water requirements, and have similar growth rates.

Common Varieties

Characteristics

Best Suited for Indoor/Outdoor

Companion Succulents

Sempervivum ‘Hens and Chicks’

Propagates easily and quickly reproduces multiple offspring called “chicks”

Outdoor

Not ideal to pair with other succulents due to quick reproduction

Agave

Typically, a larger plant

Outdoor

Not ideal for companion planting, but will work in landscaping

Echeveria ‘Briar Rose’

Short-stemmed, compact rosettes of pastel greens and pinks; easy to propagate via offsets and leaves

Both, but should be brought inside during the winter

Ideal to companion plant with most other echeveria succulents, small cacti and string varieties

Echeveria ‘Blue Bird’

Rosettes of silver/blue leaves; will stay smaller if offsets are left to cluster; easy to propagate via offsets and leaves 

Both, but should be brought inside during the winter

Ideal to companion plant with most other echeveria succulents, small cacti and string varieties

Echeveria ‘Ruby’ Plush

Shrubby, grows up to 12 inches tall; spreads and branches several feet wide; easily propagated by leaf cuttings

Both, but should be brought inside during the winter

Can be planted with trailing and string varieties

Kalanchoe ‘Pink Butterflies’

Incredibly colorful, cautious light levels; prefers warm temperatures and several hours of daylight

Outdoor

Great for landscapes; pairs well with other outdoor varieties

Aloe

Over 300 different species of aloe available; grown typically for its medicinal purposes

Both

Most cacti varieties

Jade Plant

Can be toxic to cats, dogs, and horses; can be easily propagated by stem/leaf cuttings

Indoor

String of pearls, string of tears and other cascading varieties

String of Pearls

Trailing stems that grow up to 3 feet long, ideal for hanging baskets; if planting in smaller containers, will need to keep short; toxic to animals and children

Both, but should be brought inside during the winter

Ideal to pair up with most other succulents

Snake Plant

Typically, can survive with low light and little water

Indoor

Not ideal for companion planting

There are many, many more variety options, be sure to refer to full care instructions indicated on the label or contact your local nursery. 


Jade plant leaf propagation. Leaf propagation of a Jade plant with the leaflets.

Jade plant. Jade plant. 
String of bananas. String of bananas  plant.

Hen and chicks of a succulent plant.
Hen and chicks.
String of pearls succulent plant.
String of pearls plant.

Tiger jaws faucaria succulent plant.
Tiger jaws faucaria succulent plant.

Authors:

Jesica Streets, WVU Extension Service Agent - Tucker County

Natasha Harris, WVU Extension Service Agent - Upshur County

Jody Carpenter, WVU Extension Service Agent - Barbour and Randolph Counties

Last Reviewed: July 2020


References

Brown, D. L. (2018). Cacti and succulents. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from  https://extension.umn.edu/houseplants/cacti-and-succulents#growing-from-cuttings-1421917

Browse Succulents by Common Name. (2019, December 3). Retrieved June 12, 2020, from  https://worldofsucculents.com/browse-succulents-common-name/

Enroth, C. (2019, June 19). Millennials & Succulents: What is all the hype behind these plump  plants? Retrieved June 15, 2020, from  https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing/2019-06-19-millennials-succulents-what-all-hype-behind-these-plump-plants

Hart, C. (2015, June 04). Propagating Succulents & Cacti. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from  https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/hort-home-landscape/2015-06-04-propagating-succulents-and-cacti

Moore, K., & Bradley, L. (Eds.). (2018). North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook. Place of  publication not identified: UNIV OF NORTH CAROLINA PR.