Tiptoeing through the succulents

Initially my interest in succulents and cacti (the latter a subset the succulent family) was mostly practical. The soil around here is very poor and rain comes only during a narrow, three- or four-month window; the rest of the year the landscape is bone-dry. Succulents seemed custom made for such harsh conditions, though I quickly discovered, hardly indestructible.

My utilitarian take on succulents quickly gave way to fascination. They can be exotic and contorted, or if you will, downright weird, like nothing found anywhere else in nature. Some have graceful stems crowned with leaves, other are just round stumps. Many are covered with thorns to remind people and animals to stay away, while others have velvety leaves, ready for caressing with the tips of your fingers.

It seems that no matter how many times Stew and I troll the local nurseries for succulents we don’t have, we seldom walk away without yet another specimen we had never seen before—even if it may take months to learn or remember its proper botanical name.

Whatever their quirks, succulents seem to share one memorable trait: Spectacular, delicate flowers most often not at all like the mother plant. Some resemble orchids, other hibiscus blossoms, and most come in bright, sometimes iridescent hues.

One thing I quickly learned about succulents is that despite their gruff, spiny, industrial-strength appearance, it’s possible—and quite easy, actually—to kill them by overwatering and using soil that’s too rich and gooey. I’ve seen barrel cacti ten inches in diameter come down with a case of a creeping rots that consumes the plant from the ground up. And trying to revive an ailing succulent with more water and fertilizer is but a coup de grâce.

Around here I mix, half-and-half, potting soil with a red volcanic rock called tezontle or a white gravel used to make cement blocks.  When in doubt when to water, I’ve found that less is more. A small humidity probe I bought in U.S. for $15 is pretty handy for determining if a plant is dry.

Not all succulents bask in the sun. Some begin showing signs of sunburn if left in the broiling mid-afternoon sun. Félix and I now recognize the early symptoms and move them from the back terrace to the front, under an awning with a plastic sunscreen over it. On the back terrace it can seem like musical chairs as we move pots around.

During the winter—and there is a winter here, not Toronto-style, but cold enough to zap more sensitive succulents—we throw a plastic tarp over the pots, particularly those on the more exposed back terrace, whenever temperatures are expected to drop below freezing. The front patio, protected on all sides by walls, works as a microclimate where succulents can survive cold snaps without protection. Naturally, larger native cacti survive outside on their own.

Two winters ago I made the mistake of “planting out” a number of succulents that I figured could survive the cold outdoors, and killed a bunch of them in the process. Our ranch is perched atop a small hill and the chill winds of January and February can knock out all but the hardy agaves, organ cacti and prickly pears.

It’s been a long learning process that probably I will never master, particularly the botanical names, a challenging task for a mature brain like mine.  A genus like euphorbia can encompass a multitude of succulents that often don’t look anything like each other.

Following are some pictures I took of my mini plantation of succulents over the past couple of days.

I thought these were three peas in a pod, but
the bottom one turned out to be slightly different.
The red stuff on the soil is tezontle. 

I got this arrangement as a gift from my
friend Brianne. It’s three or four
different succulents planted in
the cavity of a volcanic rock. 
Two succulents cohabitating in a
shallow clay bowl, amid river rocks. 

This one is a variation of the so-called 
Old Man Cactus, seen here with a green
 bug navigating carefully, 
—very carefully—through the thin spines. 
This succulent has hardly any leaves.
Instead it has long stems with delicate
flowers that grow at the ends,
pretty much year-round.
Though it might seem like two plants,
this guy is just one stalk with leaves
 growing from the bottom. Wonder 

what it’s going to look like 
when it’s done. 
This one has a piece of rebar holding
it up. The flatter leaves growing
on the upper left-hand corner seem
be a different plant but they are part 

of the same plant. Hmm. 
This happy trio sits on a side table by
the chairs on the terrace. 

This table is the sunniest spot,
getting full afternoon exposure. 
This hanging succulent I got from my friend Lydia.
Several times a year it puts out gigantic flowers
(there’s a bloom about to open on the lower
left-hand corner of the picture) that are as beautiful
 as they are ephemeral, lasting only one or two days.

(See comment from reader Barbara Eckrote)

This mashup contains some succulents
along with four pots of coleus.
This patio in the front, protected by walls on all
four sides, is a shady micro-climate,
accommodating a variety of plants.
A mix of pointy-leaf succulents,
the gray ones being velvety soft.
The lower shelf of the long table is like a nursery,
where I keep tiny succulents getting established.
It’s partly 
sunny. The plant on white pot I bought
at a cactus nursery in the town of Neutla
on the way to Celaya. It’s a Fan Aloe
that’s supposed to be fairly rare. 
This customer looks to me like two
different plants, one plant (with flat,
paddle leaves) sprouting a different plant,
with long thorny arms. Are my succulents,
sitting as they are close to one another,
somehow creating their own hybrids,
maybe by copulating secretly with
their neighbors at night?
Something to think about. 

This is something that I saw somewhere and which
Félix and I recreated. It’s a ball of chicken wire
packed with sphagnum moss, into which cuttings of
different succulents are inserted. When one of
the cuttings dies, we shove in a different one.
Got to keep this arrangement watered,
otherwise it’s curtains.

And that’s all for now folks! 

PS My thanks to Jennifer for her pro bono copy editing, correcting the occassional occasional spelling and grammatical errors in my posts, both in English and Spanish.

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