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Succulents Explained: How to Identify and Grow 12 Favorites

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Succulents Explained: How to Identify and Grow 12 Favorites

January 30, 2020

How are we supposed to keep our succulents alive if we don’t know what kind we’ve got? Too often a plant ID tag at the garden shop says simply “Succulent, Assorted.” It lists no species or hint of how much sun or water to give your little friend with the fat, pillowy leaves.

Identification can be tricky because the word “succulent” is a way of describing a plant, not a formal botanical name for a group of plants. In other words, there’s no single plant family (or genus, or species) called Succulents. Instead, there are thousands of succulent plants in different groups, all sharing some physical characteristics: they store their own water supply (explaining why succulents look so pillowy) and as a result often have thick stems, roots, and leaves.

We’re here to help you make the ID. Here are photos to help identify 12 common succulents that belong to subfamilies of the Crassulaceae plant family (Crassulas, Kalanchoes, and Sedums). We’ve also listed tips to grow your succulents successfully indoors or out.

(Winter is an especially challenging season for houseplants. If yours need pampering, see Succulents: 8 Tips to Help Your Favorite Indoor Plants Survive Winter.)

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

Sedums

From left, sedums to grow indoors or out include red-tinged Sedum rubrotinctum &#8\2\16;Pork and Beans&#8\2\17;, non-red-tinged Sedum rubrotinctum &#8\2\16;Pork and Beans&#8\2\17;, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Stonecrop &#8\2\16;Golden Glow&#8\2\17; (in the black bowl), and Sedum &#8\2\16;Lime Gold&#8\2\17;.
Above: From left, sedums to grow indoors or out include red-tinged Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Pork and Beans’, non-red-tinged Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Pork and Beans’, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Stonecrop ‘Golden Glow’ (in the black bowl), and Sedum ‘Lime Gold’.

How to identify sedums:

We chose these five sedums to photograph as a group to make a point: none of them looks like each other, including two (the ‘Pork and Beans’ plants on the left) that are identical cultivars. With several hundred species of Sedum, the cultivars come in many shapes, sizes, and color. Shrubs, ground covers, houseplants, flowering perennials: there are sedums that fit into all those categories.

Is your succulent plant a sedum? If so, it:

  • Flowers.
  • Has five-petaled flowers.
  • Never gets woody stems.
  • Is perennial.
Don&#8\2\17;t over-water burro&#8\2\17;s tail (Sedum morganianum) or it will rot. Don&#8\2\17;t jostle it because its leaves fall off easily. Other than that, easy plant to grow: partial sun, cool temperatures, well-drained soil.
Above: Don’t over-water burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) or it will rot. Don’t jostle it because its leaves fall off easily. Other than that, easy plant to grow: partial sun, cool temperatures, well-drained soil.

The sedums we chose have one thing in common: they’ll all survive indoors as well as out if you give them the growing conditions they like.

Sedum &#8\2\16;Angelina&#8\2\17; yearns to be free (it is happiest as a ground cover in the garden). See more about sedums in Stonecrops \10\1: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.
Above: Sedum ‘Angelina’ yearns to be free (it is happiest as a ground cover in the garden). See more about sedums in Stonecrops 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

How to grow sedums indoors: 

  • Pot sedums in cactus mix to add drainage and water sedums once or twice a month.
  • Set sedums in a spot with filtered sun (direct sun can burn their leaves).
  • Sedum foliage color can range from silvery blue to deep green to burgundy. Sedums with blue, gray, and purple leaves belong outdoors; succulents with bright green leaves are likelier to thrive as houseplants. See more on this subject at 9 Secrets to Growing Succulent Plants Indoors.

How to grow sedums in a garden:

  • If you live in USDA growing zones 5-9, you’ll be able to grow sedums as perennial ground covers, shrubs, and flowering plants.
  • Plant sedums in flower beds (at the front of the border if they’re creepers, and mixed with ornamental grasses and late-season perennials if they’re taller or shrubbier).
  • Drought-tolerant sedums will thrive in sun or partial shade (the amount of sunlight may affect leaf color—see ‘Pork and Beans’ above for an example—and need well-drained soil.

Crassulas

Above: Crassulas keeping company with the burro’s tail include, from left, Crassula lactea, Crassula ovata ‘Ogre Ears’, Crassula marginalis rubra ‘Variegata’, and Crassula perforata ‘String of Buttons’.

How to identify crassulas:

The most famous houseplant in the Crassula genus is the jade plant, Crassula ovata. Here we’ve pictured a jade plant— ‘Ogre Ears’, a variety of jade plant you see less often. Many crassulas form tidy clumps and larger shrubs can develop woody stems over time.  With hundreds of species of Crassula, cultivars’ characteristics can range from tiny to tree-like.

Is your succulent plant a Crassula? If so, it:

  • Flowers.
  • Has thick leaves.
  • Has a five-petaled calyx, with symmetrical petals that are distinct from one another.
  • May have woody stems.
  • May die after flowering.
You can propagate most succulents easily by rooting their leaves in soil (it is generally easier to get a new plant to root if you start with a cutting that has several leaves). See more in DIY: Root Succulents from Leaves.
Above: You can propagate most succulents easily by rooting their leaves in soil (it is generally easier to get a new plant to root if you start with a cutting that has several leaves). See more in DIY: Root Succulents from Leaves.

How to grow crassulas indoors:

  • If you’re new to houseplants, a jade plant (Crassula ovata) is a good choice for first-timers. It’s tough as nails: put it in filtered sunlight and forget about it. Every month water it once, thoroughly (stop when you see water to run out the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot).
  • Pot crassulas in cactus mix or sandy soil.
  • Find a sunny spot that’s not too hot (you don’t want to burn their leaves) A windowsill with a southern exposure is a good choice.
  • In hot months, when crassulas go dormant don’t worry. Keep watering them once a month and wait for cooler weather to perk them up.

How to grow crassulas in a garden:

  • Crassulas like warmth. If you live in USDA growing zones 9 or 10, yours will live happily in the garden all year. Otherwise bring it indoors in winter months.
  • Crassulas prefer sandy, acidic soil.
  • As they grow, crassulas can become top heavy and prone to tip over. Stake for support if necessary.
  • See more tips in Crassulas 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.
Crassula ovata &#8\2\16;Ogre Ears&#8\2\17; does resemble Shrek if you look closely.
Above: Crassula ovata ‘Ogre Ears’ does resemble Shrek if you look closely.

Kalanchoes

Kalanchoes don&#8\2\17;t look at all like each other, do they? From left, Kalanchoe Tomentosa (the panda plant), Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, and Kalanchoe luciae &#8\2\16;Flapjacks&#8\2\17;.
Above: Kalanchoes don’t look at all like each other, do they? From left, Kalanchoe Tomentosa (the panda plant), Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, and Kalanchoe luciae ‘Flapjacks’.

How to identify kalanchoes: At home in tropical or semi-tropical climates (most kalanchoes hail from Madagascar or Africa), kalanchoes are bred mainly as houseplant in the US. The best-known is Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, also known as Christmas kalanchoe, which as you can see above can be coaxed to burst into bloom in winter—with flowers that will last as long as three months. Of about 200 known species, many kalanchoes have beautiful foliage and are grown as ornamental houseplants in colder climates.

Is your succulent plant a kalanchoe? If so, it:

  • May have clusters of flowers.
  • May form “plant-let” offshoots on its leaves.
  • May have fuzzy silver leaves, pink-edged leaves, or bright pink flowers.
Kalanchoe &#8\2\16;Flapjacks&#8\2\17; looks like it&#8\2\17;s wearing lipstick.
Above: Kalanchoe ‘Flapjacks’ looks like it’s wearing lipstick.

How to grow kalanchoes indoors:

  • Put pots of kalanchoes in a bright spot and let them dry out before watering.
  • Watch out for mealybugs on Christmas kalanchoe. These tiny, white-bodied insects look like bits of fuzz on leaves. To get rid of them, see Succulents: 8 Tips to Help Your Favorite Indoor Plants Survive Winter.
  • Cut back a Christmas kalanchoe after it blooms; it will send up more flowers in a few months.

How to grow kalanchoes outdoors:

  • If you live in a warm climate (USDA growing zones 10-11), your kalanchoes will live through the winter in your garden. Otherwise, bring them indoors during cold months.
  • Drought-tolerant kalanchoes don’t need your to water them in a garden.
  • Kalanchoes are happy in sandy soil, gravel gardens, and rock gardens.
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana has been a popular holiday season houseplant in the US (second only to the poinsettia) since the \1930s, when growers began importing it from South Africa.
Above: Kalanchoe blossfeldiana has been a popular holiday season houseplant in the US (second only to the poinsettia) since the 1930s, when growers began importing it from South Africa.

Coming Next…

So many succulents, so little time.
Above: So many succulents, so little time.

..we’ll be covering more types of succulents in our Succulents Explained series. Later this month we’ll have posts on Sempervivums and Graptosedums.

In the meantime, we’ve got succulents covered. See more tips, tricks…and the occasional love poem devoted to our favorite succulents:

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