April 27, 2009

Succulent Love

In a garden or greenhouse, on a windowsill or between patio pavers, succulents hold an irresistible attraction. They draw us to them, stop us in our tracks, detain us in spellbound, contemplative fascination of their strange beauty. The secret of succulent seduction lies in their droll physical forms. More than any other plant type, their wildly diverse and numerous varieties assume singular forms that embody drama and sculptural silhouettes, humor and mysterious textures, delicate color and bizarre, other-worldly skins. Succulents radiate an ambience of sand dune warmth, they conjure shimmery images of armadillos, burros, salt flats, palm trees. Even their name is alluring, sexy – the soft sibilant beginning, the sultry depths of the long vowel center, the certainty of the consonant closing.

Although associated instantly in the imagination with the hot and arid environs of the desert, many succulents are cold-hardy and will prosper in Michigan gardens. Hardy succulents are extremely tough characters, well-suited to the strong weather and seasons of the northern Great Lakes region. They revel in annual hard frosts and dormant months as part of their natural cycle. They can shrug off prolonged drought and high heat, doing dandy in temperatures that range into the high 90s. Cold-hardy varieties can ignore downward spirals of the thermometer to depths of -30 fahrenheit, growing as far north as into the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Succulents have no need of water beyond that brought by rain, dew and snow. If anything, they dislike sitting in puddly soil that does not dry out. This makes them ideal plants for the sandy, rocky, quick-draining soil of northwestern Michigan, as well as sturdy, happy occupants of gravel beds, rock gardens and living wreaths. They will cheerfully burgeon in containers with half or less the watering desired by any other plants, and respond to days and weeks of unmitigated sunshine by stretching out in sunbather pleasure. Most are also completely impervious to grazing wildlife, predatory pests, insects and diseases.

The longevity and self-propagating ability of succulents is impressive. Their season lasts from early summer through first nipping of frost. Sempervivums (commonly known as hens and chicks) very name means live forever, and the lovely, symmetrical rosettes of leaves generously pop out offsets (the chicks) to expand and carry on the family ad infinitum into the future. To divide and reproduce any succulent, from a prickly pear to a jade plant to sedums, the entire process involves simply cutting or pinching off a leaf or branch, sticking it in soil, watering it in, stepping back and watching it grow. So tenacious are these plants, if a leaf falls or gets accidentally knocked to the earth, it often will put down root and start growing without any external help whatsoever.

Sempervivums come in over 100 different varietal types, with a spectrum of luscious colors from coolest twilight grey-green to mahogany red. The cobweb species hens and chicks spins a silky web of threads across the rosette heads, giving it a gossamer and tempting veil that beckons touch. The unique texture of succulent skin, whether it be the waxy smoothness of a jade leaf, the sharp thorns of cactus, or the hairy tendrils of a Missouri pincushion, make it a wonderful tactile as well as visual sensation.

Sedum hardy succulents, in addition to the purple emperor and other familiar upright, 2-to-3 foot tall versions, can be found in dwarf, spreading, ground-cover styles. Red carpet sedum is a spreader with dark rose to burgundy leaves that keep their color all year long; John Creech has tight, overlapping mint green leaves that form ground-hugging mats with an abundance of pink flowers. Or check out the dragon blood and fuldaglut spurium sedums, or the lavender Vera Jameson sedum, all great ground-covers.

Believe it or not, prickly pear cactus can grow in Michigan gardens, provided one chooses a hardy species such as the purple-fruited, porcupine, or cliff pricky pear, all of which have naturalized into southern Canada. The spineless hedgehog, claret cut and mountain ball are other cacti suitable for cold climate gardens. Opuntias, variegated yuccas with their sedge-like leaf blades, and hardy agaves are succulent genus members who can handle all four seasons without breaking a sweat or catching chillblanes. To learn more about north country succulents, a fine and thorough book is “Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate,” by Gwen Kelaidis, from Storey Publishing. Or visit a nice website at www.cactiguide.com, or tour a mail-order succulent nursery at www.simplysucculents.com

There is an old country tradition of grandparents giving sempervivum chicks to their grandchildren, to carry on new plant generations with the new family generations. The tradition may have arisen because hens and chicks were fairly common to many country households, or because growing-on the chicks is so easy it really can be done by a young child. However it began, hardy succulents make relaxed, low-maintenance, witty and hilarious, theatrical and entertaining extended family members both indoors and out, in a clay pot or broadcast across the yard.

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