Africa’s Succulent Side

by Succulent MarketAug 16, 2021

africa's succulent side


When you think of Africa, what comes to mind? Probably elephants, lions, and zebras — or perhaps vast, windblown plains and tropical rainforests. But what about succulents? Those fascinating, fleshy plants are part of Africa’s culture and history, too! 

In fact, more than 40% of all the world’s succulent plants occur in South Africa. And speaking in numbers, 25% of southern Africa’s plants are succulents. 

This is especially true in Madagascar, that exotic island in the Indian Ocean, just off Africa’s east coast. Just like the kids’ movie with the same name, Madagascar is home to some of the world’s weirdest, wackiest, and most wonderful plants (and yes, animals, too!). Here’s why: For more than 140 million years, Madagascar was totally isolated, so its plant life evolved in ways quite different than those on mainland Africa. As a result, Madagascar teems with dynamic diversity. More than 10,000 native species of plants live there, of which 95% are endemic to Madagascar, meaning they grew naturally nowhere else on earth. 

Maybe these treasured plants survived in Madagascar because they weren’t tromped on or devoured by mainland Africa’s giraffes, elephants, and other grazing herbivores. Or perhaps the succulents’ long-term existence was due to the island’s wide-ranging climate, geography, and geology. Whatever the reasons, sundry succulents not only survived; they thrived! And remarkably, some did so in tropical rainforests while others endured intensely hot, arid regions. 

Over the centuries, these succulents’ seeds naturally and gradually dispersed to other parts of the world. Scientists and explorers, intrigued by the never-seen-before species, also carried some plants and cuttings home for study, propagation, and one-of-a-kind display. 

Fast forward to today. Miraculously, distant relatives of Africa’s native succulents have found the perfect place to call home: your garden or windowsill, some 11,000 miles away!

So which African succulents are now commonplace in America? 

  • JADE PLANT: A hardy, good-looking, easy-to-grow succulent that doubles as a good luck charm for friendship and financial success 
  • ZEBRA PLANT: A dark-leaved beauty that boasts white stripes patterned like its namesake (in full disclosure, some species hail from Africa, others from Brazil)
  • MADAGASCAR PALM: Its deceiving name infers that it’s a palm, but actually it’s a succulent with wicked spines that protect its leaves and water supply from thirsty grazers 
  • MOTHER OF THOUSANDS: Bring on the volunteers with this succulent that develops tiny babes along its leaf edges and then drops them so they can voluntarily root, all on their own 

  • ALOE: One of many African medicinal plants whose soothing qualities span the ages and the continents
  • KALANCHOE: A well-known bloomer that brings year-round joy and color – and bears the honor of being one of the first plants to travel to outer space 

Yep, these six succulents AND MORE are just as mysterious and remarkable as the lands from which they come. So thanks, Africa and Madagascar. We really love your succulent side and all the plants you sent our way!

References: “Guide to Succulents of South Africa” by Scott; “Weekend Gardening” by DIY Network; Wikipedia