Succulents, Who’s Your Mama?
by Lynn KirkMay 16, 2022
That’s just a clever way of asking, “What plants are in the succulent family?”
Not an easy-to-answer question, for sure! The reason is the word family is a bit misleading when it comes to succulents. There is no one succulent family with easy-to-recognize kinfolk. Instead, succulents are an extended family with 50 to 60 different plant families each claiming at least one succulent relative (a.k.a. succulent species). As a result, the succulent family tree can seem disjointed. Most all members have distinctly diverse forms, sizes, leaves, flowers, and colors. And since most don’t share the same ancestors or hometown roots, they also vary in their growing habits and planting preferences.
Yet, there must be a few commonalities, or they wouldn’t be classified as a succulent, right? That’s where these plants’ unique water-retention abilities come in. The DNA of succulents includes a nifty ability to hold water (actually sappy juice) for future use. That tendency also explains their shared features: special tissues that hold water with ease among plush leaves, stems, and/or roots.
With those basics in mind, back to the original question: “What plants are in the succulent family?” Since the answer totals around 10,000 types, let’s narrow the list.
And by the way, all these are propagated and sold right here in the USA by another family with strong roots: three generations of the Britsch clan who have owned and operated Succulent Market since 1964.You can find their succulents ready-to-order at SucculentMarket.com.
So, here you go … a starter list of “what plants are in the succulent family?”
Aeonium. This succulent genus is a proud member of the Stonecrop family, a rather small clan with only 35 relatives (i.e., species). Aeonium stems from a Greek word meaning ageless or immortal. How apropos since the Aeonium is easy to grow and propagate, plus it can live for years! A unique and colorful woody perennial with intriguing rosettes, the Aeonium’s lineage is equally impressive: primarily the Canary Islands, along with Morocco and Africa.
Aloe. A plant with natural healing powers is kind of magical, don’t you think? But don’t get confused: Not all aloe plants have healing potential. Myriad medicinal values are attributed to the Aloe known as Aloe Vera, perhaps the most well-known and most well-used Aloe in the world. However, there are another 500+ Aloe species! In general, an Aloe is an herbaceous, flowering plant with rosettes. As for the Aloe Vera species, its Arabic origins made it available to the ancient Egyptians and Chinese who applied the sap directly to burns and rashes. We do the same today by using Aloe sap as a primary ingredient in body lotions, soaps, and cosmetics, as well as juice-based beverages, yogurts, and desserts.
Cactus. With close to 2,000 different species, this is the largest group of succulent plants/ The Cactus has long been a symbol of survival since some live up to 200 years even in the harshest of conditions! Cactus thorns (i.e., spines) are actually modified leaves that help protect the plant from predators, such as rodents, birds, bears, insects … and yes, man. Stems are single to multi-pronged, and size is miniature to treelike. Some cactus fruits and pads are delicious, plus nutritious (then again, others are toxic, so make sure you know the difference!). Cactus is considered a “New World” genus because it evolved in South America some 30-million years ago.
Echeveria. The Echeveria succulents encompass hundreds of species, hybrids, and cultivars. And its rainbow of colors mirrors a painter’s palette: soft pastels to deep hues, and traditional grey-greens to burgundy-purples. The plant’s triangular leaves slightly overlap in compactly swirled rosettes that range from a half inch to 20 inches at maturity. While some Echeverias sport smooth waxy leaves, others tout a fuzz-like coating. And for added interest, foliage tips come to a point or round out with crinkled edging. The Echeveria is native to semi-desert areas of Central America, Mexico, and northwestern South America, as well as the southwestern U.S.
Gasteria. No need for direct sunlight for this one! Unlike the Cactus, this plant welcomes indirect light and perhaps some afternoon shade. Gasteria plants are compact and unusual, all in one. Leaf textures vary, but most feel rough or warty to the touch, earning them the nicknames Cow Tongue and Ox Tongue plant. Some species’ leaves look like Aloe, but these boast intriguing colors and patterns. The Gasteria's roots are South Africa, and its name stems from the Latin word "gasltron," which means “pot-bellied vessel.”
Haworthia. The Haworthia packs a punch of beauty in a pretty little package. Though some Haworthias grow a lofty 6 inches tall, others hang with the low life at 2 inches even at maturity. Its translucent, stained-glass foliage begs for a second glance — and it doesn't disappoint. Truly one of a kind! Though an African native, the Haworthia's name actually honors a Brit, botanist Adrian Haworth.
Jade. A downright delightful houseplant, this beauty’s vibrant green coloring resembles the precious gemstone of the same name: jade. In relatively bright light conditions, its leaf tips tinge red, adding to the overall charm. The Jade plant claims kinship with Crassula, a genus with more than 350 species. Mostly enjoyed as a houseplant, it supposedly brings luck to the owner, earning the nickname “Lucky Plant.” A Jade plant can grow into a 6-foot shrub at maturity, or it can be carefully trained and pruned as a bonsai. It originated in the deserts of southern Africa and Mozambique, so it prefers relatively warm and dry living conditions. Since toxic to pets, a Jade plant best placed in hard-to-reach places.
Kalanchoe. This one delivers the tropics to your doorstep! Kalanchoe answers to lots of names, too: Devil's Backbone, Mother-of-Millions, Flaming Katy, Christmas Kalanchoe, and Madagascar Widow's-Thrill. All of its 125+ species of Stonecrops tend to vary in form, flowering, color, and appeal, making it just as magical as its native homelands of Madagascar and tropical Africa. This succulent is deciduous, perennial, and compact. Unfortunately, it’s toxic to cats, dogs, and birds, so careful placement and monitoring are advised.
Peperomia. This is another plant family with tropical succulents in its midst. Native to South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, the hardy Peperomia has more than 1,000 known species! Whatever your fancy, some species’ ornamental foliage probably offers it — from marbled variegation to solid leaves; textured to smooth; and reds and purples to grays and greens. And by the way, you may know its kin as Rubber plant or Happy Bean plant.
Sedum. Popular, plentiful, and prolific, the Sedum is also pleasing, plump, and perennial (in the appropriate environment, that is). With so many diverse forms amid its 600 species, Sedum is used as groundcovers, container plants, and garden focal points. It’s native to both the New and Old Worlds, which might explain its hardiness!
Senecio It’s hard to believe that almost 100 members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) are succulents! Some cascade like flowing water for use in hanging baskets and container plantings (Senecio radicans, commonly called fish hooks or string of bananas). Other Senecios grow pencil-shaped stems (Senecio Stapeliaeformis) or as large shrubs. South Africa is their native home. And beware: They’re toxic to animals.
For close to 60 years, the Britsch family has focused on these diverse succulent families of plants so that you can, too. When you buy from the pros, you buy from the best. So check out what plants are in the succulent family at www.SucculentMarket.com.
Sources: BHG.com. “Some Major Families and Genera of Succulent Plants, by Daniel L. Mahr. The Spruce. Wikipedia.