A Salute to Succulents

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

It's bloomin' January in my Oak Park living room now.

And, that was my aim, especially in light of the recent record-breaking snow and temps.  

My living oasis from all of that has been an indoor container garden of windowsill succulents  --  those texturally interesting and seasonally perky desert flowers that for me have proven to be easy to grow and fun to propagate. These plants' palette of color range from blue-green, chartreuse, pink, red, yellow, white, burgundy, almost black, variegated and so on.  Leaves run the gamut from being rounded, needle-like or looking like berries, to ruffled or spiky...plus sometimes soft to the touch, even cacti.     

And, in season, some of them bloom. 


But before I dig into all that, remember this: all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

To understand that bit of gardening biz is to embrace this addictive plant hobby. 

I first fell in love with a range of these plants when I realized little else would survive in my limited light interior growing conditions.  I really became enamored with the world of water-retaining pricklies on car and train trips into the southwest, especially New Mexico, and particularly Taos and Sante Fe. 

However, my avocation set in after spending time volunteering at Garfield Park Conservatory in its Desert House helping the succulent and cacti guru, Ray, rebound after the destructive hail storm in 2011.

What I learned there from other desert plant enthusiasts was that plant folk who grow succulents have their favorites, as do I.

I am only going to highlight a few of them for now, just because.

For starters, let's just say agaves and euphorbias, and leave it at that. 

Then, Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), for me, is now in its third bloom this winter.  It is very pretty in pink. 

Dwarf Burro's Tail (Sedum burrito), I recently picked up from Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago.  As recommended, it is in a hanging basket.

Now, here's my full disclosure:  I do shop local, but the trip into Chicago for me is always a worthwhile adventure, as is a road trip to Ted's Greenhouse in Tinley Park, for a good selection of these, and other plants I grow as an edible and native plant gardener. 

For me, these two plant places are a mecca, as is the upcoming Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which opens at Navy Pier in mid-March. 

Locally, though, I did purchase my Medicine Plant (Aloe vera).  It's a common gardener go-to, and in my house is surprisingly resilient in lieu of the wounds our two curious cats inflict on it. 

One of my latest additions has been a cactus in the genus Parodia.  It was recommended to me as a great starter choice, and it was.  I am waiting for it to bloom, hopefully this Spring.

Regardless, though, these kinda little – or sometimes very big – heady houseplants look stunning planted alone or as companions in a container or terrarium. 

Here's another note to gardeners, or wannabes: While some succulents have somewhat exacting care requirements, most are easy to grow because they evolved with special water-storage tissues that allow them to survive in environments that are too dry for most other plants.  However, they do all prefer a fast-draining potting medium that's not watered too often, so allow the soil to dry out between waterings, various plant experts note. 

Grow them year-round.  But, do keep in mind, as this source suggests, that succulents thoroughly enjoy the dry and warm conditions, and while they like direct light, they can adapt to lower light, which in my home growing environment is a clear slam dunk.

And, to gaze on my desert blooms in the teeth of a snowy, subzero freeze is oh so dreamy. 


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