Other Cactus and Succulent Plant Varieties


The Century Plant

Probably one of the most talked about among succulents for the home is the so-called century plant (Agave americana). It gets its name from the idea that it blooms once every century, which is not really true. It seldom does bloom in cultivation, but that is because of insufficient pot room which cramps the roots and supplies only a small amount of nutrients to the plant itself. The flowers are borne in clusters at the tops of a tall, stout stem and have a weird candelabra-like effect.

Under favorable conditions the century plant flowers about every twenty years. To accomplish this, an abundance of plant food and water is needed. Although this and other agaves come from arid regions of the Americas, they will promptly respond to good treatment in most homes.

The century plant is a good pick for the novice gardener. If you grow it indoors for part of the year, you can set it in the lawn during the summer. Avoid exposing the agave to frosts, though. If stored in a cool, well-lit place during the winter, it will rarely need water. Small agave plants can be grown all winter in the living room, and when warm weather comes they may be used for porch decoration.

The century plants are well adapted as houseplants because of their symmetrical growth pattern. A large century plant will have forty or fifty fleshy leaves, each about three or four feet long and three to four inches across. The leaves gradually taper to a point that is tipped with a very sharp spine. The edges of the leaves also often have a few short spines. They form a large rosette which sits on the ground. The leaves typically are of a light green color but there are several other varieties known as picta, variegata and recurvata. Some of the varieties have a more or less broad yellowy stripe down through the center of the leaf, while in others the leaves are edged with yellow.

Should you be so fortunate as to have a plant flower, do not be surprised that it dies as soon as the seeds mature. This is the plant’s nature. However, the plant may be perpetuated by the numerous suckers which can be found around the base of the original plant.

There are about one hundred and fifty different species of agave out there, varying in size and shape. There is really little difference between them, so unless you’re a botanist you don’t really need to worry about picking a specific species to grow in your home.

The only exception is the Queen Victoria Century Plant (Agave Victoria-regina). The leaves of this plant are short and thick—so thick that sometimes they appear to be three-sided with three more or less well-defined edges having white filaments. The ends of the leaves are blunt but tipped with a short black spine. The leaves are set so close together and so regularly that they form a hemispherical mass. Where the room is limited this is the best plant to grow. The Dirt Doctor Howard Garrett has an interesting site about the Agave Victoria-regina.

Give century plants sandy soil and pot them firmly. If they are planted outdoors during the summer, be sure they are in sufficiently large pots so that when taken up in the fall they will not need repotting.

The University of Arizona has a great website about the century plant.

The Aloes

Next to century plants I believe that the aloes are the most interesting for growing as houseplants. Although there are a large number of species, only a few are in general cultivation, the most common of which is the Barbardoes aloe (Aloe vera). Strange as it may seem it belongs to the same family as our beautiful Easter lily.

The light green leaves are very thick and fleshy and taper gradually to a point which is not tipped with a spine. At a distance the edges look as if they have spines, but the leaves are actually quite soft, pliable and fleshy.

In the late winter months a flower stem about one and a half or two feet long is produced which bears at its top a conical-shaped cluster of yellow flowers. The flower stem reminds you of the flower cluster of the red-hot poker plant (Kniphofia), a close relative. The individual flowers are about one and one-quarter inches long, yellow, and crowded closely together. A single flower lasts only a day or two, but the lower ones open first while the buds of the upper ones are still forming so that one plant will be in flower a while if you care for it properly. There is also an aloe with a red flower, A. sucotrina.

These aloes have one bad habit: when they begin to get of any size they become top-heavy. To overcome this, stake them for several years. If the plant becomes too big for the window garden and yet you do not wish to dispose of it, use it outdoors during the summer and store it during the winter as suggested for century plants. Under this treatment, the plant will probably not flower, though.

The aloes prefer a richer soil than most of the succulents. I have seen them thriving when grown in nothing but garden loam. However, I prefer to give them a soil made up of about three parts sandy loam, and one part gravel. You can also add a little well-decayed compost to give the plants some extra nutrients. If you don’t know much about composting, please see this excellent compost guide.

The University of Maryland has an interesting website on growing aloe for medicinal purposes.

Little Pickles: A Good Basket Plant

The best succulent for a hanging basket is “little pickles” (Othonna capensis). Its leaves are shaped like cucumber pickles, but are only an inch or less long. The flowers are yellow, one-half to three quarters of an inch across and look like dandelion flowers. They only open in the sun but during various season of the year. Each shoot has a flower stalk on the end of it. Little pickles may be reproduced easily by planting pieces of the stem. It does best when given a fairly rich soil, but be careful not to over water it.

The Old-Fashioned “Air Plant”

If you want something interesting to show your friends, grow the so-called “air plant” (Bryophyllum calycinum). The plant itself has little decorative value, and it blooms only about ounce a year. The flowers are reddish green with white spots, and are about two inches long, forming in clusters. The curious thing about this plant is that it will produce a new plant at each indentation. I have seen leaves pinned to a wall or window casing in the house produce four or five new plants.

The Euphorbias

For something unusual, grow one of the euphorbias as a houseplant. It doesn’t make too much difference which one you choose, neriifolia and antiquorum are equally good specimens. The stems are green, fleshy and three or four angled.

Some kinds of euphorbias, like E. neriifolia have a good crop of leaves; other have but few, in which case they look like bare poles, and some have no leaves at all and are very spiny. So much so that you look a second time to see whether they do not belong to the cereus tribe of cactuses.

The crown of thorns (Euphorbia splendens), is covered with short, stout, sharp spines. The young growth is always covered with leaves and the bright red bracts, surrounding the flowers, are in evidence most of the year. In order to keep the plant within bounds it must be trained on a form.

The Fig Marigolds

Another class of plants which will prove very interesting is the fig marigolds (Mesembryanthemum). The leaves of the various species assume very peculiar shapes and the color varies from a light green to a very dark green. Some of the species flower freely, e.g. tricolorum and Pomeridianum, two annuals.

M. cordifolium, var. variegatum, is a half-hardy, variegated form which is well worth growing as an edging for beds in summer or for rockeries.

Apicra, Haworthia, Gasteria

The apicars, haworthias, and gasterias have curiously shaped leaves. Those of the latter are usually strap or tongue shaped, four to six inches long, dark green in color, and covered more or less with small white spots. In all of the gasterias the leaves are produced in two ranks one above the other. In April and May, and sometimes later in the season, a long flower spike is produced on which are scattered red flowers, which are rather interesting but do not make much of a show unless one has a number of plants in flower at the same time, in which case mass them.

The apricas and hawthornias have short leaves, one and a half inches long, roundish, tapering to a point and are arranged in spiral form around a central axis which sometimes is three or four inches tall.

Cotyledon, Echeveria

Another interesting plant which I like to grow is Cotyledon gibbiflora, var. metallica. It has some curiously shaped flowers which are interesting but not showy. Its interest lies in its beautiful purple obovate-spatulate leaves which are sometimes six inches wide and seven inches long. It also forms a big rosette. If you wish to make more plants, break off a leaf at the joint and put it in sand; in a few weeks a bud will develop at the base. I have, however, seen leaves that failed to make a bud. They continued for three or four years to exist simply as rooted leaves.

A good many cotyledons are used during the summer for carpet bedding, but perhaps the most common is C. secunda, var. glauca. This plant is about three inches in diameter and one or two inches high; the flower stalks are always kept pinched out, for the flowers are uninteresting.

Sedums and House Leeks

There are a great many sedums and they are very interesting plants for the home. The showy sedum (S. spectabile) and the live-for-ever (S. telephium), are two that are hardy and can be successfully grown outdoors as well as in the house.

The most common sedum is the stonecrop (S. acre). This is an evergreen and may be used as a hanging plant because the stems will hang down over the sides of the pot, or it may be used in filling window boxes. The leaves are very small (one-quarter of an inch long), but they are crowded closely together on the stems. The foliage is a delightfully bright green and in the variety aureum the shoots are bright yellow in the spring; in the variety elegans the tips and young leaves are a pale silvery color. The sedums are easily propagated by seeds or by the offsets which are freely produced.

The house leeks (Sempervivum) are very similar to the sedums. The most common ones are the common house leek (S. tectorum), and hen-and-chickens (S. globiferum). Like the sedums these are best grown in boxes, but the plants must not be allowed to grow too thickly or they will not flower.

The most interesting one and perhaps the best for growing indoors is the spider web house leek (S. arachnoideum). The leaves, which are short and fat, are borne in rosettes and between the tips of the leaves there are fine, white threads, like a spider’s web. The flowers are bright red and borne on stalks three to five inches high.

Like the sedums the house leeks are easily reproduced by the offsets or even by leaf cutting as suggested for the cotyledon.

Leave a Comment