In these water-wise times, we have been urged to look to succulents as an answer for our dry gardens, as these plants have the ability to survive drought by adaptive mechanisms in their stems and leaves. And the foliage effects that this group of plants can provide are truly fantastic. But what about those of us who still yearn for flowers? The blooms of many succulent species are often insignificant, boring, bizarre or downright hideous.
Luckily, some succulents do have attractive flowers, many appearing in late winter and spring, giving low-maintenance colour and interest, either in pots or in the garden. I enjoy the interesting fleshy texture of these flowers and the fact that they are usually in bloom for ages.
The most eye-catching of all probably belong to the Kalanchoe genus, which contains some really attractive plants. Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (ht 30cm) is often sold as a disposable houseplant, but it is actually a perennial plant for pots or garden beds. It blooms for months, its waxy flowers held in lacy posies, in colours of white, pinks, orange, rust, yellow and various reds. When not in bloom, its rubbery, scalloped-edged leaves are held in neat upward-pointing formations like some sort of horticultural origami. A lightly shaded, well-drained position is ideal, though it seems also to cope with full sun.
Another long-flowering kalanchoe is K. pumila 'Quicksilver'. This one is a more trailing plant (ht 20cm), with stunning silver leaves and pretty mauve-pink flowers. Both these types of Kalanchoe can be grown beneath spring-flowering shrubs or amongst bulbs. Other types have beautiful plump tubular flowers, but seem less robust than the rest and are more suited to life in hanging baskets: these include cerise K. 'Pink Bubbles' and red K. 'Blazing Bells'.
Succulent London pride (Crassula multicava, ht 25cm), which began blooming in late winter is still in flower, with a froth of tiny pink and white starry flowers above rounded chubby leaves. Pigface or ice plants (Lampranthus species, ht 30-45cm, previously known as Mesembryanthemum) are succulent plants from South Africa which produce brilliant daisy-like blooms at this time of year. They love sun and are particularly drought tolerant. Startling neon orange, yellow, red, white, pink and cerise flowered versions can be found of these fringed, many-petalled blooms; some types are groundcovers which can form carpets on dry banks, under taller perennials and shrubs, or spilling over retaining walls; others form small mounded shrubs.
Another genus of succulents with brilliant inflorescences in late winter and spring is Euphorbia. Over the years I have had mixed success with some of the species which I had drooled over in English gardening books, but I have had good luck with Euphorbia characias subspecies wulfenii, a shrubby perennial growing to around 1m, with long-lasting chartreuse bracts in late winter and spring. Euphorbia coralloides, regarded by many gardeners as a naughty weed, is an annual form that has the same superb colour in its bracts. It self-seeds madly, but it is not hard to remove the excess seedlings.
A couple of new Euphorbia cultivars have come onto the scene recently: E. x martinii 'Ascot Rainbow' (ht 90cm) has lovely variegated gold and blue-green leaves and gold and green bracts, whilst E. characias 'Silver Swan' (ht 50cm) has green and white variegated leaves and white bracts.
Another species, E. milii (ht to 1m), also blooms now, with a mass or scarlet, pale yellow or pinkish bracts held amidst highly vicious thorns. It is probably best sited in a pot, amongst other pots of succulents, as it has a sprawling shape that is awkward in a garden. All Euphorbia suit dry, sunny locations.
Though all succulents can tolerate neglect, they do respond gratefully to a bit of care every now and again. Plants should be dead-headed after flowering, and be kept clear of any dead plant material which could cause rotting at their bases. They should be protected from snails, and given a drink during very dry spells. On the whole they are best kept drier in winter. They will love you if you give them an occasional dose of a fertiliser low in nitrogen.
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