Succulents are hardy, drought-resistant plants that are easy to grow, no matter how experienced a gardener you are. There are 50 succulent families with more than 10,000 types, in addition to new hybrid species popping up every day.
This can make identifying a mystery succulent pretty tough. But by examining key features of your plant, you can figure out what type of succulent you’ve been growing so you’ll know the best way to care for it.
Succulents are renowned for their vast numbers of beautiful foliage shapes. Many varieties — aeonium, sempervivum, and graptopetalum, for instance — produce fleshy leaves that form colorful, stunning rosettes. Others grow oval, pointy, or strap-shaped leaves, or pointy leaves that grow upward in a slight, elegant curve, like the snake plant.
Certain types of echeveria produce leaves with wavy edges, but some shapes are even more unique. The heart-shaped leaves of the kitten plant and the plumped leaves of the jelly bean plant are among the most unusual and attractive leaf types.
The color of your succulent’s leaves, stems, or blooms can be a clue not only to what type of plant it is but also to its environment and health. Colorful varieties, like the deep burgundy zwartkop, the deep red desert cabbage, or the light blue leatherpetal, are visually striking, making them favorites within succulent growing communities.
Green succulents — watch chain, crinkle-leaf plants, and crassulas — generally grow only in shades of green and thrive in low-light situations.
When people picture a cactus, they usually think of its spikes first. Although all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are not cacti. Generally, cacti have few to no leaves. Unlike other succulents, they have rounded indentations along their stems called areoles.
Some succulents have no leaves at all, just sharp, pointed structures called spines. Aloe is an example of succulents that have both — leaves with spikes along both sides. If you see hummingbirds circling the yellow blooms of your agave plant, chances are, it’s a smooth agave.
Succulents are usually slow growers. They may be low-growing, like the roseum or the pebble plant. Others, such as the agave, can reach heights of between two and five feet tall. The smaller succulent varieties include graptopetalum and graptosedum, however, the smallest is a tiny cactus, Blossfeldia liliputana, which reaches only an inch in diameter.
Shrub-like succulents include portulacaria, shrubby ice plants, shrubby stonecrops, and the coral pemphis. They grow tall and wide and have strong stems like any other shrub.
Succulent leaves may also be variegated or grow bumps as they mature. Echeveria "Compton Carousel" is a beautiful example of a variegated hens-and-chicks succulent. The soft grayish-blue leaves have creamy white edges and a light pink hue at the tips.
Bumps on leaves can indicate a mealybug infestation, but healthy succulent species can also develop raised places on their leaves. The Echeveria "Bumps" grows bumpy-leaved rosettes. The wavy-edged, spoon-shaped foliage changes along with the seasons, from green to silver to red.
Examining the stem of your succulent provides additional clues as to what type it is. Stems can be fleshy, thick, slender, or woody. Some species of succulents are stemless. A few varieties naturally grow long stems, but for others, it’s a sign of inadequate light.
Blooming succulents fall into one of two categories: polycarpic or monocarpic. Polycarpic succulents bloom every year, usually in the spring, early summer, or autumn. Echeveria, tiger jaws, and hoya, or “Hindu rope,” are polycarpic species. Two types, haworthia and gasteria, can even develop flowers in the shade.
Monocarpic succulents produce flowers once, then die. The most popular type is the sempervivum, or “hens and chicks.” Every cactus can bloom, too, although it may take years. Parodia and notocactus are exceptions to the slow-paced cacti flowering rule because they often bloom fast and furious.
If you see tiny hairs along a succulent’s leaf margins, these are ciliate hairs, which collect dew and moisture for the plant in arid habitats. Sempervivums have ciliate hairs, but few echeverias do.
Trichomes are fuzzy structures that grow on the outer layer of the leaves and stems and protect the plant against sunburn, moisture loss, pests, and fungal infections. It’s these trichomes that make panda plants, copper spoons, elephant ears, bear paws, and ruby slippers feel velvety to the touch.
If you see a whitish, waxy coating or cloudy film on a succulent’s stems and leaves, it’s likely epicuticular wax. This substance causes water to bead off of the plant and prevents it from losing moisture to the air.
Succulents with bluish-gray or green leaves generally have a more pronounced epicuticular wax. The hybrid plant, Echeveria "Perle von Nurnberg," is known for its prevalent wax buildup. The gray-green, red-edged leaves of the Kalanchoe "Thyrsiflora," or paddle plant, also tends to produce a coating of epicuticular wax on its leaves.
Burro’s tail, string of bananas, turtle vine, wax plant, ruby necklace, and string of pearls are trailing succulents that you might see in hanging planters. The long stems of these plants cascade over the edges of their pot as they develop.
Succulents can also be evergreen or deciduous. Evergreen succulents keep their leaves year-round, while deciduous succulents, such as the bunny succulent, lose their leaves in autumn and grow new ones in the spring.