Succulents in their natural environment

Aside from Antarctica, succulent plants are found on all continents. The driest continent, Australia, has surprisingly few native succulents, largely because of its history of prolonged droughts. At first this seems illogical since succulents have an adaptation to dry periods. They do, but only to short, predictable dry seasons, not the prolonged dry spells characteristic of parts of inland Australia.

The continent with the greatest number of succulents is Africa. Again, we see almost no succulents in the driest area, the Sahara desert, while the southernmost west coast of South Africa has the greatest number of species. This area has mild dry summers but experiences a definite and regular wet season every year. The eastern areas of South Africa also have many succulents and these experience the opposite and more common climate conditions, having a dry winter and a welter summer. The cactus family of succulents from the Americas are also mostly from areas with regular summer wet seasons. However, there are some exceptions to this generalisation.

The true deserts of the world are mostly barren, even of succulents. Semi-deserts however, are not as arid and may have regular, yearly rain patterns, and often have regular flooding for short periods.

? Gardens with succulents have often been designed to represent a stylized version of their natural habitat. This gives the impression to those who are not familiar with succulents in habitat that they grow as thickly and lushly as seen here. What gardens like this prove is that most succulents will still grow in a humid and wet climate very unlike their own natural environment.

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Succulents abound here because it is still too dry for forests or grasslands to exist, both of which offer too much competition to succulents for light and space.

Succulents that come from areas with wet climates grow in special dry environments within forests, on cliffs, on rock outcrops or in areas of very infertile soil where other plants have a difficult time thriving. Such areas range from the European Alps to cold, wind-swept Patagonia as well as the steaming tropics of South America, Africa and Asia. This diversity of habitat and environment makes it difficult to make sweeping generalizations on succulent care.

After visiting many habitats where succulents grow naturally, we found that within the natural range of succulents the poorest surviving specimens are often in the hottest and driest locations, whereas the more attractive and healthier specimens appear to grow in places where more water and better soil are available.

Do not try to grow succulents in the same way as you assume that they survive in nature. It is almost impossible to replicate their environment and not desirable for the plants. Understanding their native climate and environment does however have some benefits. Most important is to know when succulents have their growing season and when they are dormant (whether they are winter or summer growers). Some succulents require a definite rest from being watered during their dormant period but most species are not so fussy and will adjust to the regular growing patterns of other plants in the garden, resting in winter or the colder months, and growing in the warmer months. Also to be learnt from habitat is whether succulents come from hot or cold climates, very dry or wetter climates, experience frosts or are tropical and can be grown year round.

Succulent Plants Natural Environment

4 Natural gardens seldom look as stereotypical as this view taken in the Atacama desert of Chile. This hyper-arid desert is 99% devoid of life with only a narrow coastal strip supporting sparse vegetation. This photograph was taken in one of the most 'lush' oases! ç After rain in the Atacama desen, succulent Calandrinia species quickly germinate. This plant is actual size.

4 Natural gardens seldom look as stereotypical as this view taken in the Atacama desert of Chile. This hyper-arid desert is 99% devoid of life with only a narrow coastal strip supporting sparse vegetation. This photograph was taken in one of the most 'lush' oases! ç After rain in the Atacama desen, succulent Calandrinia species quickly germinate. This plant is actual size.

Natural EnvironmentSucculents Their Natural Habitat

1 Mists rolling in from the Pacific Ocean provide enough moisture to allow succulents to survive on the coastal edge of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

V This stark, almost totally biologically empty section of the Namib desert is home to the strange looking Welwitchia mirahilis. This plant is not a succulent, instead ii obtains its water from very deep down in the gravelly soils. With very few exceptions, succulents find all desert habitats too hot and dry.

« Aloe pillansii, growing on a low hill south of the Orange River in coastal South Africa. While the low valleys are almost devoid of life, the hilltops receive just enough mist and fog to support succulent growth. These ancient and now deteriorating giants are the remains of a once extensive 'forest' which grew in this desert when it had a welter

►► A typical habitat for succulents which is characterized by a covering of low sparse shrubs. Note how the cactus (and also various succulent species) grow in the shelter of the shrubs. Here they receive some shade and also benefit from any light rain which runs down the stems of the shrubs.

Succulent Plants Natural Environment

Aloe khamiesensis growing in the western Cape Province of South Africa. This species grows mostly on rocky outcrops. This is because the flat areas seen behind the aloes are covered by a dense shrub cover which is prone to wildfires. Damaging winter frosts also are quite severe on the flatter slopes. This area of South Africa is home to over 1000 species of succulent plants but they are not uniformly scattered over the countryside. Instead, the great majority are clustered in favourable habitats such as rocky slopes and southwest facing hillsides (where they are more exposed to the prevailing coastal mists).

X High mountains are not initially thought of as places where succulents thrive. In drier regions, such as here in inland Peru, the rainfall is extremely low and competition from other plants is also low. These factors have allowed some succulents, such as the giant Puya raimondii, pictured here, to thrive and grow to huge proportions. The flower spikes are over 6 m (all■ The altitude of this site is over 5000 m and almost every night of the year there is a frost.

Succulent Plants Natural Environment

►► Rainforests can also have dry places. Located in southern Brazil, this north facing cliff face is home 10 a wide assortment of succulents which find the abundant sunlighi, air movement, good drainage, regular waterings and lack of competition ideal. If all of these conditions can be replicated in our gardens. the result will be rapid, healthy growth.

Agave bracleosa growing on a cliff face in Mexico. This thornless species normally grows in soil but will access any surface which provides it with enough nutrients, support and water. The advantage of growing here is obvious-no competition!

S Rocky environments in moist habitats are often very rich in succulent species. Here, an Echcveria species grows on a mossy and lichen encrusted rock face in Peru. Normally, mosses and succulents are not thought of as sharing the same environment but in this case they both benefit from shade and a mostly damp environment. The related sedums and sempervivums (also in the Crassula family) all come from windy, mountainous and often cool climates.

Succulents NatureSouth Argentina SucculentsLguacu Falls

« Succulents grow well when supplied with abundant water. In the hills above Marathon, Texas, an Agave harvardiana is growing right alongside a seasonal seepage. Note how the lush background vegetation indicates that this a relatively moist environment during the summer rainy season. During the dry season, the shrubs and small trees become deciduous but this agave will continue to look spectacular.

? A very unlikely habitat for succulents? Not at all! Even the area around lguacu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border supports more species of succulents than most true desert environments. The rocky outcrops on the left are home to a number of species which thrive in the windy but moist waterfall environment. For a short period during the dry season the falls reduce in volume and this rocky environment becomes too dry for other plants, allowing succulents to dominate in what would otherwise be a rainforest habitat.

►► With rice growing in the valley, this Madagascar habitat is anything but dry. Rocky outcrops, however, dry very quickly even during rainy periods. The bare rocks in the foreground have just enough soil in their cracks to support Euphorbia milii ('crown of thorns'). The bare areas in the background are home to at least nine other succulent species including aloes, kalanchoes and pachy-podiums.

9 Trichocereus pasacana growing in a seasonal watercourse in Argentina. These giants of the cactus world are over 10 m tall. They thrive best on the relatively moist but well draining gravelly soil in the valley. Note how the drier hillsides are devoid of this species.

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