It’s official – spring is here! The longer and warmer days mean that some of our favorite succulents are coming out of their wintertime dormancy, put on some beautiful new growth, and with any luck, grace us with some truly gorgeous blooms! Unlike the ever-popular holiday cacti, which are native to rainforest environments and need long nights and cool temperatures to form their buds, most succulents and cacti wait for the lengthening, warmer days of spring to begin setting their flower stalks. By making sure that these plants receive the care that they need, when they need it, we can set them up for an especially successful (and beautiful) growing season. So let’s dive right in to a few of our springtime favorites!
Aloe are part of a vastly diverse genus of succulents including over 250 species, the wild varieties of which are capable of living for up to a century! That very resilience makes them great candidates for succulent newbies, as they can manage to survive, and even thrive, in less than perfect conditions. However, if we want to coax these beauties to bloom, we have to ramp up our care game, tailored to their unique needs.
Emerging from dormancy in the early spring, Aloe are considered “tender succulents,” as are many of the plants we will talk about here, which means that they are not capable of living outdoors year-round below a USDA Growing Zone 9. That said, they can thrive outdoors in the summertime in even the most temperate areas, provided that night time temperatures are consistently above the 50 degree range. In fact, placing Aloe outside when possible can help ensure that they receive the bright light that they need – and “sun stress,” or sun exposure beyond a plant’s most basic requirements, can cause aloes to flush beautiful hues of yellow or orange! Be careful however, to make this transition slowly, as a little extra sun can create a gorgeous, “well-stressed” plant, while too much can cause the leaves to brown and dry out from sunburn.
In addition to finding an adequately sunny and warm spot for your Aloe to take on the growing season, it is also imperative to provide the right moisture conditions. The leaves of an Aloe plant are very “talkative,” and will feel firm and full when the plant is well watered, and then soften when the plant needs a good drink. A heavy pot is also critical to help prevent these notoriously top-heavy plants from tipping over and damaging their leaves, or worse! Aloe self-propagate by producing “pups” around the base of the parent plant, which can be carefully removed to root new Aloe plants, or left in place to allow a single pot of Aloe to become extremely robust in appearance. I have a 10-year-old Aloe that I have allowed to grow in this way, and it is a total showstopper, so full that I can barely fit my arms around it!
Though it can be difficult to convince an indoor Aloe to do so, these incredible plants are capable of producing an inflorescence, or spike of flowers, in stunning shades of bright red or yellow – and as these plants actively begin their growing season in the spring, now is the time to attempt such a feat! Ensuring that your plant receives ample sunlight and thorough but infrequent watering in the spring/summer months, contrasted with a fall/winter dormancy period with less direct sunlight, more infrequent waterings, and a cooler temperature between 55-70 degrees, can up your chances of being the proud parent of a blooming Aloe!
With their stunning rosette of leaves, Echeveria are understandably some of the best ambassadors to the wonderful world of succulents. Over 150 species represent this genus, which is native to Mexico and Central America. Like the Aloe, they are polycarpic, which means that they can produce gorgeous flower stalks multiple times over the lifespan of the plant, and late winter into early spring is the best time to encourage this display!
Echeverias demand very bright light. Of all the succulent varieties, they are the most visibly prone to etiolating, or stretching towards the sun and losing their hallmark rosette shape, if they are not given enough sunshine – especially in the winter months.
To keep your Echeveria’s root system happy and healthy, choose a pot that is slightly wider than the rosette of the plant, or cluster several varieties together in a wider pot to create a beautiful arrangement. Like all succulents, they can be prone to rot – so be sure to water the soil thoroughly only when dry, avoiding pouring the water into the rosette itself.
As Echeveria are largely self-pruning plants, it is not uncommon for old leaves at the base of the plant to die back occasionally – simply remove this old growth for both appearance and to reduce the risk of pests and rot taking hold in your plant. Echeveria can be readily propagated from offsets, leaves, or stem cuttings – or, for the ambitious succulent lover, even started from seed!
Though an Echeveria can happily survive indoors, even the sunniest windowsill may not be bright enough to encourage them to flower – but supplemental light, or time spent outdoors in the warm spring and summer sun, can do the trick. Unlike some succulent varieties whose bloom times are influenced solely by the length of the days, the intensity of the light is also a factor for Echeveria. So slowly amp up the sunshine as the temperatures start to climb, and hopefully you’ll be rewarded with a bloom stalk in short order!
Crassula represent a diverse genus of succulents hailing from South Africa, and come in numerous varieties ranging from the common jade plant to the eye-catching “stacked leaf” crassulas, with their almost unreal appearance. Within this range (are you noticing a trend in how diverse succulents really are?!), their growing habits range from shrubby, with a bonsai-eque appearance with a thicker trunk and architectural stems, to varieties that take on the structure of a groundcover, with a far-reaching but low-growing habit. Indeed, the appearance of a Crassula can tell us a great deal about the care it requires – the thicker the stem, the more tolerant the plant will be of infrequent or even irregular watering, while more delicately-stemmed varieties require more consistent care.
Like their cousins the Aloe, Crassula also have particularly “talkative” leaves that will shrivel when dry and quickly plump back up once hydrated. While many varieties of Crassula can survive in shadier conditions, bright light and the associated “sun stress” really puts on a show in these plants, turning the leaves bright green, shades of yellow and orange, or even deep red, all of which will revert to deep green if placed in a less sunny spot.
With the ideal conditions, Crassula coming out of their winter dormancy will send out dense clusters of unique star-shaped blooms in shades ranging from white to pink to red. It is also worth noting that the extent and size of the blooms varies across cultivars, with some being especially showy while others are more prized for their foliage.
The first and only cactus on our list, Mammillaria represent a genus comprised of at least 275 species, which are commonly referred to as “powder puff” or “pincushion” cacti. Most of the Mammillaria varieties are globose, or round, in shape, and take on their mesmerizing appearance because their spines emerge not from ribs but from raised tubercles, which account for both their unique appearance and their crown-like flowering pattern. Native primarily to the southwestern United States and Mexico, with a few varieties having naturalized into the Carribbean, Mammillaria’s aesthetic appeal is actually grounded in mathematics – the distinct pattern in which their tubercles are arranged is due to the Fibonacci sequence!
Like most cacti, Mammillaria prefer bright light, to the tune of about four hours of direct sunlight each day. Keeping them right by a sunny window is a must, but also has one other benefit as well – the fact that windowsills tend to be slightly cooler than the rest of the room during the winter months will actually help facilitate the dormancy period that these plants need to bloom!
Getting these special plants to do just that is well worth the effort, as the flowers can be fragrant, attractive to pollinators, and sometimes even set small fruits once they are done blooming! If you’ve just brought home a baby Mammillaria, however, don’t be discouraged – only mature plants bloom, which can take several years. In fact, I have one Mammillaria in my home that did not begin to bloom until it reached four years old – and is just now rewarding me with multiple white blooms with the most beautiful pink centers! With these gorgeous blooms, ranging from white to pink or even red, in the balance, it is well worth taking the time to ensure that your Mammillaria is well cared for – great light and deep but infrequent waterings, with a period of cooler temperatures and even more sparse water during the winter dormancy period, will bring you that much closer to enjoying the best that this genus has to offer!
Last but certainly not least, we round out our list of stunning springtime succulents with the incredible Sedum. Ranging from dainty with a trailing habit, to dense with a ground-covering growth pattern, to thick and fleshy leaves with a more upright, clumping habit – there is a Sedum out their for everyone. Some, like the popular “Burro’s Tail” variety, even make show-stopping hanging plants, with trailing stems that have been known to grow up to four feet long!
The huge variety within the genus has another added bonus not shared by many other succulent categories. While there are tender Sedum species that do best as houseplants in most climates, there are also hardy varieties that can be grown directly in the garden soil much farther north than many other succulent types! Regardless of hardiness, Sedum varieties with more colorful leaves all require more sun to maintain that coloration – though the plant will likely survive in lower light, it will lose some of its hallmark vibrancy that likely drew you to it in the first place.
As Sedum break their dormancy, they can begin flowering in winter into early spring – while some bloom more readily, others, like the aforementioned “Burro’s Tail” variety, have much more elusive flowers. All the more reason to master the care of this unique succulent type!
And there you have it, folks! A guide to some of our springtime favorites, which, with any luck, will not only grace you with their gorgeous foliage, but also some beautiful blooms! Like all succulents and cacti, these types all prefer to live in a well-draining pot and like to be watered thoroughly (until the water runs out the bottom) only when dry. Succulent-specific fertilizer can be applied at half-strength dilution a few times throughout the active growing season (but only once those roots have become well-established!) and is completely unnecessary once the plants return to dormancy in the fall.
Good luck, and happy springtime planting!