The diversity of South African succulents

With today’s column, we return to our focus on selecting summer-dry plants for seasonal additions to the garden.

Recent columns featured plants native to California, Australia, the Mediterranean Basin, South Africa (perennials), Mexico (perennials), Chile and Mexico (succulents). We are now focusing on succulents native to South Africa.

Succulents can be found on most continents, with the exception of Antarctica (not yet!). While some of these plants survive in very harsh dry areas, they more generally thrive in more normal environments that experience seasonal or cyclical droughts. Succulents have adapted to such an environment by storing moisture in their leaves, stems or roots and easily surviving until the eventual return of the rains.

California gardeners may be most familiar with succulents from neighboring Mexico, but far more succulents come from Africa, with more native succulents than any other continent. The nation of South Africa contains the smallest of the world’s six recognized floral kingdoms, home to 23,420 species of vascular plants, including a huge number of succulents.

In the following paragraphs we describe several of the South African succulents in my garden, selected to suggest the diversity of shapes and sizes of their plants. This series begins with a sampling of various aloes, a genus characterized by its rosette shape.

Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens). This familiar plant grows easily in this zone, reaching 9 feet by 9 feet. Its common name refers to its unbranched inflorescences of coral-red flowers, rising during the winter months two feet above the foliage.

Short-leaved Aloe (Aloe brevifolia). A much smaller plant, this aloe develops clumps of three-inch wide rosettes, with spikes of orange tubular flowers in late spring. It serves as a “filler” plant in the garden.

Soap Aloe (Aloe maculata). This plant was known as A. saponaria, in reference to the soapy foam made from its sap. Its current species name means “speckled”, in reference to the coloring of its leaves. This plant spreads easily through underground suckers.

Spotted Aloe (Aloe ‘Wrasse’). An example of Fantasy Aloe, a colorful miniature plant in Larry Weisel’s Hybrid Fish series. Fantastical aloes, prized by succulent collectors, often have a complex parentage from multiple crosses in search of attractive foliage.

Finger Aloe (orbiculated cotyledon). Despite its common name, this plant is not an Aloe but a Cotyledon, a member of another plant family. It grows 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and in spring produces intriguing clusters of pale orange, bell-shaped flowers that hang 12 to 18 inches tall.

Red Carpet (Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans). This member of the Crassula plant family is a mat-forming plant only a few centimeters tall, with slender stems that start upright and over time spread out laterally and form new shoots emerging from the nodes. Its tiny white flowers look like crowns. This plant is used as a ground cover.

Corncob cactus (Euphorbia mammillaris). This plant does not belong to the Cactus family, but like some other Euphorbias, it resembles a cactus. It grows about 1 foot tall and sprouts new columnar stems from its base.

Hottentot bread (Fockea edulis). An example of a caudiciform plant, it stores moisture in its root (caudex), which can grow up to 2 feet wide and support slender branches up to 12 feet long. The plant can be kept at a small size when containerized. The common name, which refers to the edible root, is considered pejorative when applied to people. The Afrikaans common name “Bergbaroe” might be preferred.

Cow’s Tongue Pactus (Gasteria ‘Little Warty’). This charming succulent, five inches tall and wide, is a hybrid of G. batesiana and G. ‘Old Man Silver’. Its cultivar name refers to the small bumps on the thick green leaves.

Paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora ‘Flapjacks’). This member of the Stonecrop plant family stands 18 inches tall, with a 30 inch spike of fragrant yellow flowers in spring. With sufficient sun exposure, the margins of the leaves turn a showy red.

Pink ice plant (Oscularia deltoides). This plant spreads to a 10 inch tall and 3 foot wide mat with numerous 1 inch lavender pink daisy flowers. It works well as a ground cover and cascades well from a container or other elevated spot.

Elephant food (Portulacaria afra). This plant can be pruned to keep it at a preferred size, but in the wild it can grow up to twelve feet tall, earning its common name. It has pretty reddish-brown stems, half-inch-long emerald green leaves, and tiny pale lavender flowers in summer.

Advance your knowledge

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America resumes its biweekly webinar series with “Succulent Trees – Culture,” at 10 a.m. Saturday. The presenter, Dan Mahr, will follow his previous webinar on succulent trees. To register for this free event, go to

The UC Botanical Garden has announced webinars for January. For more information and to register, go to, click on “Programs & Workshops”, then on “Calendar”. This involves more clicks than expected, but you can do it.

“Opening Reception – Plants Illustrated 2022 The Beauty of Leaves,” 6 p.m. Jan. 14. This virtual gathering celebrates the opening of the 13th Annual Botanical Art Exhibition 2022, “The Beauty of Leaves”.

“Florilegia: From Historical Journeys to Current Renewal,” 10:00 a.m. Jan. 24. This is a paid event.

“Inside the Artist’s Studio: Amber Turner and Maria Cecilia Freeman,” 10 a.m. Jan. 28. This ticketed event features two botanical artists from the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists.

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is Past President of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and the Monterey Bay Iris Society, and UC Master Gardener.

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