There was a time when leafy ferns were de rigueur in the domestic bathroom, and many a sorry leaf dropping, brown tinged plant ended its life huddled round the cistern. After that short lived flash of glory, houseplants became the horticultural equivalent of elasticated slacks. It’s taken the surreal, reptilian aesthetic of succulents for plants to barge their way back in. The perfect word to describe succulents would be edgy, but sharp edges are the one thing they tend to lack. Their plump and fleshy leaves retain water, and their rounded stems offer less surface area for moisture to evaporate. In evolutionary terms, you can only admire the succulent. It works its natural advantages as ferociously as an ambitious Broadway understudy. There are literally hundreds of varieties ranging from the beautiful Sedum Matrona, to the frankly hideous Ponytail Palm, but it’s the ground hugging glories of Hens and Chicks, Burro’s Tail, and Cobweb Houseleek that have tap danced their way into our hearts.
There’s an opportunistic quality to succulents. They’ll do anything to get their hands on water, right down to growing little hairs to insulate their leaves from the drying effect of moving air. In fact, succulents are extraordinarily single minded; their raison d’être is to find, obtain, and keep water. They have very shallow roots, so that even the lightest of ground skimming summer showers will provide them with a drink. Like the reptiles they resemble, succulents have thick, leathery, and impervious skin, which, once again, reduces water loss. The succulent also has an extra quality to add to its charms – it’s useful too. This is exemplified not only by the aloe vera, with its rich, soothing juice, but by a whole host of low lying succulents, which offer their services as roof tiles. In arid, sunny climates, succulents make the perfect lid for a building – although planting a succulent roof isn’t a job for the amateur. Drainage and waterproofing are clearly issues to think about, as is the sheer weight of a roof ’s worth of wet soil, moss and moisture retentive plants.
There’s a showiness to the succulent that places it in a league of its own. The consensus seems to be that their extraordinary folds, ripples, bulges, and frills make them highly tactile. I have to confess that their mysterious prehistoric appearance both impresses and alarms me. Every time my hand draws close to their fleshy leaves in fascination, I find that I pull it away, almost involuntarily, within a hair’s breadth of touching them. Knowing what I do about the sheer ingenuity of these extraordinary plants, I suspect that their ability to repel the inquisitive touch is a part of their carefully honed survival instinct. They’re nothing if not smart, after all.