Saturday, February 5, 2011

Echeverias—flowers of leaves

Echeverias are rosette-forming succulents native to Mexico and Central America. There are dozens of species, and literally hundreds of named cultivars bred for specific characteristics such as color, size or leaf shape. Considering the sheer variety, it’s easy to see why echeverias have become the darlings of the design world, featuring prominently in everything from mixed succulent bowls to living wreaths and vertical gardens.

I’m not a designer and don’t pay too much attention to what the Martha Stewarts of the garden world happen to dream up in a given season, but I do think that echeverias are among the most beautiful of succulents. Their rosettes often remind me of flowers—flowers of leaves that never stop blooming.

In their natural habitat, echeverias grow at higher elevations marked by low humidity and moderate temperatures. In areas where hot summer temperatures routinely exceed 90°F, they prefer semi-shade. However, too much shade causes their rosettes to stretch and lose their symmetry (a phenomenon called “etiolation”). In addition, some of the more colorful echeveria varieties assume a sickly greenish cast if they don’t receive enough sun.

Like all succulents, echeverias need well-draining soil. If your native soil is too heavy, you can amend it with pumice, lava rock, decomposed granite, pea gravel or similar materials. The best solution would be to plant your echeverias in a raised bed or on a mound of light-textured soil. This will prevent root rot, especially during a wet winter.

Echeverias have some frost tolerance, down to the 25°F range, allowing them to be planted in the ground in zones 9b and up. If your winters are colder than that, you’re better off relegating them to containers that can be protected from the cold or moved inside.

Most echeverias form offsets and can create extensive colonies over time. In my book, this is one of their most desirable traits. Simply pluck one of the offsets, stick it in soil, and you’ve got a new plant—and the beginnings of yet another colony. (Some authors recommend leaving the offset in a shady location for a week or two, or until new roots begin to form. I’m too impatient and put them in soil right away; I’ve never lost an offset that way.)

Here are some of the echeverias I photographed the other day at Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. Some of these species are common, like Echeveria elegans, others are quite rare, like Echeveria expatriata.

Echeveria-expatriata
Echeveria expatriata, rare
Echeveria-agavoides_01
Echeveria agavoides, a fairly common species, often with red-tinged leaf margins
Echeveria-pulchella
Echeveria pulchella, uncommon
Echeveria-setosa_01
Echeveria setosa, one of the fuzziest echeverias
Echeveria-setosa_02
Closeup of Echeveria setosa. I love the fuzz—it reminds me of a tarantula
Echeverias_and_aeoniums
Echeveria elegans in the foreground, with aeoniums planted behind it
Echeveria-elegans_01
Echeveria elegans, one of the most commonly found species
Echeveria-gilva
Echeveria ‘Gilva’, an old hybrid of unknown origin but assumed to be a cross between Echeveria agavoides and Echeveria elegans
Echeveria-'Hummel-#1_2'
Echeveria ‘Hummel #1’. This hybrid is only found at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. It was received from plant breeder Ed Hummel in the 1960s. See here for more info if you’re interested.
Echeveria-'Hummel-#1'
Echeveria ‘Hummel #1’ and an unidentified groundcover aeonium
Echeveria-'Violet-Queen'
Echeveria ‘Violet Queen’, an Echeveria elegans hybrid
Echeveria-'Powder-Blue'
Echeveria ‘Powder Blue’. Looks anything but powder blue to me, but maybe the coloring becomes more pink in full sun?
Beautiful hybrid for sure.
Echeveria-'Lace'_02
Echeveria ‘Lace’. A very large hybrid with curly leaf margins. Its general appearance and size remind me of ornamental kale.
Echeveria-'Lace'_01
Closeup of Echeveria ‘Lace’. This one, like all other echeverias with ruffled edges, is most likely a hybrid of Echeveria gibbiflora.
Echeveria-'Firelight'
Echeveria ‘Firelight’, yet another frilly gibbiflora hybrid. I can appreciate it for its unique look, but personally I prefer non-ruffled varieties.

SIDE NOTE: Echeverias are sometimes referred to as “hens-and-chicks”—an unfortunate choice since “hens-and-chicks” is the common name for sempervivums (also known as “houseleeks” or “liveforever”). While some of the smaller echeverias do resemble sempervivums, there are significant differences. Sempervivums are Old World plants native to the mountains of central and southern Europe. They are very cold hardy; some sources claim down to -30°F as long as sharp drainage is provided (I don’t know why that would matter since at -30°F the ground would be frozen solid anyway.)

In turn, sempervivums don’t do all that well in hot climates. I have a few sempervivums that have hung around for a number of years. While they look great—and grow very fast—in the spring and early summer, they do get ratty by July, with individual leaves or entire rosettes turning brown and the colony assuming an unkempt appearance. I imagine that in even hotter climates, like the Southwest, it would be virtually impossible to grow sempervivums well.

4 comments:

  1. Halfway through this I thought "these really look like Sempervivums", but then I got to the more unique ones (fuzzy, frilly) and your explanation of the differences. Great post!
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  2. Thanks, Alan. Sempervivum leaves aren't as fleshy as most echeveria leaves. But yes, they can look very similar.

    I didn't want to murky the waters even more by mentioning other rosette-forming succulents like graptopetalums, graptoveria (crosses between graptopetalums and echeverias), graptosedums (crosses between graptopetalums and sedums), etc.

    As for sempervivums, I can't really tell them apart from jovibarbas, which to me look like small sempervivums.

    Gosh, I love how infinitely complex plant life can be!

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  3. Love your photos!

    The 7th photo down you IDed as Echeveria elegans, but that one does not have pink. It
    looks so much like an echeveria I just saw at Ruth Bancroft. They had it IDed as Echeveria elegans Kesselringii.

    I wish I could show you a photo of it there.

    Your garden must be so great! I am jealous!

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  4. Kell, thank you for the clarification. I have no doubt that you're correct since these photos were taken at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. I wish I had even a fraction of these echeverias in my garden--I have individual specimens, but not huge drifts like RBG does.

    I was just there last weekend and many of their echeverias were blooming.

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