What is a Succulent

Succulents: Greenery Graced With Natural ‘Juice’

At first blush it seems contradictory that the term succulents refers to a group of plants, many of which produce nothing by way of flower or fruit. After all, most people associate the term succulent with juicy, desirable edibles. However, while tree-ripened peaches seem to all but scream ‘mouth-watering, delicious, come and pick me,’ the spiny yield of the perennial succulent, The Prickly Pear Cactus, seems instead to present itself as the very antithesis of inviting. Nonetheless, while they may not dance entrancingly through gourmet minds, or appear on many buffet tables, plants like the aloe, cacti, jade, or money plant, are indeed succulents, that are imbued with a juiciness all their own, which is the inherent ability to conserve their fluids.

Succulents are plants that thrive on minimal hydration. What they have most in common is their environment. Many originated in parts of the world such as Africa and South America. They are built to survive in arid environs, in tropical, subtropical and desert regions.

Observed side by side many succulent plants have similar traits that would appear to indicate a familial bond. However, succulent plants are not specific to one genus or plant family. What gives many succulent plants their similar ‘look’ is the morphological adaptations each plant has evolved to conserve water. While these adaptations are many, there are certain commonalities observable throughout the hundreds of succulent plant varieties.

Succulent Adaptations: Armoring

Many delicate flowering plants would die very quickly of desert exposure. Meanwhile, cacti with their thick hides thrive. The outer layer of succulents is one of their most eye-catching and obvious adaptations. Many possess a thick outer barrier, as do cacti. Others have a natural waxiness or mucilage designed to keep the plant’s surface moist and retain fluid. In general, adaptations, such as the thickening of the plant’s outer layer, the production  of fewer and spherical leaves, spines, waxiness and hairiness, are all adaptations meant to protect the succulent. Bugs and other invaders are deterred. Air motion, sunlight exposure and consequent precipitation is lessened, while water stays inside the plant. 

Root System

Another physiognomy aspect specific to many succulents is their shallower than average root system. While deep roots is a phrase most often meant to convey a positive, it does not necessarily follow so for succulents. Rapidly evaporating water of the type typically engendered by desert showers doesn’t usually get much beyond the surface before its gone. Because of this many desert succulents have developed close to the surface root systems, designed to make quick use of those here-this-minute gone-the-next desert showers.

Natural Pitchers

Succulents, by necessity, are water hoarders. Nor does it take a detective to work out where the water is being stored with most of them. The large fluid-filled leaves of the aloe, for example, all but give themselves away, as does the barrel shape of many cacti. Some succulents store their water in their root system. In every case, whether by hiding it away, or leaving it plainly visible, albeit encased in thick spine-encrusted armor, the plant’s  store of fluid is protected from predators and sunlight.

A  cactus fruit may not beguile the hungry the way a peach can. It’s likely there will never be a Ms. Prickly Pear found on any save perhaps the tiniest and least renowned of beauty pageant runways. Succulents will never display the lush or ethereal flavor of other plants. Yet, succulents deserve respect and admiration. They have an appeal, sometimes stark, often quirky, at times dramatic, as well as a special ‘juiciness’ that is all their own.