All cacti are succulents, but all succulents are not cacti! Echeveria is one of the so called ‘other succulents’. Until recently, Echeveria was a relatively little-known genus outside the cactus and succulent collectors’ world, and because within that world most enthusiasts have tended to be keener on the true cacti, the ‘other succulents’ have sometimes been regarded as the poor relations as a consequence.
Greenhouses were expensive and heating costs were relatively high, so the space taken up by echeverias was begrudged as wasted on “nothing but cabbages”. Their only other real supporters were the lovers of carpet bedding, which has fallen out of favour and contributed to the unfair neglect of this unusually attractive genus, although they have always popped up on windowsills as more or less indestructible houseplants.
However, they have now undergone something of a renaissance and although they are not as uncompromisingly architectural and angular as some other plants, the echeverias are now seen as an ideal choice for modern homes and gardens.
Echeverias are frost tender evergreen, rosette shaped succulents which are found in an enormous range of striking colours, with the leaves ranging from pastel, sugar-almond shades of pink, lilac, pearl and turquoise to the deepest maroons and purples, with an intermediate range of vividly marked bicoloured cultivars. Leaves can be wildly ruffled and curled, often with crinkly contrasting edgings, or with strange warty outgrowths. Although they are foliage plants, they have the added bonus of producing long-lasting and attractive flowers.
Because they create a high impact for the minimum amount of care they are very sympathetic choices for modern interior décor and for smaller courtyard gardens or in containers on patios, terraces and so on.
Echeverias are easy to care for and drought resistant. Like all succulents, echeverias are adapted to survive with very little water, which arrives irregularly. This makes them a perfect plant for the busy or idle! They thrive on a regime of benign neglect; they will tolerate long periods without watering, which means that they are the least demanding of plants. You can go away on trips, forget them during a rush at work and they will still be there for you.
Echeverias are members of the Crassulaceae or stone crop family, with the term coming from crassus, meaning thick or fat.
The Crassulaceae are a natural order of dicotyledons (they start life on germination with two embryonic leaves or cotyledons) containing 13 genera and nearly 500 species.
All of the Crassulaceaea, have thick and fleshy stems and leaves as an adaptation to life in dry and rocky areas, their leaves are simple and entire, eg undivided in any way and with unindented edges – these leaves can often be used to propagate new plants, and as you can see later, this is a brilliant method of increasing your ecehveria stocks.
This means that the majority of the tissue is succulent, acting as a water storage mechanism, and preventing as much evaporation as possible. The plants have a thickened epidermis or skin with a waxy coating which gives the characteristic glaucous appearance to the plant, with a plum-like bloom.
Members of the sub family of echeverioidieae include Echeveria, with a number of true species which have developed in habitat, hybrids and crosses which have developed naturally, and many man-made cultivars. Other interesting members of the sub-family include Dudleya, with attractive white powdered foliage, Graptopetalum, which has dappled flowers, and Pachyphytum with thick and glaucous egg-shaped leaves.
There are also some interesting intergeneric hybrids, including Echeveria x Graptopetalum = Graptoveria and Echeveria x Sedum = Sedeveria
Members of the echeveria genus originated in Mexico and surrounding areas in South America.
They have rosettes of fleshy, alternate leaves, which are often very colourful. They range in diameter from egg cup to dinner plate dimensions or more. The leaves can be softly downy or glaucous or waxy, with a delicate coating, which can be marked if handled roughly.
Echeverias are available in mouth-watering shades from the palest pearl grey or pink to deep maroon and purple, with attractive bi-coloured cultivars as well. They sometimes have unusually shaped or formed leaves, some with warty protuberances and others with riotously frilled edges.
As well as possessing their colourful bodies they also produce long-lasting flowers, which are carried on an inflorescence, a flowering shoot which carries more than one flower.
The inflorescence is a cymose inflorescence – this means that upward growth of the floral axis or stem stops when the first and oldest flower opens at the tip with younger flowers appearing lower down on the axis. So the axis does not grow any longer.
The inflorescence is described as lateral axillary, because the flower stalk is formed as a side shoot in the upper angle between a plant part and its stem, the axil. The flowers have spreading or erect petal lobes and come in shades of red, pink, white and orange. They are so long lasting that they are popular choices for flower arrangers.
The true species are very attractive but because of the plants’ decorative potential, plant breeders have also experimented with many crosses of echeveria species and have produced numerous outstanding cultivars as a result. Over the years many intergeneric crosses between echeverias and some of the related species have also been tried, and these have resulted in some attractive cultivars with a genus name reflecting their antecedents, as in graptoverias and pacheverias. Crosses have also been made between members outside their own subfamily with crassulas, sedums etc, resulting in sedeverias, for example.
In their original habitat they were largely found in the high, cold Mexican plateaus, with a few in the Peruvian Andes, the tropical areas of South America and several species which were to be found in the USA, in southern Texas. So unlike some of the other succulents and the true cacti, these are not plants that are found in desert conditions, but in mountains and rocky hillsides and cliff faces, which gives them resistance to cold as well as drought.
Echeverias are some of the most versatile of plant choices, as they are at home in a bright position indoors, in a conservatory and they also make some of the most unusual and striking summer bedding. Larger specimens will make striking single plant displays or can be used to create wonderful massed effects. Smaller plants will fill unusual containers, and spill over the edges of pots and baskets.
Indoors and in the conservatory –
As a result of their development in the original habitat, these succulents are drought resistant and, if kept dry, resistant to low temperatures, with some withstanding temperatures in zone 8 of the Harvard University hardiness index, – 10C to – 5C (20F – 32F) which covers most of the UK.
However, the majority of these attractive plants are frost tender, so they can only stay outside in the UK during the frost-free summer months.
In a container, a good layer of drainage material in the bottom is essential. Although you can use any multi purpose or soil based proprietary compost. The addition of sharp sand or horticultural grit in a proportion of 20% to 25% of the total mix protects your plants if you feel that you are likely to over water them.
If you have had normal house or conservatory plants, or containers of summer bedding, you may have got into the habit of constant watering, as one forgetful hot day can mean disaster. Echeverias are nothing like that! Obviously the plants do appreciate watering and feeding in the growing season, but as they are far likelier to die from an excess of water than from any other cause, the compost should be almost bone dry between waterings, and in the winter, watering should be virtually stopped altogether, with just enough given to stop the plants from shrivelling.
Begin watering sparingly in the spring and build up gradually. Water them generously when they will take it in the hottest weather but let the compost dry out every time before you water again.
In the growing season for best growth feed every three weeks or so with a proprietary cactus fertiliser or with a formulation for tomatoes, as this also suits cacti and succulents. Decrease watering in the autumn until by the end of October you are giving them the minimum possible again; in warm conditions they will need a little more water than in a cold but frost free greenhouse or conservatory, and they will not become completely dormant.
Echeverias can be propagated very easily, from offsets, from cuttings and from seed if it is a true species. Cultivars cannot reproduce themselves normally, so you have to grow them from the parent plant, as a clone, by offsets or cuttings, but not from seed.
The plants will often freely offset, so you can either keep your massed display or you can carefully detach the ‘pups’ or baby plants. They will come away very easily from the parent and you will have a new little plant with a complete root system ready for immediate potting up.
Remove a plump healthy leaf from the parent plant with a sharp tug or a knife. You do not need to use hormone rooting powder. Leave it for about ten days or so somewhere dry and warm but out of direct sunlight, so that the leaf base can callous over. If you were to pot the leaf up immediately, there is a very strong danger that the leaf would rot. Then place the leaf on slightly damp gritty compost and a new plantlet will form at the base of the leaf. You can actually leave the leaf until you see the first leaves and roots forming before putting it into compost. The parent leaf soon withers and dies, leaving you with a perfect new specimen.
The number one problem is over-watering! These plants don’t have our own native plants’ resistance to rot and fungal infection, as they grow in dry conditions so avoid killing them with kindness. Fungal infection will only develop in the kind of damp conditions to which cacti and other succulents really should not be subjected! However, you can treat infected plants with a proprietary copper based fungicide or with Benlate.
A plant that is going black and mushy is suffering from rot and will die unless you do something to prevent it. However, if you cut away all the damaged parts until you are left with a healthy rosette again – or even with one healthy leaf – and put in somewhere dry and warm, it can be resurrected. See section below on propagation for details.
Echeverias have a normal habit of growth in which the outer leaves will tend to shrivel and die as the rosette continues to grow from the middle, so this is nothing to worry about. This results in areas around the extreme outside edge of the rosette becoming dry and deteriorating.
Just remove the dead outer leaves when they are completely dry and will pull away easily. Incidentally, if the compost is very, very dry the plant will protect itself and outer leaves will die off in large quantities. Again ,this is nothing to worry about and the plant will continue to grow – however it is telling you that you have taken the minimum watering concept a little too far!
The only real pest you will encounter is mealy bug, which can grow on the stems and leaves and also, more worryingly, lurk in the root system. It looks like little tufts of cotton wool. Check the plant leaves and crevices regularly and turn the plant out of its pot from time to time to make sure there is no root infestation. Small scale mealy bug infestation can be treated with methylated spirits or soapy water, dabbed on directly to the pest with a cotton bud or paint brush. This also deals with scale insects.
If you have a big pest problem, Provado, marketed as a vine weevil killer, is hugely effective against stem and root mealy bug, it is not an organo-phosphate and it does not smell bad.
Sap sucking Red Spider Mites are a pest borne of dry conditions and poor ventilation, so misting the plants and opening windows is a deterrent, and they are also susceptible to insecticides which contain Butoxycarboxim.
If you dislike chemical treatments, then you can try environmentally friendly Neem tree oil, or a soap and water solution. Root mealy bug can be attacked by removing all the compost from the roots, washing the roots in the soap and water solution and repotting in clean pots and compost.
Or, if you can live with plants which are not entirely pest free, you can try to achieve a natural balance. Ladybirds can act as a biological control on mealy bugs and scale insects. There are specialist suppliers who deal solely with sources of other biological controls.
Some people love plants for themselves and for the visual part they can play in their homes and gardens. But the way plants have been discovered, collected, classified, described, and named is a vast and fascinating field, so for anyone who wants an idea of how the echeveria were discovered, described, and eventually hybridised a potted history follows.
In the early years of the nineteenth century there were only three known echeveria species. More true species were named throughout the century and there was a boom in interest in these plants in the 1870s when many of the hybrids still known today were developed by commercial growers. Their popularity grew again in the 1960s and early 1970s when American enthusiasts, like D. Wright of California, produced another wave of exciting cultivars. The Dutch enthusiast, J.C. van Keppel, researched into the echeveria along with Carruthers and Ginn and Werther’s posthumous botanical monograph was published.
From 1958 the International Succulent Institute distributed authenticated field collected material, including echeveria; these specimens and the resulting botanical material have a designated I.S.I. number.
On 15th February 1827 the genus echeveria was named by the famous Swiss botanist, Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), in an address given to the society of Natural History in Geneva :-
“I have given to this Mexican genus the name of echeveria in honour of Echeverria, gifted botanical draughtsman and creator of the most beautiful drawings of the Flora Mexicana begun under the direction of Messrs. Sesse, Mocino and Cervantes.”
An official Spanish natural history expedition, under the direction of Martin Sesse, started off in Mexico City in 1789 and finished in the New World in 1803. Atanasio Echeverria was recruited as technical illustrator in 1789 and the aim was to produce a massive volume, the Flora Mexicana. Thousands of plants were collected, drawn and identified under the new Linnean system which was intended to result in the publication of a new illustrated Flora Mexicana. The resulting watercolour botanical drawings became part of de Candolle’s collection in Geneva, and more than 400 numbered illustrations (icones) were eventually listed in the posthumous works of the Expedition’s botanists, which were published 1887-1894.
Although most of de Candolle’s own work concentrated on developing a system of plant classification, for which he coined the word taxonomy, he was also interested in phytogeography, or the biological geography of plants and he carried out investigations into this subject in South America in 1827.
De Candolle introduced the genus by naming Echeveria coccinea as the type species, plus E. gibbiflora and E. teretifolia. Unfortunately E. teretifolia was known only from an incomplete drawing, and is no longer in cultivation.
Further exploration in South America expanded knowledge of the genus and by 1853, when the first monograph on echeveria was published in the Hortus Halensis, 24 species were described.
More species were described by John Lindley (1799-1865). Lindley was a distinguished English professor of botany, the editor of the Botanical Register and The Garden Chronicle and wrote the Digitalium Monographia, 1821 and An Introduction to the Natural System of Botany, 1830). He described five echeveria species and by 1863 thirty five species were included in ‘L’lllustration Horticole’.
The English botanist Gilbert Baker (1834-1920), the Keeper of the Herbarium at the Royal Gardens, Kew., made the first revision of the genus, describing 34 species and illustrating 16 in The American Species of Cotyledon (Echeveria DC) Refugium Botanicum.
Joseph Anton Purpus (1860-1932), a German botanist who was one of the superintendents of the botanical gardens in Darmstadt, Germany, described 6 more species which he received from his older brother (1853-1914). Carl Anton Purpus lived in Mexico for 50 years and also distributed his finds in North America.
The famous American botanist Joseph Nelson Rose (1862-1932) was the assistant curator of the division of plants, US National Museum at the Smithsonian Institute and co-authored the famous four volume The Cactaceae, 1919-1923, with Britton. He specialised in the crassulaceae and the North American cactaceae, and he definitively named almost 40 echeveria and rationalised the naming of echeveria by creating synonyms and moving some species out of the genus.
Eric Walther (1892-1959), was a major contributor to knowledge of the genus, describing 20 new species, Walther was born in Dresden, Germany and worked as the director of the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Garden at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, USA, until retiring in 1957 when he became a research associate of the California Academy of Sciences. He had a heart attack and died while still working on his monograph of the echeveria, which was eventually published in 1972.
Discoveries have continued to be made in South America. Dr Reid Moran of the San Diego Museum of Natural History continued Walther’s work and described 7 more species. (Cactus and Succulent Journal of America, 1961-1966).
Les Carruthers and R Ginns wrote a comprehensive summary of the genus including the true species and the hybrids. (Echeverias (Bartholomew, Edinburgh, 1973).
Other notable contributors to knowledge of the genus are Charles Glass, Alfred Lau, Jorge Meyran, and Felipe Otero (some of the species he found have the designation FO).
Important hybridists include the American introductions bred by D. Wright, HM Butterfield and Dr Uhl of Cornell University.
J.C. van Keppel was a Dutch enthusiast, who researched the parentage of older hybrids and possessed an exceptional library on the species.
R.W. Evans is an English enthusiast and member of the National Cactus & Succulent Society. Ron Evans has studied the genus enthusiastically for many years and he has also communicated with echeveria experts, to build up a great store of knowledge about the echeveria. He also holds the National Collection.