Up until recently, succulents were grouped with cacti in niche collections. But unlike their prickly counterparts, succulents have really taken off, capturing a lot of consumer and designer interest. In addition to resembling living sculpture, plants are versatile and easy to use by offering the benefits of low maintenance and low water use.
Succulents are showing up at retail in dish gardens, as showy specimens, living walls, picture frames, topiaries, wreaths and centerpieces for indoor and outdoor use. Garden writers and celebrities are promoting them. Stylish home décor stores like Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel are carrying them as centerpieces. “There are so many textures and colors you don’t see in flowering material,” says Juan St. Amant of Plug Connection in Vista, Calif.
Vista just may be the succulent capital of the world. Major producers include Altman Plants, Plug Connection and EuroAmerican Propagators in nearby Bonsall. Ken and Deena Altman began their journey collecting cacti and succulents 35 years ago. Pretty soon, Ken will be publishing a succulent primer for consumers that’s similar to one he and Deena relied on as teenagers.
“For a niche product line, passion is a very good thing,” Deena says. “The details are so important, what collectors want to see. Just like us, they started with one plant. We are the only wholesale grower with our size and volume who tags genus, species and cultivars instead of selling generic cacti and succulents.”
Altman Plants maintains at least a thousand varieties of succulents on benches and benches of stock plants over 200 acres. Nearly three years ago, the company put in a tissue culture lab to propagate more difficult varieties and slower varieties more rapidly. “It’s something we can’t go to Ball or Express to get,” Deena says. “We have to be able to produce seed. Some varieties take decades to flower and produce seed. We’re taking care of large plants and managing seed. The inventory we have is incredible to deliver size and beauty to the marketplace. Some plants take 18 to 30 months from seed to produce a 2 1/2- or 4-inch pot.”
Altman Plants also has started patenting its breeding in succulents and sells liners under its Succulent Elements program through brokers Messick Co., McHutchison and McGregor Plant Sales. Program tags can be ordered with the plants.
Wholesale finished plants for retailers range in size from 2 ½-inch pots to 36-inch patio boxes, wall baskets, wire baskets and wreaths. A landscape line has been selected for Texas, California and Florida.
Shifting Supply Chains
While most of the production had been self propagation by growers, more offshore cuttings farms have added succulents to their unrooted offerings. Today, growers produce succulents from bought-in cuttings, self propagation, tissue culture and plugs and liners. There are a few varieties from seed, like Benary’s sedum ‘Dragon’s Blood.’
Tissue culture has been reserved for the difficult-to-propagate, showier premium varieties. “Tissue culture varieties are what people are interested in,” says Chris Berg, marketing director of EuroAmerican Propagators. “Yes, sedums and crassulas are easily done and have been around forever, but they are typical and not the most exciting array. Now there are dyckias, agaves and portulacas in really cool colors.”
Plug and liner growers are finding the interest and demand comes in spurts and not all at once like with annuals. Plug Connection produces its Tessera line of succulents in 102 cells for smaller varieties and 72 cells for echeverias. Sampler trays are available in both tray sizes. Growers can purchase off availability or the succulents can be assembled to order.
One Northeastern specialist, Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa., grows larger liner sizes–50 and 72 counts. While larger liners take longer to produce, the turn is quicker for growers who purchase them, finishing a 4-inch pot in six to eight weeks. About 60 percent of the cuttings are bought in and the rest are self propagated. In the future, Peace Tree will be doing more of its own propagation.
“For us, it’s important because there are a lot of succulents being propagated right now,” owner Lloyd Traven says. “When you feel like you’re ahead of the curve and then everybody is doing it, you have to adjust and concentrate on varieties others aren’t carrying.” In addition to the classic succulents, Peace Tree is producing plants in genera you wouldn’t expect to be succulents–peperomias, begonias and tradescantias.
Advice For Northern Growers
If you’re a Northern grower and new to succulents, how should you begin? Plug Connection’s Greg Opgenorth says growers should consider cold hardy lines–sempervivums, sedums and delospermas. “In colder climates, these can be used as perennials, in rock gardens and in xeriscaping,” he says. While they are forgiving, extreme cold is detrimental.
Cast iron plants Traven recommends include crassulas, echeverias, euphorbias, graptoverias, graptopetalums, sedums and sempervivums. Growers who are new to succulents can get started with a few echeverias and a few sedums. “Look for a variety of colors and types,” he says. “Certain echeverias grab attention–fuzzy ones, silver ones, rippled, ruffled. White ones really attract attention. Don’t go for regular green, gray stuff that everyone else has. If all you’re doing is growing those in a 3 ½-inch or 4-inch plastic pot, you’re slugging it out with everyone else.”
For growers who are used to producing petunias, Traven says, “You cannot think in terms of bedding plants and be successful. The soil mix is different. It’s all about water management. If you have a grower whom you consider to be a dry grower, that’s the guy you put in charge. You don’t want a lot of feed or the plants to be soft.” Surprisingly, many succulents don’t want full sun. “That’s where people lose plants–watering them in the height of the day and they end up burning,” he says.
But overwatering is the biggest problem. “It’s so easy to overwater and kill them,” Traven says. “When you take cuttings, let them sit 24 hours. Don’t touch them. Let the ends dry out. Then have trays filled, watered in, stick the cuttings, put the trays through the water tunnels and don’t touch them. When you start to think the plants need water, walk away. Most of the plants, if they are stuck in moist soil, don’t need more moisture to root.”
Altman suggests growers choose tough plants that provide high color and require less light. Blooming varieties will be more difficult to produce in flower up North, she adds. Slower growing plants will finish more uniformly. “California is ideal with its high light and cool nights to bring out the unique colors and shapes,” she says. “You need a house that cools down.”
Chris Berg, marketing director of EuroAmerican Propagators, advises growers to produce the plants outdoors as much as possible. “This is how you’ll get the bright oranges, yellows, reds, purples and variegation,” he says, adding that Northern growers may want to buy in certain varieties finished from growers in Southern climates, because they take too long to produce in the winter.
Growers can make an impact at retail with an assortment of 10 to 15 varieties with cool colors and textures for retail displays. “You don’t have to have 50 varieties to get into the category. If you have 10 really unique things, you’re going to have a lot of success,” Berg says.