Succulents: What’s Old Is New

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Succulents meet consumers. Consumers meet succulents.

That may be a little extreme–they aren’t complete strangers–but a familiarity of this market on a consumer level has definitely been lacking. Until now.
As one grower states, succulents are far from new and with consumer tastes becoming more refined, these plant types are beginning to see a resurgence in popularity.

Making Sense Of It

When it comes to ease of maintenance, clean-lined aesthetics and durability, succulents are at the head of the class–a message many growers aren’t passing onto retailers, who are then missing out on their customers. Grower Lloyd Traven of Peace Tree Farm, Kintnersville, Pa., says, “There’s a definite disconnect between the grower and the buyer for the store.” He says growers are not giving a clear message to the retailers, and also many buyers aren’t concerned with hearing this message because it doesn’t impact them directly.

“Succulents don’t use water and they’re low maintenance. You also don’t have to worry a lot about insects,” Traven adds. “They’re easy and that is what’s not coming across. Customers will look at succulents in a store and say, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough light’ or ‘I don’t have desert-like conditions for that to survive.’ And the fact is, the vast majority of succulents like it cool. Sure they can handle scorching hot, but they don’t like scorching hot.”

This grower says there’s no doubt succulents are gaining popularity points, now more than ever. At Peace Tree Farm, Traven is seeing a greater demand in mixed combinations, which is not limited to standing containers. Hanging succulent baskets are proving to be standout sellers. “Retailers are asking us for composed patterns. Not freeform, but mosaics, geometrics,” he says. “They want a definite theme and a pattern that’s duplicated precisely.” Traven is also noticing a call for more specimen plants.

“I don’t mean grafted cactus with eyes glued on them,” he says. “I mean they are looking for something that can stand alone in a clay plot. Something beautiful, full, lush. Not something in a thermo-formed orange plastic pot with little pebbles. They don’t want to spend a ton of money, but they want it to look elegant.”

Plug Connection’s Juan St. Amant agrees with Traven that the succulent stock is on the rise. So much so, Plug Connection decided to get into this market just a few years ago with its Tessera collection. “With concerns about water usage here in the Southwest and across the country, succulents fit the bill,” St. Amant says. He explains that the California Spring Trials have been a great way for Plug Connection to open up a dialogue on succulents. “No matter how much the staff likes them, as long as the broker and grower community isn’t interested, there’s no sales potential,” he says. “But for us that hasn’t been the case. There’s a lot of interest.”

St. Amant goes on to quote a Plug Connection grower: “Everything that is old is new again.” He says old favorites that have been around for many years are being redone and are cycling back into popularity again. He also notes that green roofs and living walls are being spotted in Southwest high-end shopping centers and private homes. “Sedums and sempervivums are doing really well in those,” he says. “Going into this spring, we were able to get stock material for eight or 10 of the very, very cold hardy sedum varieties that are popular in green roofs.”

Who’s Really Responsible?

Deena Altman of Altman Plants is a believer that succulents went undiscovered for a long time and now consumers have, in general, a more sophisticated palate for plants. “They’re buying orchids and bromeliads,” she says. “Over time, like cooking, tastes in plants have really evolved. I think they were just waiting to be discovered.” Altman says people aren’t just looking for flowers anymore and they are starting to appreciate the plant’s shape and its subtleties.

“Designers and tastemakers are the ones really responsible for this trend,” she says. “Ads, consumer magazines and architects have been key over the last few years. It takes time for people to catch up with that.” Altman also credits high-end interior living stores like Crate & Barrel and West Elm for using succulents in catalogs and in-store displays. “Succulents are very geometric and clean, not like ferns and begonias that are more of a cottage looks,” she adds.

Debra Lee Baldwin, garden photojournalist and author of the newly released “Succulent Container Gardens,” agrees with Altman. “There is a whole new type of gardener now. They have a finer and greater appreciation of foliage over flowers.” She says in addition, “They have a drought-fueled interest. Succulents are the closest thing to plastic in the plant world. They don’t really need to be pruned or deadheaded and they’re great for people who travel.”

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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