The broad category of “succulent plant” includes thousands of plants, including both indoor and outdoor plants, so identifying a specific genus and species can be difficult. Identification is difficult in part because succulent plants often have multiple common names that can be used interchangeably. There are a few steps a person can take to obtain an accurate identification, which mainly focus on using the plant’s physical features as descriptors.
What is a Succulent?
Succulents are plants with fleshy leaves that store water. Cacti, which tend to have spikes, fall under the broad succulent category, but not all succulents are cacti. For both cacti and succulents, it is unlikely to find pure, liquid water within the plant’s leaves. Instead, there is typically a gel-like, moist substance within the leaves.
In general, a plant that has evolved to live in warm, dry climates by storing water in its leaves and stems may be considered a succulent. Some popular types of succulent plants include Crassula, Haworthia, Mammillaria, Aloe, Sedum, and Lithops, all of which offer their own unique traits and characteristics.
The Identification Process
One way to avoid a long identification process is to simply ask the plant seller which succulent plant is being purchased. If the seller does not know or it is not possible to ask, start the identification process by first discerning whether the plant is a succulent or a cactus, and then getting more specific from there by looking at the plant’s leaf shape and overall configuration.
Succulents can have dramatically different leaves, from the long, thin, triangle-shaped leaves of an Aloe vera plant to the small, almost perfectly spherical leaves of a Senecio rowleyanus, also known by its common name, String of Pearls. Knowing the leaf shape alone can be helpful for quick identification, like in the case of the String of Pearls, or for succulents with unique leaf shapes, but this is not always the case.
Certain types of succulent plants have a rosette shape, which feature tight clusters with leaves that radiate out from a central point, much like a flower. Some rosette succulents have pointed leaves, while others have rounded leaves. Details such as this are helpful for identification.
Overall Configuration and Age
Succulent plants sometimes grow long stalks or strands, while others stay squat and close to the ground, growing outwards rather than upwards. Age tends to have an impact on a succulent’s appearance, with some starting as a cluster of leaves poking out of the soil and growing into a tall, treelike structure with woody stems and leaves only on the outermost parts of the plant. For this reason, it may be easier to identify some succulents as they continue to grow and age.
A plant’s overall size can be helpful for identification as well. Succulents that are just 2.8 or 3.1 inches (7 or 8 centimeters) tall or wide are generally indoor plants, while those that are larger in size are typically grown in a garden. Size descriptors of a plant can help a succulent owner narrow down options.
Flower Color and Shape
If the succulent features distinctive flowers, that information can be useful for identification. The time of year that the succulent blooms can also be significant. For example, Christmas cacti have long, bright flowers with petals, and they bloom in early to mid winter, usually right in time for Christmas — hence the name “Christmas Cactus“.
Other Significant Details
There are a few additional details that can help lead to the positive identification of a succulent plant. If the plant has any physical features that are easy to describe, those words can be the very keywords that help identify the plant. For example, if a person owns a succulent with green, spiky leaves that have white stripes on them, you most likely have a Haworthia attenuata or Haworthia fasciata. If the succulent plant features long, overlaying leaves, a plant owner may own a Sedum morganianum, which is commonly known as a Burro’s Tail or Donkey’s Tail.
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