Q: How do I look after Succulents

A: There are some simple principles listed below that will cover the majority of succulents you can easily obtain. There are a lot of exceptions however, and it pays to find out about your specific plant as soon as you can.

Nearly all those found in a non specialist retailer can be looked after in the following way.

- Water only when the compost has dried out. (They normally won't die if you follow this rule). This applies to both Summer and Winter growing plants.

- Water less or none at all when light levels are low e.g.Winter. They will grow out of shape in trying to reach for more light. Technical term is etiolate. If you are growing them indoors in the winter, as we do in the U.K. then the objective is to keep them alive. Just water them enough to stop them from shrivelling up but stop them growing in size.

- Feed half the recommended strength of a fertiliser that has a low nitrogen content e.g. tomato food.

- Give them as much light as you can, but do not suddenly introduce them to Sun when they have been in a darker environment. They can suffer burns like any other plant in this situation.

- It pays to do a bit of research on your plant to find out what kind of compost it likes, the PH level, and whether it is a summer or winter growing plant. Free draining is the main requirement of a compost, and maybe a PH of around 6 to 7 for most plants. There are also a lot of factors that you can change to suit your particular plant. Light, winter temperature if relevant, summer temperature if relevant, amount of water, watering times e.g. in winter, amount of food, shading etc.

- Email a photo of your plant to meDavid Traish, and I'll see if I can reply to you. Alternatively, come to one of our meetings and we will identify it for you.

Q: The right plant

A: To start with, you must have a healthy plant. When buying a plant, look for signs of damage. Rotting of the stem, particularly at the base, signs of insect damage, would all cause me to leave the plant alone.

If you identify any area of the plant where the colour appears different from an obviously similar part of the plant, be suspicious. Test this area to see if it is much softer that a similar area of the plant. After all, if the plant is healthy, you should not be able to damage it by gently pressing against the suspect area. If this area is softer, then the plant is most likely to have some kind of fungal infection and will have a very poor chance of survival.

If you know what you are doing, and you absolutely must have this specimen, then the infected area must be cut out with a sterilised knife so there is no trace of the infection left. You must weight up your chances of success depending on where the infection is, how much of the plant has to be cut away, and whether you can get the plant growing again. Bear in mind also that the rest of the plants in your collection could suffer from being in the vicinity of an unhealthy plant. 

Q: Where can I buy plants

A:You could buy your plants from a garden centre but they normally only have a very restricted range of species. They would also only stock the common and less demanding ones. You would be better off looking at the list of nurseries for the U.K on the web site forThe British Cactus and Succulent Society

Some beginners may not realise that there may be a specialist supplier of Cacti and Succulent plants near where they live. There are at least 7 in the U.K. 

For nurseries in the U.S. go to the Cactus and succulent Society of America web site. Whilst it no longer details nurseries directly, you can navigate to the Affiliates section and use the information to contact a nursery in your local area.

There are a large number of nurseries in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy. It is easy to find them on the Internet.

For the U.K. it is not a problem to import plants from the Eurozone so long as the plants are not habitat collected. The are no other rules for importing Eurozone plants to the U.K. I know, I go on a tour of European nurseries every year and bring back plants to the U.K.

The U.S. and the rest of the world have their own rules generally involving phytosanitary certificates and other permits. U.K. collectors cannot bring plants into the U.K. from the U.S. unless they have the proper documentation, something that involves money.

Southfield Nurseries, up in Lincolnshire is one of the best for very well grown plants. You can find it at Southfield Nurseries

Q: What conditions do plants need

A:Just to give you some idea of the real complexity of giving the right plant the right conditions to grow I try to give all my plants the correct macro conditions to grow well. After nearly 30 years of experience I have learned to place plants in the right places of the greenhouse.

Some plants like a lot, a little, or no shade so I place some under the shade of others. Some like top shelf treatment or being placed in full sun outside in the U.K summer. Ferocactus species obviously like this treatment as I have had two flowering sessions from a large Ferocactus Glaucescens in 2001 in spite of the rain. Some do not like a lot of moisture, so I have adopted all sorts of ways to ensure the moisture levels are correct. I make sure what I give them does not hang around for long.

Clay pots are useful so long as you give plenty of space around the plants for their roots to grow. I treat some so called difficult plants with total abandon when in clay pots, watering for example Ariocarpi even in the winter at times to keep them growing. They don't like loosing their fine roots in the U.K. winter through being totally dry. Different soil structures within the pot, pure grit in the top level for example, will protect the stem from getting anywhere near damp soil.

Temperatures are different in different parts of the green house so I keep the temperature sensitive plants near to the centre or on heated pads. Other plants are placed in different places in the greenhouse depending on what temperature I think they will need. Some positions in my greenhouse stay around 11 to 12C, others may go as low as 4C.

Q: How do I identify my plant

To identify a plant you must firstly find out what Family it belongs to. Euphorbiaceae, Cactaceae, Liliaceae are some examples of succulent Families, more are detailed later. The next step is what genus does the plant belong to within the family. Within the Cactaceae family, there are a considerable number of Genera, each with their own characteristics. One such Genera is Opuntia. An opuntia has fleshy pads, jointed together to form the body. You see many of them growing all over the world where cold and damp conditions do not preclude them. The fruit of one species being known as a prickly pear. After identifying the genera, the most difficult part is to identify the species. For an opuntia, it might have distinctive pads, or spines.

To identify which family, Genus, species, your plant belongs to the factors are the flowers, body form, whether they have leaves, the type of sap, whether tendrils are present,  where they originally came from, and what type of spines they have. Just because a plant looks like a cactus does not in any guarantee that it is. There are many plant families that have plants that have a cactus like shape. Examine the plant photographs in this web site. The Euphorbiaceae family is a prime example, some of them look more like cacti than some cacti do themselves. Look at the photograph of the species Lophophora Williamsii, a cactus. It looks more like a mushroom than a Cactus.

If you cannot easily identify the plant from it's body form, then it is most likely that you will need to wait until the plant flowers. Flower structures are probably the most important way of identifying a plant. All cactus flowers have large numbers of petals, see the pictures on this site, so if your plant has a small number of petals, less than six say, it won't be a cactus. 

The Euphorbiaceae have very distinctive flowers, and are almost exclusively small in size. The maximum size a Euphorbia flower reaches is around 0.5 cm with few exceptions, which is far too small to be confused with nearly all Cactus flowers. The shape and overall structure of Euphorbia flowers is very different to all other plants in that it is really a compound flower, known botanically as a Cyanthium. A typical Cyanthium consists of a Female central flower surrounded by a number of Male flowers. (Not always the case because there are Euphorbia species that have separate Male and Female plants)

If you seriously want to find out about, or identify succulents, one of the best books is written by a well known succulent lover and botanist Gordon Rowley. The book is called Name that Succulent, by Gordon D. Rowley and it's ISBN number is 0-85950-447-6.