Houseplants Made Easy

Bring a little green indoors this fall with easy, low-maintenence succulents.

In a succulent plant’s previous life, it was a camel. Like the hump-carrying beasts, succulents thrive in climates with high temperatures and low precipitation and can go long periods of time without water. It’s because of this low-maintenance care that a succulent makes for a great starter plant, especially in the hot climate of the Carolinas. Better yet, succulents are year-round, indoor/outdoor plants—leave them on your patio in the smoldering heat of summer but bring them inside during the cool months of fall and winter and they still thrive.
Succulent plants retain water just about everywhere—stems, leaves, roots—which make them appear a little, well, fat or swollen. “They don’t require as much care as some other plants as long as you give them good drainage—overwatering would be the worst thing you can do,” says Lisa Tompkins, landscape designer and horticulturalist at Charlotte’s Pike Family Nursery in Ballantyne. “They sort of thrive on neglect.”

And we like easy. Plus they’re pretty. Here are four succulents that make owning a houseplant as simple as it can get.

Aloe

Even the word “aloe” sounds therapeutic. The spiky-yet-decorative perennial—with its triangular, thick, fleshy leaves—is also medicinal. The aloe vera—which oozes from the plant when its skin breaks—is not just a key moisturizer for many hair products and cosmetics, but it also treats topical burns and wounds. There is something just so cool about being able to offer fresh aloe to guests or neighbors with bouts of sunburn, poison ivy, or insect stings. “Everybody should have one in the kitchen,” says Tompkins. To use, break off a leaf and cut in length to expose the inner layer—scoop out juice and apply.

Tip: It’s common for outer shoots to wither. Prune those by cutting as close to stem as possible.
What to buy: Aloe barbadensis (commonly known as aloe vera).

Sedums (stonecrop) and Sempervivums (hen and chicks)

Ah, the planter’s prized perennials. Hardy and pleasant looking, with thick, juicy leaves, sedums and sempervivums (“semps”) complement just about any garden’s color scheme. With hundreds of species, various sizes (one-quarter to twelve inches), and several colors (white, yellow, pink, red) they—at the very least—allow for some variety. Semps carry a round or rosette shape while the fine texture of sedums’ five petals can easily fill in any area.

“I like the combos of sedums and grasses planted together in container pots, and also maybe something that blooms—sedums and semps give more texture and shape than colors,” says Mark Rupard of the Blue Thistle.
And as an added bonus, the tight colonies that form can actually suppress weeds. (Makes sense why sedums are now being used in green roof architecture.)

Tip: Depending on the variety, semps and sedums can spread like wildfire, so give them ample room to grow.
What to buy: Sempervivum braunii and “El Toro”; Sedums reflexum and hispanicum.

Yucca and agave

“Yucca and agave are probably lesser-known succulents but have increased in popularity the past couple of years,” says Rupard. The many similarities between these evergreen perennials are because they’re in the same family. Although agave will flower only once in its lifetime, it’s still a gorgeous plant—like the yucca—with large, aloelike grayish or green sword-shaped leaves. “Most agaves are more sturdy and spiny than the yuccas,” explains Rupard. “Yuccas have new variegated ones in greens-and-whites and greens-and-yellows.”

Native to North Carolina, yuccas’ clusters of whitish flowers—in addition to its seeds and fruits—are edible. But the popular purpose for agave might not be edible flowers: Blue agave is the basic ingredient for tequila.

Tip: As their texture is a little rough, they aren’t exactly child friendly.
What to buy: Yucca schottii and Spanish bayonet; Agave harvardii and parryi.

Christmas Cactus

Around the holidays, beauty comes out not just in people, but in plants, too. Each year, when Christmas—and the winter weather—arrives, the Christmas cactus blooms a gorgeous flower, either red, pink, white, or purple. “The Christmas cacti are beautiful, and it’s a great way to add color to the interior in the winter when there’s not much color around,” says Tompkins.

Christmas cacti thrive in bright, indirect sunlight but create buds when exposed to six- to eight-weeks’ worth of cooler temperatures. “They are great plants for North Carolina,” says Tompkins. “The trick is to keep them outside in the summer in the warm weather—not in the direct sun but in the shade. Leave them out until the first freeze, then bring them in, water and fertilize them, and they’ll set buds without much else done to them. And it’s amazing.”

Tip: A good way to have the cactus branch out is to prune it after it blooms by pinching or cutting off a few sections of each stem.
What to buy: Schlumbergera truncata.

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