Echeveria is a large genus of succulents belonging to the Crassulaceae family, which is native to the semi-desert areas of central America, the North Western regions of South America and Mexico. The genus is named after the Mexican botanical artist Atanasio Echeveria Y Godoy.
Attempting to make sense out of the names of the species and many hybrids of this popular super-genus seems to be an exercise in futility – there are so many variations, so many ‘nicknames’, and in some cases quite a resemblance to other genera in the family which does not make it any easier.
A very general description is the perfect construction and lovely texture of these rosette-forming plants. Holding a single rosette of the common Echeveria elegans (Mexican snowball or rock rose) in your hands, for instance, you cannot but marvel at the mathematical genius and design skills behind its construction. The leaves are smooth and neatly arranged to form a symmetrical rosette reminiscent of an open rose. Each rosette is heavy and sturdy because the fleshy leaves store water, allowing them to survive during dry periods. They are ideal border plants for big beds containing other plants that require a medium amount of water; will happily grow between stones on a rockery; are really pretty when planted en masse in rock and gravel gardens; and can fill the hollows of concrete blocks in retaining walls with flair. They are also desirable potted plants, and brides use the pretty dove-grey rosettes to decorate their bouquets and table arrangements, and they can just be replanted in grandma’s garden again after the nuptials. You can borrow the showy parts of this plant and return them afterwards without qualms!
Tips for growing echeverias
The number one tip for growing these beautiful frilly or cabbage-type echeverias is: never let them flower! Flowering exhausts the plant, reducing its overall size, distorts its symmetry, flowers are an aphid magnet, and the nectar dripping from the flowers encourages sooty mould on the leaves. Carefully prune any emerging flower stems as soon as they appear.
Never spray them with harsh chemicals as these can burn and disfigure the leaves. Rather apply a systematic insecticide to the root-zone as a preventative measure against aphids and mealy bugs.
Hygiene and air circulation
Copper-based fungicides can be applied as a remedy against fungal and bacterial rot, but it needs to be administered carefully to prevent damage. To this end, prevention is better than cure.
• Keep plants clean by regularly removing dead leaves at the base of rosettes.
• Ensure good air circulation by not squeezing your plants too close together.
• Do not overwater, and avoid watering during the heat of the day as water trapped in the crown of the plant can cause rot.
Mind the sun!
Although echeverias are generally perceived as desert plants, these Mexican natives inhabit a wide variety of localities from partially shaded cliff faces and slopes to growing in the dappled shade of trees. Therefore, very few echeverias are adapted to thrive in the harsh South African sun from dawn to dusk. Most will appreciate at least a little bit of protection during the warmest part of the day. In a garden or in containers they should be planted where they receive lots of morning sun, but light shade during the afternoon.
Water and drainage
Contrary to the general belief that waterwise plants don’t need water, echeverias actually prefer to be watered regularly ensuring a constant source of moisture, the key being excellent drainage so that the soil never becomes waterlogged and is aerated properly. Although echeverias will survive being deprived of moisture for extended periods of time, faster growth is obtained when they are watered regularly during the hot summer months. Plants should be kept drier during the winter months as the combination of cold and drought will enhance their colours further.
Everything in moderation and this certainly applies to fertilising echeverias. Conservative applications of organic fertilisers throughout the growing season (spring and summer) will speed up the growth of plants. Too much fertiliser, water or shade will cause your plants to grow too vigorously and they will lose their attractive shape and colour, resulting in unrecognisable, bland green plants.
Soil mixtures for echeverias are varied and will depend much on the environmental factors of your growing area as well as your particular watering habits. But as already mentioned, drainage and aeration are the keys to success. We recommend using a good quality potting soil cut with very sharp river sand (swimming pool filter sand works well) blended with a small amount of fertiliser.
Beware the frost
Most frilly echeveria hybrids are sensitive to severe frost and should be planted in a sheltered position or covered with frost protection during cold winter nights. If left unprotected, the leaf edges will get frostbite and turn brown and unsightly. As echeverias are rather slow-growing plants, it can take a whole season for a plant to recover fully after a frost freeze.
Hard maintenance means renewal
Apart from removing dead leaves, emerging flower stems and the periodic application of a little fertiliser, echeverias are generally hassle-free plants to keep. They will, however, require beheading every 2 – 4 years. As the plant ages the central stem grows longer and longer and starts to lose vigour, causing the pretty rosette to shrink. Use a sharp blade to carefully sever the head (rosette) just below the lowest leaf on the stem. Rest the severed head in light shade for a week or two until it has calloused and is ready to be replanted. The decapitated stem will usually go on to produce a few offsets so don’t discard it.