Meg McNutt did not intend to become the succulent expert at the Pelican Greenhouse. But the longtime volunteer at the New Orleans Botanical Garden and the Greenhouse just got hooked.
“I have been volunteering there for years because I live in an apartment and don’t have a garden of my own,” McNutt said. “Then a while back, I noticed that succulents were selling fast at every sale we had. It seemed like all of a sudden, they were trendy.”
Since most of the plants offered at the sales are grown from seed or otherwise propagated by volunteers, it takes a while before a new succulent is big enough to sell. A Master Gardener, McNutt took on the challenge of ensuring that there is not only a wide variety of succulents at the sales (including the one today from 9 a.m. to noon), but multiple specimens of each.
Since she launched her mission, McNutt says she’s learned that there is widespread misunderstanding about what constitutes a succulent.
“Any plant that has adapted to its dry location by developing the ability to store water in its leaves, trunk or roots is a succulent. There are many different kinds, and they include cacti. Sometimes people say ‘cacti and succulents’ as if they’re different. They aren’t. All cacti are succulents, even if not all succulents are cacti,” she said.
Succulents are usually cultivated as houseplants in our area, and most are grown largely for the interesting shapes of their fleshy leaves as opposed to the interest of their blooms (the Desert Rose or Adenium obesum is an exception). Although most are green, some turn vivid colors when exposed to bright light. And because succulents are slow growers, they are easily contained in planters.
Succulents include familiar plants like Agave Americana (Century Plant) and Aloe Vera (whose fleshy leaves contain a burn soothing substance). Jade plant (Crassula ovata), Mother in Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) and Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii) also belong in the succulent category, even though each is a member of a different genus. What they all share, however, is the ability to store water.
“Even dyckia, which are in the bromeliad family, can be considered succulents, so it can get very confusing,” McNutt said. “It’s a good idea not to worry too much with classifying and just enjoy them.”
Dish gardens are popular in shelter magazines now, and McNutt has advice for anyone interested in starting one.
“Make sure the soil drains very freely — you can mix in some perlite to keep it loose. You don’t want a succulent to stand in water,” she said. “You also want to choose plants that have similar needs. And you want to have a bright location to place your plants but probably not direct sun. I’ve seen succulents get scorched here because a lot of them are used to getting some shade from rocks or other features in their native habitats.”
For today’s sale, Greenhouse volunteers made a planter pocket from an 8-inch square wooden frame, backed by landscape cloth and fronted with mesh, then planted it with a variety of succulents.
“We wanted to do something a little different to give people ideas about how to grow and display succulents,” said McNutt.
Some additional succulents that will be featured at the sale include Kalanchoes (with blooms in a variety of colors) and sedum or stonecrop.
“Succulents make beautiful bouquets and corsages for weddings as an alternative to flowers,” McNutt noted. “When the event is over, you can take your succulents and plant them. That way you always have a living reminder of the big day.”
The Pelican Greenhouse, where the sale is staged, is in City Park just off Henry Thomas (Golf) Drive, south of the I-610 underpass, on the Marconi Drive side of the park.
For a complete list of plants available, go to neworleanscitypark.com.