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Succulents That Thrive in Foothill Gardens

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I’m not a fan of hot weather, so my gardening thoughts are turning to plants that thrive in long, hot, dry summers: succulents. From soaring saguaro cactus to “baby toes” groundcover, succulents are tough, sun-loving, long-lived plants that are great for drought-prone areas. However, not all succulents can withstand our cold, wet winters and heavy soil, so it’s best to know which ones can.

The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “succulentus,” which means juice or sap. They are defined by their ability to store moisture. Represented by more than 40 botanical families worldwide, one family is indigenous only to the American and South American West: cactus (Cactaceae). What makes cacti different from all other succulents are round, cushion-like structures called “areoles,” from which spines, branches, hair and flowers grow.
All succulents must have excellent drainage. A rocky and/or sandy soil is best, so if your soil is heavy clay, you can add coarse builder’s sand and/or gravel. Most succulents will thrive in a rock garden that gets plenty of sun. Because of their tough, sometimes prickly or fuzzy “skin,” succulents aren’t typically appealing to garden pests or deer. Most succulents, other than cacti, evolved in cooler, wetter places than deserts, so they’re good candidates for foothill gardeners.

Here are some succulents that, if sited correctly and not over watered, should flourish here:
Sedum – Also known as “Stonecrop,” Sedum is a large genus (400-plus species) of flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae. Some of the most attractive, hardy—and unusual—groundcovers are varieties of Sedum. A few popular shorter varieties include: S. angelicum (“Angelina”), with delicate whorls of green to yellow leaves reminiscent of miniature pine needles; “Firecracker” Sedum with tiny, oval, burgundy leaves that form what look like dense flowers; and “Tricolor” Sedum, with green leaves edged in pink and white. “Autumn Joy” Sedum grows to 18” to 24.” A show-stopper in fall, it has large, showy mauve-red flower clusters that soften to a dusty pink and attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Sempervivum – “Hens and chicks” is the more popular name for this Sedum. Ground huggers, hens and chicks have grey or green leaves that form a rosette, and they propagate by forming offsets. The “hen” is the main, or mother, plant, and the “chicks” are the offspring, clustering close to the mother plant.
Echeveria is a similar-looking succulent that has been hybridized extensively.

Graptosedum is related to Echeveria and has the same bluish-grey, thick, fleshy leaves; but it propagates by sending out a stem from the center of the rosette.

The Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills are home to a number of native Sedum, including “Canyon Liveforever” (Dudleya cymosa) and “Bitter Root” (Lewisia rediviva). The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website ( is a good resource for researching native Sedum.

It occurred to me that I could literally plant nothing but succulents in my garden and end up with everything I want—color, texture, variety, food for butterflies and birds—minus water bills, pesky insects and the need to fertilize. Hmm. . .

Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.


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