Next time you are downing a shot of tequila or sipping on a margarita, do spare a thought for the succulent plant responsible for your high spirits – the blue-green agave.

Tequila is a trademark, and so an enterprising Indian, Desmond Nazareth, is distilling agaves in the Deccan, where he has found physiological conditions similar to Mexico. Fittingly, his company is named Agave for the plant, and in a blind tasting, his product proved to be on a par with the world’s best tequila. He could advise drought-ridden states and turn India into a tequila-exporting nation – agave could be a good cash crop in areas of poor rainfall.

Meanwhile, the urban gardener in India is using succulents in other ways to lift spirits. Succulents are fascinating because of their diverse, ornamental shapes, and their ability to store water in their leaves, roots or stems. Sometimes water makes up about 90% of the biomass, making them very drought-tolerant. Infrequent watering is a boon to the urban gardener who may only find time off during weekends to tend to the balcony or terrace garden. Most succulents prefer to dry out between a subsequent watering.

Photo credit: Shell Jhanb
Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

A much-quoted NASA study about the purifying power of plants is being actively shared, in a new and slightly depressing addition to past-times during Delhi winters, which were once lovely. Instead of sitting around in parks and roundabouts filled with flowers, shelling peanuts or peeling oranges, the poor Delhi resident is looking for ways to safeguard the lungs. There are several of these plants but I am focusing only on the succulent family. The Aloe, for instance, has healing properties and is being recognised as an air purifier. It is supposed to filter out indoor pollutants like formaldehyde.

Another family – the Dracaena with about 120 sub-species – is also experiencing a surge in popularity due to its air-purifying properties. For instance, Song of India is lovely and one of the easiest to reproduce from cuttings. The Sansevieria, or Mother-in-law’s Tongue, is supposed to exude oxygen at night, and in something of an oxymoron, is welcomed today into the bedrooms of happy couples in smoggy National Capital Region. Green buildings are creating oxygenating chambers stocked with such plants, and air circulation systems to channel the air through such chambers. Desperate times calling for desperate measures in the NCR’s poisoned air.

Photo credit: Shell Jhanb
Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Adaptable to every environment

Succulents have a wide variety of sub-species, and as the gardener’s adage clarifies – all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Vastu, feng shui and mothers with young children discourage the latter because of their spiny areolas, and so the spineless succulent (no pun intended) is stealing a march over the cacti. For those interested, a visit to the wonderful Cacti and Succulent Garden and Research Centre at Panchkula is a must to see the nearly 3,500 varieties on display.

Succulents are very architectural and lend themselves to terrariums, rock gardens and miniature gardens. (The Adenium, a beautiful desert rose, is a succulent, as is the baobab, so that alone is an indicator of range.) Most common succulents are easy to grow and reproduce easily through vegetative propagation and seed. Cuttings take best in February and March and benefit from the application of a root enhancer. The soil composition must be very well drained, befitting the xeric species. Of course, particular species need adjustments in soil composition, but for the beginner who is starting with something easy such as Jade, Sedum or Kalanchoe the following mixture produces healthy plants – 50% to 60% of coarse sand and 40% red laterite soil or, if this is unavailable, normal garden soil from any nursery make up the base.

Photo credit: Shell Jhanb
Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Additions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are different for annuals, in that the nitrogen requirement is low and phosphorous high. To ensure the latter, it is best to add a healthy dose of bone meal and supplement with a pinch of super phosphate. Potassium through well-rotted leaf compost ensures the right pH balance of nutrients. Most serious gardeners are creating their own leaf compost, as are many housing societies.

Rules of thumb

Beginners should start with easy tropical varieties – Kalanchoes come in several colours, but the hardiest is the single red. Jade is great for tray gardens and do look out for the variegated leaf type. Sedums complement attractive pots as well as hanging baskets, as do the many Senecio varieties. For full sun and large rockeries or terrace gardens, the Yucca, the Agave, Jatropha, Euphorbias are a good place to start. The last has spines and a milky sap which can irritate, but makes up for these with lovely flowers.

Echevarias are a very large genus in the world of succulents, resembling fleshy roses in the most subtle shades. Sadly, most rot in the Indian plains during the monsoon, having struggled through the summer. They thrive in the hills and are in vogue in garden design in the West. Gardeners are planting them into wire frames to make up wreaths or mirror borders. They used to be expensive but have dropped in price and roselets are easily available in most well-stocked nurseries, so the succulent enthusiast can always enjoy them in the hot plains for six months at least.

Photo credit: Shell Jhanb
Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Apart from potting mixture, the size and shape of the pot is very important. The right pot pairs up with a plant for a wonderful gift or for enhancing the decor. Very small pots are fine for Lithops, which look like intriguing stones, but a succulent which is fast growing can easily become pot-bound. However it is best not to go in for a large pot as a soggy potting mix encourages fungal infection. Most succulents are far more prone to fungus than to pest infestations like aphids.

Morning sunshine in winter with good circulation of air is a must – pots on east-facing balconies thrive. These should be shifted to indirect light in summer as scorch damage can easily occur. Misting is recommended during summer months but as a thumb rule, succulents hate persistent damp.

Due to the fact that they don’t need to be watered often, succulent pots are great for indoors with an occasional outing to a sunny verandah, especially during summer. Next time you are gifting someone flowers, consider a striking pot of succulents instead – the recipient will have months if not years of enjoyment and will remember you that much longer. Succulents are very particular about their watering routine, in that they like regular intervals between each watering. They also like neutral pH balance and do not thrive in hard water. The thumb rule is twice a week in summer, once a week in the rainy season and once in two weeks in winter. In hill stations, succulents must spend winter in greenhouses under glass.

Selina Sen is the author of Gardening for Urban India, DK Penguin-Random House.