Succulent. The name says a lot. But it doesn’t reveal everything about these wildly compelling botanicals that surrender to even the least-green thumb. Thick-skinned and juicy, these intriguing plants sit somewhere on the sliding botanical scale between dry, spiky cacti and delicate leaf-bearing flora. Succulents love to preserve moisture deep inside their curious, pliant bodies.
Like many intimate regions of animal anatomy, succulents are indeed succulent, hiding luscious fluids within swollen appendages.
They defy your expectations. Their entire design, which never fails to fascinate us humans, maximizes water retention while offering myriad strange angles and ridges to the sun. Some, such as the mighty aloe, can grow to tree-sized and sculptural proportions. Others, like the adorable baby toes, fenestraria, stay tiny their entire lives.
But the best-known succulents offer diversity that no college admissions officer ever imagined. Offspring of the mighty crassula can range from the dotted heart-leaved cordata, to the fractal-esque, polyhedronic alpestris, native of South Africa. The echeveria offers visual geometry, composed of rosettes that start small and pop out from a central matriarch into a small riot of rose-sized forms. The flapjack kalanchoe is mesmerizing with its beautiful red-tinged paddles—dramatic and infinitely watchable.
And that brings me to the heart of the matter. No living space is too small for a succulent—hence the stratospheric popularity of succulents, expanding faster than the national debt. But succulents offer so much character, strangeness, and let’s face it, sheer otherness, that they demand to be singled out for dramatic placement in our daily lives. Once I discovered that I really could not kill a succulent, I began to look for ways to bring their alien presence into unexpected corners of my life.
These are fantasy objects to be sure, but unlike your antique copper vase, or your amethyst geode, succulents are also living creatures. Succulents will change their shapes, slowly, eccentrically. They will suddenly bring forth side shoots, little clones of themselves. And when you least expect it, they will produce improbable and gorgeous flowers. In short, succulents are peculiar and performative allies in the adventure of everyday life.
Make friends with a few eccentric succulents. Make a commitment to your favorites—naming them helps you to bond with them—and then place them in spots where they can show themselves off in their quiet, mysterious way. I find that deep-blue glazed pots help bring out their essential greenness. Anything that can hold a bit of soil and a succulent qualifies as a pot.
But the best way to savor their bizarre appearance is to place them among collections of inanimate objects—a succulent makes visual drama when surrounded by glass objects, candlesticks, children’s toys, thickly woven textiles, pewter vases, marbles . . . you get the idea.
A single trophy succulent can also form an important otherworldly talking point in the center of your dining table. It will offer transformation on a gradual and meditative basis every single day.
Savor the surreal beauty of the succulent. Don’t think of them as merely idiot-proof oddities. Think of them as small islands of strangeness in the midst of your most ordinary space.