What is a succulent?
First, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti!
“Succulents” is most often used by people to describe any non-cactus desert plant. There are many species of plants that are characteristically succulent, and they all have the common feature of being able to hold water within their bodies, in either their leaves or their stems, so this makes them different from other plants.
As you know, most of these species are native to dry regions, and their growth habit allows them to survive and thrive in regions where non-succulents can’t.
Agave, yucca, euphorbia, and sedum are just a few of the non-cacti genera of plants that are succulent. Many communities have groups that get together to bond over their love of these plants, and here in Central Texas, we have the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society.
Now, what is the difference between a shrub and a perennial? In horticultural terms, shrubs are most often described as multi-trunk species that are smaller than trees, which are often planted together to create a mass effect, such as a hedge.
Mountain laurel is considered a “shrubby tree,” but cenizo, boxwood, hollies, are shrubs.
Shrubs may be evergreen, deciduous, or “root hardy,” which is where the confusion with perennials may come in.
When we call a shrub root-hardy, what we really mean is that it dies to the ground in the winter. An example would be native Tecoma stans (Esperanza, yellow bells).
I’ve even heard plants with this growth habit referred to as “woody perennials,” so it’s no wonder people get confused.
More commonly, when we call a plant a perennial, we’re referring to plants like echinacea, that produce a small herbaceous (i.e. non-woody) plant body and flowers, that dies to the ground each winter, then proceeds to grow a whole new plant body from its roots in spring.
As is becoming more common, we had a pretty mild, even warm, winter this year, which caused many plants to bloom and put on new growth before winter was over. Will these plants get zapped if we have a hard frost? Unfortunately, yes, they will. Some plants will recover and may put on new blooms once winter really does exit, but many, like our peaches and other spring-blooming fruit trees, will not. These plants have one shot and flowering and producing the next generation, and if a late season frost nips those blooms, they won’t get another chance until next year. This is obviously not great for our area peach orchards.
Other plants are also confused by these anomalous weather swings. Thanks to our temperate winter and the microclimate in his landscape, John Morgan’s cenizo in Georgetown was flowering in early February, which attracted a Gulf Fritillary butterfly.
And indoor gardeners don’t miss out, no matter what the weather throws our way! Ali Eftekhari is growing these beautiful African violets indoors, for a dose of daily cheerfulness on the drabbest of days.