CULTURE

Plants which beat the drought

Succulents, which include cacti but are by no means restricted to these prickly species, are wonderfully drought-resistant. They range from the huge Agave americana seen dotted about the drier parts of Greece, to the miniature pots that decorate window sills. They come in a range of forms (with leaves that trail, cascade, form chains or grow into bushes) and colors ranging from light grey (Crassula arborescens or the silver jade plant) through all the shades of green to almost black, such as the Aeonium arboreum or Zwartkop which produces small star-shaped bright yellow flowers that contrast with its deep chocolate-covered leaves. They are ideal for planting among rocks and in dry, arid soil. Fine hairs on the leaves of some of them reduce moisture loss by reflecting sunlight and creating a layer of air on the surface of the plant. Water is stored in the fleshy, sometimes waxy, leaves and stems, but the moisture is not mere H2O – the juice of the Agave is said to cause blindness. Others are highly beneficial – Aloe vera is a good plant to have around the house for first-aid purposes – the juice in the leaf is good for soothing burns and skin inflammations. Many flower during winter, providing welcome flashes of color when other plants’ flowering season is over. Growing in the wild in many parts of Greece are the Agave americana, or American aloe, which produces a distinctive yellow flower as high as 15 meters, appearing only once in its lifetime of 10-100 years, hence its alternative common name of Century Plant. Also common in the wild is Opuntia vulgaris or prickly pear, of which the variety Opuntia ficus-indica, or Barbary fig (frangosikia) produces its delicious fruit at this time of year. Succulents are also good for ground cover, particularly gentle slopes, needing only a fraction of the amount of water required by lawns. An easily propagated spreading plant is Aptenia cordifolia, a small-leaved plant with tiny flowers ranging from reddish-pink to deep purple that spreads a thick mat across the ground and hangs over stone walls. The thicker-leaved Carprobrotus acinaiiformis, or Hottentot fig, does the same on a larger scale and is a good fire retardant. Its flowers, which range from yellow to purple, open during the heat of midday. I have seen the two grown together across a slope, their contrasting leaves intertwining, to good effect. Portulaca grandiflora, or rose moss, is a popular container succulent which flowers in a range of bright colors. Trailing succulents good for hanging baskets include Senecio herreianus (gooseberry keinia) or Senecio rowleyanus (string-of-beads), from which hang grape-like leaves 45 cm or 60 cm long. The fleshy cylindrical leaves of the Sedum morganiamum (Donkey’s tail) reach 60 cm in length and produce pale pink flowers in early summer. In the garden, mixing a number of different succulents together creates variety. Variegated agaves (green edged with yellow, flecked with white or with a yellow stripe down the center of the leaf) contrast well with rosette- and leaf-shaped varieties. No Haworthia looks good in groups under a tree or large bush. Haworthia margaritifera’s dark green upright leaves gradually spread out as the plant grows; Haworthia tessellata has wider triangular leaves with transparent sections on their upper surfaces. Taller succulents include the popular Aloe arborescens (tree aloe, also known as octopus plant) with long tapering leaves, the Crassula argentea (jade plant or Chinese rubber plant) that grows into a bush up to 60 cm high in a pot, and the Sansevieria Trifasciata (variegated mother-in-law’s tongue) that has tall, upright sword-shaped leaves edged with cream stripes. Cacti Simply put, cacti are succulents with spines. Not to everyone’s taste because of their prickly appearance, they are effective contrast plants in dry gardens and popular container plants on hot windowsills. Slightly different from the usual spiny bulbous-shaped cacti are the Aporocactus flagelliformis (Rat’s tail cactus) that grows attractive bright pink flowers, the similar Aporocactus mallisonii, with red flowers, both ideal for containers, the Orchid cacti Epiphyllum Ackermannii that has bright red flowers at the end of notched stems, and Epiphyllum Cooperi which has large lily-scented white blooms. Two more attractive cacti that are easy to grow are the Gymnocalcycium bruchii (Chin cactus) that has large clusters of satiny pink flowers and curved white spines, and Hamatocactus setispinus (Strawberry cactus) with long white spines and large yellow flowers with reddish-orange centers that bloom in summer). The golden rule about watering a cactus is, when in doubt, don’t, as they can go for weeks without water, particularly in their dormant season. Propagation Succulents are the ideal beginners’ plant as they can be propagated by breaking small sections off main plants and allowing them to dry for several hours before planting in well-drained soil. Rosette-shaped succulents produce offspring that can be broken off to create new plants. Water the cuttings sparingly until they root. Some – not all – succulents take time to get going. Take care to ensure the leaves stay dry to avoid damage. Where to buy succulents Nearly every commercial outlet for plants stocks a number of succulent species, but there is a small but well-stocked nursery selling only succulents (including cacti) on the left-hand side of the road to Schinias beach. Vassilis Bagas is on Leoforos Marathonos 394, open in summer from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., including weekends. Telephone (0294) 98.665. Further information: Succulents: The Illustrated Dictronary by Maurizio Sajeva, Mariangela Costanzo. ISBN: 0881923982 The Plantfinder’s Guide to Cacti & Other Succulents, by Keith Grantham, Paul Klassen. ISBN: 0881924253.