What are succulent plants and where are they from? Have you ever wondered what a succulent plant really is, or how it’s different from a cactus? Or maybe you’ve been asking yourself where exactly succulents come from.
Succulents are different from most plants, which means that even plant enthusiasts often don’t know very much about them. That’s why we’ve created this guide to what succulent plants are and where they are from.
We’re also going to be including generalized care tips for growing a succulent at home and answering some more of the most common questions about these plants. Read on to become an expert on the history and geography of succulents!
Succulents: What Are They?
A succulent is a type of plant defined by its ability to store water in its water storage tissues. These tissues are usually found in the stems, leaves, and roots of the plant.
These plants derive their name from the word ‘sucus’, which is Latin for ‘sap’ or ‘juice’. They are easy to identify (for the most part) because of their fleshy, thick appearance.
Because succulent plants have the ability to hold onto water using their tissues, they are very drought-tolerant and can go for longer periods of time without water compared to other plants.
What Is The Difference Between Succulents And Cacti?
The difference between a succulent and a cactus is a significant source of confusion in the plant community.
If you research this topic online, you’ll find many people saying that succulents and cacti are part of the same group of plants, while others maintain that cacti and succulents are different types of plants.
To keep things simple, the truth is that cacti are generally considered part of the succulent group. In general, cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Like all succulents, cacti are able to store water in their tissues.
These leafless plants are usually characterized by their fleshy appearance, as well as by their protective spines or hairs.
However, things get confusing when you take into account that ‘succulent’ is not actually a taxonomic group. Plant species from numerous different genera can be classified as succulents based on their characteristics.
Moreover, many horticultural experts view cacti as separate from the succulent group, which is still the source of some debate.
Where Do Succulents Come From?
Unsurprisingly, given the average succulent’s ability to store water and tolerate long periods of drought, succulents mostly originate from dry, desert-like areas.
However, some cacti are able to grow in mountain climates, coastal areas, or rainforests, and these fascinating plants can be found the world over.
Just some of the countries and continents where succulents come from include Africa, South America, and Central America.
Cacti And Succulents: From Discovery To Decoration
Since we’ve established that succulents naturally grow in harsh climates worldwide, you might be wondering how these unique plants became such popular houseplants.
To uncover how this came about, we’ll need to go all the way back to the last years of the 15th century.
During this period of history, the race was on to find a path through the western sea to get to India, and Christopher Columbus was among many explorers dedicated to the mission.
Columbus is actually thought to be one of the first people to bring a cactus to the European continent. Upon arriving in Spain, he presented his discoveries to Queen Isabella.
However, Columbus was far from the only explorer to discover cacti on his travels and bring them home. Vasco da Gama found succulent plants in India as well as Southwest Africa.
Over the next two centuries, the colonization of South and Central America by Spanish missionaries led to the discovery and trade of many exciting plants, including succulents. Many of them ended up in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
While this meant that more people had access to these amazing plants, the downside was that natural habitats and resources were plundered in the process of finding new plants for profit.
This is why the majority of succulent and cacti species today are classified as vulnerable species.
Thankfully, regulations are now in place under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to stop the problem from getting worse.
Research and cultivation efforts in recent years also mean that succulents and cacti can continue to be enjoyed as houseplants.
Succulents From Around The Globe
Just to demonstrate how much succulents vary in terms of their countries of origin and natural habitats, here are some succulents from around the world. From African succulents to plants originating from Mexico, there are so many species to learn about.
Succulents From Asia
The continent of Asia is made up of many different countries, each with its own climate and biodiversity. Because of this, Asia is home to some of the most interesting and beautiful succulents on Earth.
Sedum Makinoi can be found growing over much of Asia. It is known commonly as Japanese Stonecrop. These are small succulents, growing up to a maximum of 4 inches, with fleshy, round leaves.
Often grown as container plants, Sedum Makinoi can also be grown outdoors, where they make excellent ground cover.
When allowed to grow outside, these plants will spread quickly, so if you want to control their growth, it’s best to keep them in containers.
These adorable succulents are low-maintenance and don’t need much apart from indirect sunlight and water when the soil is dry.
Sedum Lydium has been nicknamed the Mossy Stonecrop because of its appearance. Since these plants grow in green clusters (red when the weather gets colder), they can start to look like a cross between moss and tiny stones.
This is part of the reason why they’re so popular for outdoor gardens as ground cover.
However, it’s also very easy to grow these succulent plants in containers. They are evergreen and can tolerate periods of drought as well as colder climates.
Compared to other succulents, they are more tolerant of overwatering, although we don’t recommend testing this theory.
Euphorbia Paralias – Sea Spurge
Euphorbia Paralias, or Sea Spurge, originates from West Asia. It can also be found in some areas of Africa, as well as in specific countries throughout Europe.
This plant is technically classed as a shrub, but it’s small compared to other shrubs, with a maximum height of 32 inches.
This might still be a little large for a houseplant, but the tiny green and yellow flowers that grow from the tops of the stems make them a decorative choice.
Hoya Carnosa, also known as the Wax Plant or the Hindu Rope, originates from Southern India. There are a number of varieties of these plants which are characterized by thick leaves that are bright green and roughly heart-shaped.
Interestingly, most Hoya plants are not classified as succulents. Those that are need a lot of indirect sunlight to thrive, but they’re tolerant of many different growing conditions, so they can be planted outdoors or grown on windowsills as houseplants.
Many parts of Africa are hot and dry, so it’s no surprise that many drought-tolerant succulent species originate from this part of the world.
Here are some of the succulents you might encounter in various parts of Africa:
Lithops – Living Stones
Lithops, more commonly known as Living Stones, are very popular. They are uniquely shaped and have features that most succulents don’t have, making them very interesting and decorative houseplants.
Lithops don’t have any stems. The entire plant consists of thick, fleshy leaves that sprout from the center of the plant in pairs.
These succulents are heat-tolerant as well as drought-tolerant. They can survive in intense sunlight for brief periods of time, and they can also tolerate very cold temperatures, although not for very long.
Aside from their fascinating features, another reason why Lithops are so popular in the world of houseplants is that they grow quite slowly compared to other succulents.
This means they can easily be grown in containers without constantly needing to repot them.
Haworthia Attenuata – Zebra Haworthia
Haworthia Attenuata, or the Variegated Zebra Plant, originally comes from South Africa. This plant is sometimes confused for Aloe, which makes sense because they are related.
Haworthia Attenuata shares many features with Aloe plants, including green, pointed leaves with white spots. Compared to some other African succulents, Haworthia Attenuata is less tolerant of direct sunlight. While it needs lots of light to thrive, it should be indirect.
This plant also needs thorough watering during the warmer months, but since it has a period of dormancy during the winter, it doesn’t need so much water during this time.
If you have a green thumb and like the idea of propagating your own succulents, Haworthia Attenuata is an excellent choice. This is because the plant grows offshoots that you can cut off and repot to grow new plants.
Aloe Juvenna – Tiger Tooth Aloe
Aloe Juvenna comes from Kenya originally. It grows in clumps that branch out from the base of the plant, and can range in color from a dark red to vibrant green.
The plant has been nicknamed ‘tiger tooth’ because of its edges, which are protected by sharp spines. You may also be able to identify Aloe Juvenna from the white spots on its leaves.
While some succulents are naturally very small, Aloe Juvenna can grow fairly tall, up to around 12 inches. However, these plants grow quite slowly, which means you should be able to keep Aloe Juvenna in the same container for a while.
If you’d like to grow Aloe Juvenna yourself at home, bear in mind that this succulent is very sensitive to overwatering. Therefore, you should always carefully check the soil’s moisture content before adding water to its pot.
It’s also important to provide Aloe Juvenna with a draining pot to avoid root rot.
Kalanchoe Rhombopilosa – Pies from Heaven
Kalanchoe Rhombopilosa is native to Madagascar, and in our opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful and unique-looking succulents in the world.
It’s common name is Pies from Heaven (yes, seriously). OK, bear with us, they are called Pies from Heaven because the leaves vaguely (very vaguely, with think), resemble the triangular shape of a slice of pie with the fluted pastry fringe at the edge of the leaf (pie slice).
This succulent’s leaves are a gorgeous silver-green color, flecked with copper-colored spots and flakes that look like pure silver. They are smaller than the average cactus, and combined with the fan shape of their leaves, this makes them look very dainty.
Kalanchoe Rhombopilosa also produces flowers, which are a yellow-green color with red stripes.
Haworthia Cymbiformis – Cathedral Window Haworthia
Haworthia Cymbiformis is a succulent species from South Africa. The plant grows in rosettes, which are thick and densely packed. The tips of the bright green leaves have streaks that look like glass, and they are truly fascinating to look at. Its common name is Cathedral Window Haworthia.
Haworthia Cymbiformis is not particularly high-maintenance, so it’s a good choice if you’re a plant enthusiast that doesn’t have a lot of time for hands-on gardening.
With that being said, it’s still important to be careful when watering. Like most succulents, this one is prone to root rot if there is too much moisture in its soil.
Succulents From South America
Many of the succulent plants that are native to South America belong to the genus Echinopsis. This genus comprises 128 individual species, and its name has its roots in the words ‘echinos’ and ‘opsis’, which mean ‘hedgehog’ and ‘sea urchin’ in Latin.
However, Echinopsis is not the only native succulent or cacti genus to South America. Some of the most abundant succulents in South America include:
Parodia Leninghausii – Yellow Tower Cactus
Parodia Leninghausii is also known as the Yellow Tower because it produces bright yellow flowers during the summer months.
This succulent is native to Brazil and has an interesting growth pattern, starting out in a globular shape and becoming more column-shaped as it reaches maturity – hence the name ‘Yellow Tower’.
Parodia Leninghausii is quite a hardy succulent. It can survive in light frost, although it still needs to be kept dry to avoid problems like root rot.
Echinopsis Mamillosa originally comes from Bolivia. It has a distinctive, globe-shaped stem and can reach a height of 12 inches (30 cm) once it’s mature.
This succulent grows by itself as opposed to clusters of stems like many other succulents and produces large, brightly-colored flowers. Because of this, Echinopsis Mamillosa is a popular choice for gardeners looking for decorative houseplants.
Echinopsis Scopulicola succulents are native to Bolivia. This cactus species grows straight upward and doesn’t tend to produce shoots.
Echinopsis Scopulicola can grow very large, with a maximum height of 13 feet (4m), although its diameter is usually just 4 inches (10 cm).
Something especially fascinating about this succulent is that its flowers only open at night and close during the late hours of the morning.
Central American Succulents
Moving up from South America to Central America, there is still a sizable cactus and succulent population. Here are a couple of the succulents you may not have known were native to Central America:
Pseudorhipsalis Ramulosa – Red Mistletoe Cactus
Pseudorhipsalis Ramulosa, known as Red Mistletoe Cactus, is native to both Central America and South America.
This is one of the few succulents in the world that doesn’t tolerate droughts well, so you’ll need to water it frequently if you decide to get one for your home. However, you’ll still need to take care not to overwater the plant, as it’s still susceptible to root rot.
It also needs indirect sunlight, since direct sunlight may burn its leaves. At the same time, too little sunlight can be damaging.
Pseudorhipsalis is definitely one of the more high-maintenance succulents you could choose from, but its vibrant flowers make it worth the effort in terms of decoration.
Originally, this succulent comes from Guatemala. It’s perennial and evergreen, and is most easily identified by its spoon-shaped leaves with scalloped edges, as well as by its rosette growing pattern.
These succulents also have uniquely-colored leaves. The leaves also have pink edges, which make them appealing as houseplants.
Echeveria Gibbiflora is not difficult to look after. You just need to make sure you give the plant enough exposure to indirect sunlight and don’t overwater it.
Succulents Of North America
Much of North America is not known for being dry or desert-like in terms of its climate. Because of this, many people don’t realize how many succulents actually originate from this part of the world.
However, North America is home to plenty of succulents, including:
Ferocactus Grusonii – Golden Barrel Cactus
Ferocactus is a genus of more than 20 cacti. Most cacti in this family have a cylindrical or barrel shape and some can grow very large.
This cactus is covered with spines that curve as the plant reaches maturity. These spines are particularly long and sharp, which explains the plant’s name (‘Fero’ means ‘fierce’ in Latin).
Pictured above is Ferocactus grusonii, commonly known as the Golden Barrel Cactus. It thrives in full sun and can withstand intense sunlight and high temperatures. In its native habitat of central Mexico, it typically grows in arid desert regions.
Ferocactus diguetii is impressive for its size as well as its spines. It can reach heights of 13 feet (4m), which makes it one of North America’s largest cacti.
Unlike many succulents and cacti, this species actually thrives in direct sunlight. However, like the majority of cacti, it doesn’t need much water.
You may also hear Dudleya Virens referred to as Dudleya Hassei. This succulent’s nickname is Catalina Island LiveForever because of its extreme resilience to harsh conditions, and the fact that Catalina Island is its native home.
Without exposure to full sun, these succulents have dull, gray leaves. However, when given the right amount of sunlight and water, the ends of the leaves turn pink.
Since Dudleya Virens likes to grow in clusters with other succulents of the same species, it makes excellent ground cover for small areas. However, it’s also happy to grow in a container as long as the soil is nutritious.
A fair percentage of the world’s succulent plants are native to Mexico! This includes species many succulent houseplant owners might be familiar with, such as Agave and Sedum succulents.
Pachycereus Marginatus – Mexican Fence Post Cactus
Also known as the Mexican Fence Post Cactus, Pachycereus Marginatus comes from Central Mexico. This cactus can grow to impressive heights in the right conditions, but it is slow-growing.
The reason for this succulent’s nickname is that when planted in a row, its height means it makes an effective natural barrier.
All you need to do to keep this succulent healthy is make sure it has enough warmth and sunlight. It doesn’t need much else and can grow either in a container or in the ground.
Graptopetalum Paraguayense – Ghost Plant
Nicknamed the Ghost Plant, Graptopetalum Paraguayense is a beautiful succulent. It has leaves shaped like triangles that grow outward from the stem of the cactus in a rosette shape.
These stems can be arranged into hanging or trailing plant displays, so this is a popular cactus for decorative purposes.
The color of this succulent varies depending on its growing conditions. Full sun without intense heat will lead to a pink-yellow hue, whereas extreme temperatures will turn the leaves mostly gray with a pink tinge.
Agave Filifera – Thread Leaf Agave
Agave Filifera is also known as the Thread Leaf Agave because of the fibers protruding from the edges of its leaves.
This succulent can range in color from dark green to golden brown, and its stem can reach heights of over 11 feet tall. When it flowers, it produces purple blooms that draw the eye almost as much as its unusual fibers.
Sedum Morganianum – Donkey’s Tail
Sedum Morganianum is one of the most unusual-looking succulents in the world. This perennial evergreen succulent is nicknamed either Lamb’s Tail or Donkey’s Tail depending on who you ask.
That’s because the spherical leaves of the succulent grow from a trailing stem, which make it perfect for hanging baskets and containers.
Not only is this succulent a unique and decorative choice for your home or garden, but it’s also low-maintenance and can survive in suboptimal growing conditions.
Echeveria Pulvinata – Chenille Plant
Echeveria Pulvinata is a vibrant succulent known for its appealing texture and appearance. The leaves of this plant are green, but they’re covered in a fuzzy, silvery hair that gives each leaf a texture similar to velvet. It is known commonly as the Chenille plant because of its leaf texture.
The bell-shaped flowers of this succulent can be orange, yellow, or red. You won’t need to do much to keep this plant flowering and healthy, but it’s very important not to expose it to freezing conditions, as it can’t tolerate extreme cold.
Guide To Succulent Care
Now that you know what succulents are and where they come from, you may be considering getting one (or several) for your home or garden.
However, before you do, it’s worth knowing how best to take care of a succulent, since these plants have different needs than most.
Although succulents are hardy plants that aren’t typically high-maintenance and can often tolerate being kept in less-than-optimal growing conditions, neglecting or even over-providing for your succulent can be damaging.
Here’s everything you need to know about looking after your succulent:
Indoor Vs Outdoor
Succulents can be grown either indoors or outdoors. This is part of their appeal to modern-day gardeners: they don’t require rigidly-maintained growing conditions, for the most part.
However, in most cases, growing a succulent indoors means it won’t get access to as much direct sunlight. Depending on your succulent species, this might not be a problem, and could actually be beneficial.
Most succulents can only tolerate full sunlight for about 6 hours a day, and they often need to be gradually acclimated to this. Remember, some succulents originate from rainforest habitats, and this means they’re used to filtered, indirect sunlight.
However, other species thrive best in direct sunlight, so if you know where you plan to keep your succulent, it’s worth doing some research and choosing a species that will thrive in the conditions you can provide.
If you don’t have the option to grow a succulent outside, don’t worry. Regardless of the species, your succulent should grow healthy and strong as long as you place it near a window. A sun-facing window is preferable.
Because succulents are drought-tolerant, they need watering less frequently than many other plants. However, you should still make sure you’re giving your succulent enough water on a regular basis if you want it to thrive.
The main concern when growing a succulent is over-watering. This is easy to do, especially if you’re used to watering other plants that need more hydration.
You should only water your succulents when the soil feels dry. Waterlogged soil is not healthy for succulents because it can lead to root rot. Always use your finger to probe the first couple of inches of soil before adding water.
If it feels moist or damp, wait a little longer and check again the following day.
A succulent is a plant with the ability to survive in dry conditions thanks to tissues in its leaves that are adapted for long-term water storage. Succulents are mostly native to Africa and Asia, as well as Central, South, and North America, including Mexico.
Succulents were originally brought to European countries such as Spain by explorers who discovered them in India.
Since then, succulents have become some of the most popular houseplants thanks to their low-maintenance care needs and unique appearances.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Succulents Sit In Water?
No. Although some succulents need more water than others due to their native habitats, all succulents are prone to root rot if allowed to sit in water for a long time.
How Long Do Succulents Live?
This entirely depends on the species. Some, such as Sempervivum, only stay alive for around five years, whereas Aloe succulents can live for up to 25 years. Growing conditions and care also impact a succulent’s lifespan.
How Do You Winterize Succulents?
Most succulents can’t tolerate very cold temperatures. This means that if you’re growing a succulent outdoors, you’ll need to winterize it by bringing it inside or providing some shelter during the fall and winter months.
See more in our guide to cold-hardy succulents.