Succulents (as the family that includes aeoniums, crassulas, sempervivums and echeverias is called) are enjoying a wave of renewed interest. They are natives of the Canary Islands, South Africa, Madagascar and Asia. Their bold architectural shapes, textural foliage, exciting colours, drought-tolerant nature and love of free-draining soil are turning them from the ugly ducklings of the gardening and floristry worlds into must-haves for anyone bent on creating a living spectacle that is both dramatic and ecologically conscious.
Pictured, Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’
‘These plants are contemporary in character,’ says garden designer Sarah Eberle, who regularly uses succulents, mixed with perennials, in her designs. ‘Their clear and precise forms are minimalist and sculptural, so they work well with modern buildings.’
Pictured, Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’
Succulents first came to the wider attention of British gardeners in the 1890s, when plant hunters from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, donated members of the species to Tresco Abbey Gardens, on one of the Isles of Scilly, where all our photographs were taken.
Pictured, the ruins of St Nicholas Priory, within the Abbey gardens
The Scilly Isles are less than 30 miles off the Cornish coast and blessed with a climate akin to the Mediterranean (courtesy of the Gulf Stream), which is ideal for many of the drought-tolerant plants grown by Tresco’s Victorian owner, Augustus Smith. He and his gardeners grew most of the specimens in glasshouses but over subsequent years, his family descendants have experimented with growing them outside.
Pictured, purple aeoniums and giant agaves line an enticing path through the garden.
Huge self-seeded sempervivums cover the arch of the St Nicholas Priory, the 12th-century ruins of which are a key feature of Tresco Abbey Gardens.
Today, the 17 acres of terraced gardens at Tresco Abbey are filled with more than 300 species of exotic plant, and many of them are succulents.
Pictured, sempervivums, often known as houseleeks
On mainland Britain, at Lullingstone Castle in Kent, succulent expert Tom Hart Dyke grows stunning species, such as Echeveria elegans and Aloe aristata, outside.
Pictured, Pachyphytum hookeri
More tender succulents are increasingly being used as the modern-day equivalent of traditional bedding plants; instead of busy Lizzies and pansies, aeonium and echeveria beautify terraces during the summer months, while florists are now employing them as a luxuriant alternative to flowers.
Native to warm climes where the winters are dry, these plants retain moisture in their leaves, so they can go for long periods without water. Mike Nelhams, Curator at Tresco Abbey Gardens, advises re-creating similar conditions in your garden. ‘Plant in a free-draining soil, in full sun,’ he says. ‘Agaves, beschornerias and puyas are happy in cold, but hate the winter wet.’ Wrap plants in horticultural fleece and erect an umbrella of glass or plastic over them.
Tom Hart Dyke, succulent expert at Lullingstone Castle, says succulents are happiest ‘in sloping beds of free-draining soil, near stones baked in the sun’.