“My succulent house plants have dry leaves in the middle of the stem and black spots. Why is this happening?” Question from Karina of Wenatchee, Washington
Answer: Succulent plants can develop dry leaves when they are being either overwatered or underwatered. The black spots and the fact that leaves are drying and dying in the center of the stem indicates stem and root rot, which is caused by a fungal infection that develops when plants are being overwatered. (Click here for some great images of overwatered succulents.) Sadly, central spotting and leaf death is an indication that your plant is dying and will not recover.
Succulents have had a place in my home since I was in college. In fact, as life became busier and busier, I began to replace more tender, needy house plants with resilient succulents. By the time I had children, I only had succulent indoor plants. Then I realized that hanging succulents were even more convenient because they were out of reach from the kids and cats. They are beautiful and convenient if you have lots of windows that stream sunlight into your home. Some can even take the partial sun.
Another perk is that succulents lack the woes of average, needier hanging plants. They don’t need to be constantly watered and tended to due to higher exposure to the elements. Succulents are much slower to dry out and far more forgiving if the soil runs a little dry. The foliage will continue to look lush as long as you keep giving them a little care each week.
It is good for the health of any house plant to be taken outdoors during the frost-free growing months. Hang them along a bright porch or patio where they will get some protection from the high midday sun and strong winds. Regardless of their drought-tolerant status, they will still require weekly to twice-weekly water when outdoors. Light, slow-release fertilizer, and intermittent water-soluble fertilizer will encourage robust growth. They must be well-rooted and established in their baskets before they are fully tolerant of dry heat and winds, so keep a more watchful eye on new plantings.
When you take them indoors in fall as house plants, give them direct sunlight or bright filtered light. Water much less during the cold months–excess water can induce crown or root rot. Thorough water two to three times a month should be sufficient, depending on the plant, pot, temperature, and humidity. (Click here to learn more about winter succulent care.)
Securing Hanging House Plants
If you have a mantle and little inclination to secure hooks to your ceiling, place hanging plants along the edge. Tall, sturdy plant stands also work. Otherwise, hanging plants should be hung from hooks or brackets. Strong hangers and hooks hung over wooden rafters or securely mounted to a wooden ceiling beam are your safest options. Proper installation is key.
Choose a large, solid metal hook to mount in a ceiling joist (supporting beam) to hang a plant. Start with the basic materials: a step ladder, stud finder, pencil, and cordless drill set with the right bit (it should be a little smaller than the hook’s threaded shaft). Stud finders make it easy to find joists. Once you find the right spot, mark it with your pencil, and then drill a straight hole in the spot that is a little deeper than the length of the hook’s threaded shaft. Twist the hook’s base in until flush, and you’re done.
Hanging Succulents for Foliage
Burros, Dolphins, Donkeys, Pearls, and Pickles: There are several senecios that are uniquely attractive. Each grows to great lengths–up to 3 feet or more–and has whimsical succulent strands. Blue Pickle Vine (Senecio radicans ‘Glauca’) has strands of fun, blue-green, pickle-like leaves. String of Dolphins (Senecio peregrinus) is somewhat similar, but its curved fleshy leaves look almost dolphin-like. Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’) has dense strands of rounded, succulent leaves that look a bit like tails. Donkey’s tails are nearly identical, but the succulent leaves have sharper tips, and the stems tend to grow longer. Finally, Variegated String-of-Pearls (Senecio rowelianus ‘Variegatus’) is one of the easiest and prettiest succulent hanging plants to grow. Its grey-green stems are lined with round baubles of foliage with streaks of ivory and pink highlights. This one’s a little harder to come by, but Mountain Crest Gardens carries it often. Unusual white or lavender-pink flowers rarely appear on each of these plants.
Dancing Bones (Hatiora salicornioides) is a unique spineless cactus. Though delicate, yellow flowers often grace its stems, its glorious, mop-head of foliage is the main show. Grow it in a strong, sturdy hanging basket or tall container. Happy plants mature quickly and become large, so be sure you hang it from a strong hook secured to a beam.
String-of-Turtles (Peperomia prostrata) has flattened, translucent leaves that look much like tiny turtle shells. In time, the plant will form a dense mat of dangling stems. This one can take a little less light. On rare occasions, it may produce spikes of reddish-brown flowers that rise from the foliage.
Variegated String-of-Hearts(Ceropegia woodii ‘Variegata’) has delicate, heart-shaped succulent leaves of silvery-white, pink, and dark green that dangle from the dark stems for an impressive show. It is one of the easier house plants that you can grow, and it does not disappoint when it comes to good looks.
Hanging Succulents for Flowers and Foliage
Chandelier Plant (Kalanchoe manginii) becomes massive with age, so choose a substantial container from the start. Its dense stems have rounded succulent leaves. From late winter to early spring, copious orange to salmon-pink bells bloom for weeks. During the rest of the year, the lush foliage of this Madagascar native looks attractive. Thin out excessive older growth to encourage new.
Flower Dust Plant (Kalanchoe pumila) has very bright silvery-white, almost dusty leaves that spill from any container or hanging basket. When this Madagascar native becomes laden with pretty pink flowers, it looks even prettier. Like chandelier plant, it flowers in late winter and spring.
Rattail Cactus (Disocactusflagelliformis) develops long strands of finely-spined stems that cascade down to form a hair-like mop. Spectacular, large cactus flowers of pink, reddish-pink, or purplish-red appear from spring to summer. Prune off any excessive stems or those that become damaged or tangled.
Easy to Propagate and Share
Most succulents and cacti can be propagated from leaf or stem cuttings. The rarer your plant, the more you will want to propagate it for gifting and friends. Here is what you will need to take stem or leaf cuttings from your hanging succulents.
Rooting hormone with an anti-fungal additive (optional)
Use a sharp knife to gently cut healthy leaves from the stem. Dip the bases of the leaves, or a stem tip, into rooting hormone; rooting hormone hastens the rooting process and reduces rot but is not necessary. Gently moisten the perlite or potting mix in your shallow pots, and nestle the bases of the leaves into the mix. Place the pots in a spot with bright, filtered light and keep the perlite or mix lightly moist to almost dry. Over a matter of weeks, the bases will root and small plantlets will appear. You can pot them up once they have several leaflets.
Create an easy fairy garden filled with tender succulents that will look great through summer and winter. We used a bowl-shaped planter filled with Black Gold Cactus Mix and lots of beautiful succulents from Mountain Crest Gardens. Product links are below.
When it comes to a good potting mix for succulents, fast drainage is essential. A good succulent mix must drain very well but also have some organic matter. Black Gold Cactus Mix has the perfect balance of good drainage and organic matter. When choosing a pot, pick one that is several inches larger than the last and has drainage holes at the bottom as well as a saucer to catch water.
Once your succulents are newly planted, it is smart to top the soil with decorative gravel to keep the surface dry and attractive. Pebbles and gravel for terrariums come in different sizes, textures, and colors. Those in light shades let plants stand out without overstatement.
“What succulents will grow outdoors in Colorado ZIP 80021, Growing Zone 6?” Question from Joe of Westminster, Colorado.
Answer: I love hardy succulents and have written about them extensively because they are beautiful and easy to grow in many areas of the country, with good bed prep. I see that Westminster has an average rainfall of 17-inches per year, a good bit lower than the 38-inch-per-year national average, so you live in dry country. Thankfully, there are loads of hardy cacti and succulents beautifully adapted to your Zone 6 Cold Hardiness. Here is a very small sample of my favorites.
Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi): This amazingly cold-hardy agave can survive winter cold to Zone 4, as long as the winters remain quite dry. It is compact and has tough, silvery foliage with sharp black tips. Plant it in very well-drained soil.
It’s important to mention that you have a very good source for cold-hardy cacti and succulents close to you called Cold Hardy Cactus. It offers an excellent list of beautiful and unusual succulents well adapted to the drier regions of Colorado.
“What are the best flowers to plant in hanging baskets for high desert? We have lots of wind also?” Question from Jill of Greybull, Wyoming
Answer: There are several options for you. All of the plants I will mention are tender in your area. Some can be brought indoors to overwinter while others are best treated as flowering annuals. In this list, I avoided the common hanging succulents, like string-of-pearls and donkey tails, because they lack impressive flowers. (Click here to learn more about these hanging succulents.) Regardless of the drought-tolerant status of these hanging flowering plants, all will still require regular daily water in the growing months. They will also need to become well-rooted and established in their baskets before they are fully tolerant of dry heat and winds.
Here are a few long-blooming hanging basket plants to consider for your high-desert garden.
Hanging Drought-Resistant Flowers
Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis): Hummingbirds love the flowers of this trailing Mexican native. It has very fine foliage and becomes covered with red, tubular flowers all season long, with good care. It is tolerant of both wind and drought.
Trailing lantana (Lantana sellowiana): This extra drought-tolerant lantana produces many clusters of white-eyed lavender flowers that are visited by butterflies. It grows well as a seasonal ground cover but also looks great in hanging baskets.
Silverleaf geranium (Pelargonium sidoides): This tough, droughty geranium has pretty silver leaves and dark red flowers that bloom nonstop if you remove the old flowers. It grows well as a groundcover but also looks lovely in hanging baskets and containers. You can also bring this one indoors in winter.
Hanging Flowering Succulents
Flowering purslane (Portulaca umbraticola): You will want to grow these beautiful succulent annuals for their brilliantly colored flowers. They are perfect for hanging baskets and bloom all season long. You can also try the common and closely related moss rose, but it is a little less drought tolerant.
“I was gifted Sinocrassula yunnanensis seeds. What’s the best way to germinate seeds.” Question from Lizzy of Ocala, Florida
Answer: The seeds of the rare Asian succulent Sinocrassula yunnanensis need some care for effective germination. The beautiful plants have nearly black foliage and form dense, succulent clumps. Bloom time is in fall or early winter, and the flowers are ivory with red tips.
The seeds should not be covered when sown. They need to be planted in winter and kept under cool growing conditions (65 to 55 degrees F) beneath grow lights. Plant them in a well-drained Seedling Mix with lots of extra perlite. The seeds should take 2-3 months to germinate. After germination, water the seedlings very little to avoid any chance of rot. The soil should be kept just lightly moist. When they get large enough to transplant, plant them in a very well-draining potting mix, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix.
Many believe Dr. Seuss’ Truffula Tree was inspired by a curious cypress in a San Diego park. But maybe this isn’t true at all. Maybe it’s San Diego’s epic ponytail palms that were the real inspiration for the Lorax story. These are botanically known as Beaucarnea (“beautiful flesh” in Latin), a name that refers to the broad, fleshy bases of these succulent trees.
Ponytail Palms for the Landscape
Young, one-gallon, potted ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, 4-30 feet) are sold at affordable prices at florists, succulent nurseries, and most other garden centers. A native of Mexico, it is not a true palm but instead more closely related to lilies. It grows slowly and luxuriously, but in time will reach landscape proportions in mild climates where it will become a beautiful and long-lived specimen. Here in Palm Springs, this common house plant is an incredible landscape specimen that can reach 30-feet in height.
Ponytail Palms for the Home
Get the same miniature palm-tree look for your home or apartment with these evergreen “trees” for bright rooms. Its foliage grows longer and longer, just like hair, so ponytail palms become more feminine and elegant looking with time. They can be easily moved outdoors after the last frost in colder climates with little summer rainfall. Or you can place them on a dry, sunny porch where they will be protected from excess rain. Outside in the desert they tolerate intense sun.
Ponytail Palm Growth Habit
The wide base of this plant is a unique structure called a caudex. Its a drought adaptation found in many woody succulents. Inside the semi-woody caudex are succulent cells that take up water quickly and hold it for a long time. The foliage remains luxurious, even with minimal soil moisture.
When fully hydrated, the caudex is smooth and hard to the touch. As it dehydrates, during the depths of the dry season, it looks and feels like an overripe cantaloupe. Subtle depressions appear at the sites of maximum moisture loss. You might see wrinkles show up on the outer skin as the diameter of the drying caudex shrinks. These are all signs that a ponytail palm needs water.
This caudex is its most vulnerable part of the Beaucarnea. Its thin bark protects it from injury and infection, which is the most fatal problem for succulent species. Inside tissue is sterile, much like your own body. If the bark or skin is breached in any way (nicked or punctured), microorganisms are allowed to invade. Often they are carried inside by rain or irrigation water, which creates the perfect conditions for rot to flourish. A tiny wound can take down a huge specimen if it is exposed to excess moisture.
Ponytail Palm Care
For best indoor results, grow these succulents in fast-draining Black Gold Cactus Mix to keep moisture under control. Use only pots with large drainage holes. More succulents are killed by heavily absorptive soils and over-watering than death by dehydration, so when in doubt wait a week and then maybe water. Ponytails need more water during the warm season. In winter, water very sparingly, and when you water avoid wetting the caudex!
With large, old plants caudex injury is a worst-case scenario. Once the caudex is breached, on a plant large or small, and infection takes hold, the only way to try and save it is to carve out all the damaged tissue. It’s a lot like skin cancer surgery where layer after layer is removed until the tissue shows no more discoloration. Then refrain from watering. It will heal with an ugly callused scar upon the beautiful flesh of the trunk, but at least the plant will be saved.
Use this same technique if you get rot spots on young, indoor ponytail palms. Do surgery with a razor-sharp knife, then allow all exposed tissue to dry out in the shade afterward. A dry callus will form to seal it off from infection.
Beaucarnea is one of the most underrated landscape plants for arid zones and house plants for contemporary homes. Affordable, architectural in form, adaptable, and requiring minimal moisture, its design possibilities are endless. Just remember, the ponytail palm is not a palm at all but a beautiful head of long green hair upon a most graceful body.