Out-of-Madagascar Succulent House Plants

Much like the unique plants and wildlife of Galapagos Islands that evolved in isolation, the “endemic” plants of Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, are equally unique. (Endemic species are found in one place and nowhere else on Earth.) Madagascar succulent plants evolved to withstand the island’s extremely hot and often dry growing conditions and wide-ranging environments, from rain forests and dry forests to deserts. This is where some of our best succulents for easy outdoor (and indoor) cultivation originate. They overcame extremes of climate and epic drought to survive, yet they are beautiful and worthy of growing.

Madagascar succulents for growing come in dramatic sizes, shapes, and forms. Some are upright succulents with strong trunks that make good indoor trees and shrubs. These have long life spans and tend to have hard or woody stems. Larger sizes make them particularly valuable for “greening” indoor spaces where ceilings and light sources are high up. And, if it’s bright enough, some bloom. Here are three large, useful indoor or outdoor Madagascar endemics for planting.

Madagascar Palm

These large specimens of Pachypodium lamerei show its form. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

The Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11) isn’t a palm but is often mistaken for one. It is a big succulent beloved by designers for outdoor living spaces as well as indoor drama. Its big, fat, spiny trunks are topped with clumps of leaves. Mature specimens can reach many feet in a relatively small pot (those planted in the ground can reach up to 20 feet.), and spiny trunks prevent animal damage. After several years, a mature plant may produce flowers similar to those of Hawaiian plumeria.  Put your big Madagascar palm pot onto a rolling pot platform to bring it indoors in winter and out for the summer to accent that special patio.

Mother of Thousands

Mother-of-thousands has beautiful clusters of coral-red flowers.

Mother-of-thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana and Kalanchoe tubiflora, Zones 9-11) is one of the easiest plants you can grow.  It’s so fast-growing and drops so many seedlings it’s a weed in succulent nurseries because of it’s “mother of thousands” reputation.  She makes babies along her leaf edges that eventually detach and root, offering you plenty of volunteers.  You’ll save every single one after you experience the plant’s enormous coral-red pompom blossom clusters. Due to shade tolerance in hot-zone gardens, mother of thousands can grow in any home or come out to the garden after the last spring frost. So long as your pot is very well-drained, and you plant it in porous Black Gold® Cactus Mix, there should be no chance of overwatering.

Pencil Tree

Firesticks are easy to find in one-gallon pots timed for sale as holiday color accents. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

When the days grow short, the pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucalli, Zones 11-12) turns red-orange, leading to the popular name of the common, commercially-grown variety “firesticks” or ‘Sticks on Fire’.  Firesticks is sold by florists in winter for holiday color, so indulge, knowing that it will make a really good long-term house plant. This is a highly toxic species, so beware growing it if you have pets or kids. (Keep pencil tree up high and out of reach where the light is bright or refrain from growing it at all.)

Mature specimens will eventually reach a tree-like stature or become a big bush. (In the ground, they can reach 4-8 feet high.) Be careful when you prune off stems; the white sap is so toxic that it can cause temporary blindness if allowed to enter the eyes. In Africa, its sap was used as an arrow poison, so take these warnings seriously. Wear protective gloves and wash everything–tools and clothes–afterward pruning. (Click here to learn more about pencil tree toxicity.)

Planting Madagascar Succulents

Grow Kalanchoe tubiflora in lightweight pots for easy movement, unlike this heavy Mexican one. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

These tender succulents hold water in their stems and leaves and have shallower roots so that you can plant them in smaller-than-anticipated pots. Choose low, broad containers to help keep top-heavy specimens stable. A pot just large enough for anchorage that’s not tippy will do. One that’s relatively lightweight and easily moved indoors and out with the seasons is also recommended. Modern lightweight pots, made of composition or fiberglass, are a more portable choice than heavy ceramic pots, which are almost impossible to move without breaking or damaging floors.

Invest in rolling pot platforms for each floor pot to make them easy to move. This will allow you to roll them out and hose both plants and pots down thoroughly at winter’s end to renew their appearance for summer.

Hosing also removes dust and lingering pests. For smaller potted specimens, the shower works the same way.

Succulents were considered novelty plants until western droughts became more common and severe. Then everyone went crazy over succulents in the garden. Now everyone is going crazy about house plants. So, when the two come together, consider one of these plants from Madagascar. They’re exotic, easy, impressive, and will endure the most epic drought and survive, no sweat.

Mother of thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) has leaf edges covered with tiny plantlets that fall and root.


Create a Succulent Seascape Rock Garden

Well-chosen and placed succulents in picturesque rock gardens can have an underwater, seafloor appeal. The design key is selecting various dryland treasures with anemone-, coral-, and urchin-like forms and textures in shades of blue green, silver, gold and red. When arranged against a setting of bold rocks, lined with a ripple of pebbles and seashells, the effect is cool and inviting.

I created such a garden at my Delaware home to complement a stone and pebble patio being built along the south-facing wall of my 1920s Cape Cod house. The bed was constructed in four steps, and the plants were selected for their seascape appearance.

Most of the hardy succulents I chose for the project were purchased from the online nursery, Mountain Crest Gardens. Not only do they sell lots of hardy hens & chicks (Sempervivum spp.) and stonecrops (Sedum spp.), but they also offer hardy cacti (my favorite for spectacular spring flowers). And their succulents arrive thriving and ready to plant.


Rock Garden Materials

Nestle plants within crevices and gaps, making sure you leaves spaces for spreading succulents. (Sedum SUNSPARKLER® Dazzleberry and Sempervivum ‘Thunder’ shown)

My rock garden required the following materials:

  1. Sharp spade
  2. Trowel
  3. Large plastic tub
  4. Thick garden gloves
  5. Large rocks (my garden is 4’ x 5’ and required 10 rocks)
  6. Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and Black Gold Cactus Mix to amend the garden’s soil
  7. Pebbles and shells for topdressing
  8. Slow-release fertilizer
  9. Succulents


Bed Design and Construction

Once I had my rocks in place, I amended the fill soil and started planting!
  1. Sod and Soil Removal: The first step to preparing my garden was to remove the sod. Thankfully, my soil is high in organic matter, so removing the top layer of grass was relatively easy. I then skimmed a 2-inch layer of natural soil from the new bed layer to use as fill. I put the sod in a wheelbarrow for removal and the fill dirt in a plastic tub to keep the area tidy.
  2. Rock Placement: Then I placed my rocks. The natural dark grey and tan stones I chose are prevalent in my area, so they were a good fit for my yard. They also offered a pleasing color contrast to the plants and pebble. I set the largest rocks high against the concrete and stone base of my home for maximum visual appeal and gradually layered the smaller rocks down to patio level. I placed them close together at the top for a tight fit, so they would hold soil without erosion.
  3. Filling: Once my stones were in place, I mixed a liberal amount of Black Gold Cactus Mix and Garden Compost Blend into my fill. The final fill was pebbly and organic for excellent drainage and good water-holding ability. Then I filled in all the gaps between rocks, leaving enough space for my plantings.
  4. Plant Placement: Finally, I placed my plants, arranging them based on height, texture, and color, and prepared to plant.


Plant Materials

Most of my succulents were purchased online from Mountain Crest Gardens.

Aside from making sure that my plant selections would survive Delaware winters (USDA Hardiness Zone 7), I made sure they met a suite of aesthetic requirements. I chose a few taller textural plants, several cascading stonecrops, and other selections that were mounding and prickly. All are remarkably drought tolerant and tough, able to take the high heat and sun of the garden. My plant picks included:

Hybrid Prickly Pear (Opuntia ‘Coombe’s Winter Glow’, Zones 5-10). This hardy cactus has smooth paddles that lack the large spines of most, but beware those small spines! It has spectacular magenta blooms in late spring, and its paddles turn shades of rosy purple in winter.

Rosularia (Rosularia platyphylla, Zones 5-10): This spreading succulent looks like a tiny hens & chicks and creates a mat of sea-green rosettes.

Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum ‘Bronco’, Zones 5-10): This large hens & chicks has red and green rosettes that turn rich red in winter.

Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum ‘Thunder‘, Zones 5-10): The summer rosettes of this larger hens & chicks are grey-green tinted with lavender. In winter, they turn shades of deep lavender and rose.

Cobweb Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum arachnoideum ‘Pittonii’, Zones 5-8): This small hens & chicks has cobwebbed gray-green rosettes edged in dark purple.

Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum calcareum ‘Greenii’, Zones 5-10): The medium-sized, blue-green rosettes of this sedum have maroon tips.

Tiny Buttons Stonecrop (Sedum hispanicum ‘Blue Carpet’, Zones 5-9): This low, spreading sedum has tiny buttons of blue-grey foliage.

Hybrid Stonecrop (Sedum SUNSPARKLER® Dazzleberry, Zones 4-9): Purplish leaves and summer-long flowers of deep rose make this a winning sedum.

Hybrid Stonecrop (Sedum SUNSPARKLER® Jade Tuffet, Zones 4-9): This small, upright sedum has slender, dark green leaves and summer-long pink flowers.

Chinese Stonecrop (Sedum tetractinum ‘Coral Reef’, Zones 5-9): This pretty sedum has yellow spring flowers and bright green leaves that turn pinkish with age.

Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, Zones 5-10): The gold-striped leaves of this 18-inch yucca are bright and bold.

My seascape rock garden includes stonecrops, hens & chicks, and other dryland succulents with coral-reef looks.

I put on my garden gloves and started planting the largest plants at the top, then moved down. During planting, I gently loosened the roots of any pot-bound plants, and dug a hole just big enough to ensure each plant’s roots were just at soil level. Then I sprinkled a small amount of slow-release fertilizer into each hole before planting. Once all of the plants were in the ground, I covered the soil with light pebbles and placed seashells here are there for a complete seascape look.


Garden Development

In just a couple of months my bed was blooming and growing, just as anticipated.

Within just a couple of months, my new garden started to take shape. The prickly pear put on new pads, the stonecrops and hens & chicks started to spread, and the SUNSPARKLERS began blooming beautifully. Come next summer, the full seascape effect should be in full sway, adding sunny, succulent interest to my new patio!