The succulent trend is still very much alive in the design and gardening world. Run a quick Etsy search and you’ll find 62,331 results for “succulent” and another 77,723 results specifically for “cactus,” most of which are not the plants or handmade containers for them. There are 2,554 pieces of succulent jewelry, and another 1,462 non-jewelry succulent accessories. I totally get it. Succulents and cacti are resilient, strange, and beautiful plants with an exotic quality, especially to us here in the Northeast. They elicit thoughts of hot deserts and big skies, at least for me.
I’m a sucker for these drought-tolerant plants, and have a growing collection of them in our home. This love for succulents and cacti started before I knew much at all about the importance of ecological gardening, and perused Sunset in awe of the drought-tolerant landscapes of the Southwest. (Yes, I get Sunset magazine, which friends find funny. My grandmother used to subscribe, and so I started too. It’s escapism.)
If you’re into succulents but also understand the importance of gardening outside with plants that contribute to a healthy ecosystem, I’ve got a few plant recommendations that serve both botanical interests.
Devil’s tongue (Opuntia humifusa)
This one, by far, is the best match for Northeastern succulent lovers. Also called low prickly pear or smooth prickly pear, this is the only cactus widespread in the Northeast. It’s a low perennial with striking yellow flowers that precede edible fruit, and really the closest thing you’re going to get to that desert vibe here in Jersey.
Prickly pear has been used in traditional Mexican cuisine for thousands of years, and both the pads and fruit can be eaten. If you’re successful enough in growing this awesome native succulent and get lots of fruit from it, the juice from the fruit makes great jelly and can also be used in candy.
That’s not all:According to WebMD (yep, that’s right), prickly pear cacti, which are rich in pectin and fiber, are used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, hangovers, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), as well as to fight viral infections.
Not surprisingly, native bees and honey bees also love it. The yellow blooms are easy to find, and as Dave Taft points out in this New York Times article, the stamens within the bowl-shaped flowers actually lean in toward the bee. “Finding an open flower, a bee dives in, swimming through masses of pollen-laden anthers and vibrating its body rapidly to loosen the pollen grains,” Taft writes. “It turns out this activity is hardly necessary: prickly pear cactus stamens are ‘thigmotactic,’ that is, they are mobile, and bend inward when stimulated. The stamens proactively bend in toward the bee, dusting its fuzzy coat with pollen.”
Devil’s tongue (obviously the best of its names) likes sun and very dry, sandy and rocky areas best, though I’ve read that it’s somewhat adaptable and does alright with a half-day of sun in well-drained clay or loam soil. In spreads quickly and can be transplanted by sticking the cut side of a pad down into sand.
My plan is to give this a shot as a container plant, so that the bees can enjoy it but I can manipulate its environment a bit. If devil’s tongue is growing in your garden, tell me about it in the comments or on Facebook.
More Ideas for Succulent Lovers
Woodland Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
This trailing sedum with tiny succulent leaves and white flowers that bloom from April through June deserves a post of its own, because it’s such a great little plant for anyone—especially people who are into succulents. It’s a groundcover that likes part shade and damp, rocky areas, which would make it a really nice one for those of you with backyard ponds. We planted it on the roof of a bluebird house Tim made and chickadees call home, which is an idea we got on walk through Longwood Gardens’ meadow.
Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa)
This is another succulent that can be found in the Northeast, and is a good pick for Shore dwellers. Adam’s needle likes well-drained to dry, course sand. It has these bold spikes surrounding a cluster of white bell-shaped flowers that can reach up to 3 feet high. Cherokees used it to stun fish, making them easier to collect. In Spanish tradition, parents plant this yucca under a daughter’s window to keep boys out with its sharp spiky leaves.
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
While this one isn’t a true succulent, its glossy kidney-shaped leaves and bright, strong buttercup-like flowers might also appeal to you. It does best in wet, rich soils so it’s a great addition to your rain garden or in the shallow water around a backyard pond. It’s a cheery spring bloomer worth planting if you’ve got the right conditions. (Note: There is an invasive plant called “celandine” that people often mistake for marsh marigold. It sounds negative, but if you think you already have marsh marigold, it’s probably the invasive.)
Northeast Native Ferns
If the aspects that draw you to succulents are their sense of mystery and low maintenance, ferns are another great pick. Ferns are green and wild and delicate and ornate, and certain varieties in particular (Ostrich fern and hay-scented fern, for example) can spread quickly and beautifully. Imagine ferns blanketing the ground of an otherwise dormant forest, or the unfurling of a fern’s frond’s in spring. They’re downright magical, and there are dozens of native species to try. (Read this post on gardening in the shade for some fern ideas.)