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Echeverian Beauty among the Rocks

By William Scheick
Contributing Editor

The skeptical look on my neighbor’s face expressed even more than she had said. She had briefly wondered aloud whether the in-ground echeverias we were observing could survive local outdoor conditions. Apparently, their dainty rosettes seemed to her a bit too delicate to endure as outside plantings in our Austin neighborhood.

Like most of us, she was familiar with this succulent primarily as a popular houseplant. Since the late-18th century, varieties of houseplant echeveria (pronounced ECH-AH-VER-E-AH) have been cherished for their exquisite leaf colors and forms, particularly spiral variations of their foliage. And their low maintenance has long enhanced their attractiveness as houseplants.

Echeverias are so unfussy that they can be easily grown in a dish or a glass. In fact, ‘Afterglow,’ ‘Lola,’ crimson-tipped Pulido’s echeveria and tiny E. bella have recently emerged as featured selections in Terrarium Craft (2011) by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant. If echeverias can do well in a dish or a glass, their home-care must indeed be minimal.

Less well known, though, is the fact that outdoor care for some echeverias is also minimal. While it’s true that echeveria species and hybrids vary in requirements, a few types can be successfully maintained outside year-round from North Central Texas southward. They can be grown outdoors in containers and also in the ground.

Actually, some echeverarias are Texas natives, including E. strictiflora. Sometimes called desert savior, this Far West Texas hummingbird magnet ekes out a precarious existence among rockslides. Even so, as Geyata Ajilvsgi has reported in Wildflowers of Texas, this scarlet-flowered succulent also “grows well in cultivation, both in containers and in native xeriscaped gardens.” The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which provides two photographs of E. strictiflora (www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ECST), recommends “a little shade in arid regions” when gardening with this native succulent.

Mexico is the epicenter for echeverias, but even there they are frequently found among highland rocky cliffs. So despite their delicate appearance, many echeverias are tougher than they look. Moreover, according to Dr. Robert Barth (owner of Oracle Gorge Cactus Nursery in Westlake), “many of those seen in cultivation are garden hybrids which are often hardier and more vigorous than the naturally-occurring species.”

That’s good news. The trouble is, though, that too often echeverias are marketed without adequate or any taxonomic information. Many are simply tagged as “echeveria,” often with the unhelpful word “assorted.” Echeveria species cross and recross with extraordinary ease to form hard-to-identify hybrids, and they have also been crossed with other genera, including sedum. Consequently, the back-story of too many marketed echeverias generally remains a mystery, sometimes to a gardener’s disadvantage. Just how difficult this matter can be is evident in Gwen Moore Kelaidis’s handsome Hardy Succulents (2008), which includes a number of pictured echeverias without ever identifying any of them by species or cultivar name. So when selecting any echeveria for outdoor planting, it helps to get a reliably tagged plant or a recommendation from experienced local personnel — in the Austin area, for example, from Oracle Gorge (512-327-1173), the Living Desert (www.livingdesertcactus.com) or the Natural Gardener (www.naturalgardeneraustin.com).

SOUTHWARD ECHEVERIAS
Gardeners in San Antonio and farther south can count on carpet echeveria (E. agavoides) as an outdoor plant. Actually, judging from the new 2012 USDA plant hardiness zone map, Central Texas gardeners (zone 8b) should also be able to grow this succulent year-round outside. There are a number of striking cultivars of this Mexican plant, including ‘Maria,’ ‘Lipstick,’ ‘Prolifera,’ ‘Stockton,’ ‘Red Edge’ and ‘Ebony.’

The flowers of carpet echeveria are typically red, as are the tips of its foot-wide, bright green foliage. You might, however, get lucky and find you have a yellow-flowered one. Usually carpet echeveria forms solitary rosettes instead of colonies. Hardy between 15º and 20º F, it does best when positioned in Lone Star garden borders with bright light, not direct sun-exposure.

With the same hardiness of between 15º and 20º F, red echeveria (E. ‘Pulv-Oliver’) will ornament a rocky incline, a task it performs nicely (for instance) in mass plantings at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, California. This succulent has red-tipped, fuzzy, pale-green foliage reaching 10 or so inches in height, but it spreads easily and is incredibly cute. Like carpet echeveria, in Texas ‘Pulv-Oliver’ should be protected from too much direct exposure to sunlight.

For even more of a groundcover look, there’s prolific echeveria (E. prolifica). It lives up to its name “prolific” by readily producing numerous miniature silvery-green rosette offsets. Sharing the common name “hen and chicks” with several other plants, this succulent is as cold hardy as carpet and red echeverias and, like them, should be protected from sun-scorch.

Gardeners in Far South Texas have even more options, including painted echeveria (E. nodulosa), ‘Fire and Ice’ (E. subrigida) and various hybrids, such as ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Violet Queen.’ Each is cold hardy to 20º F, which is safely below the 25º F low typical for zone 9b. The wide-spreading cabbage echeveria (E. gibbiflora) would be a reasonable bet, too, in Far South Texas.

The windowsill beauty ‘Perle von Nürnberg,’ a popular cross between Echeveria gibbiflora var. metallica and E. potosina, could be risked outdoors in the Brownsville area. So could the aptly named peacock echeveria (E. peacockii), with gorgeous six-inch, blue-green rosettes tinged with lavender. Unfortunately, two very different-looking plants are taxonomically identified as E. peacockii, and it is helpful when the more beautiful (if less “true”) one is tagged as E. subsessilis.

NORTHWARD ECHEVERIAS
Farther north, including the Austin area, some gardeners have been successfully exploiting microclimate niches to cultivate peacock echeverias as year-round in-ground plantings. And they have also been zone-pushing both cabbage and painted echeverias.

The most tried-and-true species that survives outdoors in most of Texas, though, is Runyon echeveria (E. runyonii). The plant is named for Dr. Robert Runyon, who is said to have found it growing in a Matamoros garden during the early 1900s. It forms attractive fleshy rosettes with occasional arching spikes flaunting floral vases.

‘Topsy Turvy’ is a Runyon echeveria featuring lightly hued blue-gray foliage with leaf-tips curving inward toward the center of the plant. It is a fast-grower, readily yielding offsets and spectacular flowers. It has been reported (at Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina) to withstand 7º F.

Blue echeveria (E. glauca) can withstand 10º F. In favorable settings, each blue echeveria will form an 8-inch blue-green rosette that rapidly expands by producing clumped “pups.” It’s a great choice for garden margins.

While E. runyonii and E. glauca can endure winter in most of Texas, their foliage tends to suffer some weather-related tissue damage here and there. At least that is what I have seen in Central Texas. So, come spring, some cosmetic pruning might be necessary.

Actually, cold is less of an issue with Runyon and blue echeverias than is summer sunlight. In Austin, I have found, outdoor echeverias typically wither away under blasting summer sunlight. So, as I have suggested above, these succulents perform best in brightly lit settings, though some direct exposure to morning sunlight should be all right.

Even in ideal beds, echeverias slow down in triple-digit weather followed by hot nights. There is nothing you can do about this except remember that your outdoor echeverias are not ill when they seem to “stall” around mid-summer. If they have not been damaged by excessive dehydration, they will spring back into action when the weather cools a bit.

WATERING
If scorching sunlight is more of an echeverian issue than cold, so is winter rain. Vulnerable to too much moisture, echeverias fail in soggy beds. In their natural rocky settings, rain briefly saturates echeveria roots and then quickly drains away. So automatic sprinklers are out of the equation for success with garden echeverias. Should forecasted rain become a likely problem, you can temporarily cover in-ground echeverias with a tarp just as you would cover them with blankets during an exceptional cold snap.

To ensure adequate drainage, a good brand of cactus soil mixture should suffice. To facilitate dryness close to the plant, it is common to situate outdoor echeverias among rocks, stones or crushed granite. That way, there is no surface dirt that can become saturated and enable foliage-rot. Incidentally, all dead echeveria foliage should be carefully cut off to prevent problems, particularly infestation by mealy bugs.

Occasional watering, when indicated by dry soil or limp foliage, fosters plant health. Generally, according to Dr. Barth at Oracle Gorge Cactus Nursery, “as relatively rapid growers, echeverias require more water than most succulents.”

How should echeverias be watered? Their rosettes are designed to capture and funnel water to shallow roots, suggesting that overhead watering makes sense. And that’s fine in arid locales, but it’s not recommended in humid settings. If moisture does not completely drain away or evaporate from the plant crown, an echeveria can rot. So in most of Texas it is safer to water the stones beside your echeverias.

Good luck, though, when trying not to splash!

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