University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
SUCCULENTS FOR INDOORS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
So just what are “succulents”? Generally, they are tender (not tolerant of
cold) plants with thick or fleshy leaves. In recent years a whole range of
species have been introduced to gardeners, mainly as outdoor seasonal
plants, but which make great plants indoors too. Here are ten good
choices, starting with three of the older standards—aloe, ponytail palm,
and jade plant.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is an ingredient often found in many skin and hair
care products. It also is known to be very effective in treating burns,
thus, it's a good lotion to keep handy in the kitchen near the stove. Or,
gently rub some sap from a leaf on the burn, then repeat after a few
minutes. The burn will go away, and the skin should heal quickly. In fact,
some of the newer sunburn lotions are close to 100 percent aloe sap.
Although aloe is grown in desert gardens in mild climates, it can easily
be grown as a potted plant in our climate as well. The aloe will produce
offshoot plants, which can be removed and potted.
Pony-tail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is not really a palm at all..
It has a characteristic palm-like shape, stem and leaves, with an expanded
and flaring base. The leaves are two to six feet long and are often
twisted. The leaves actually do look like a pony-tail. The flowers and
fruit are seldom seen in cultivation as plants must be quite large to
Pony-tail palm has a moderate growth rate and is often used in interior
beds or as a potted specimen. Indoors, it usually reaches a height of one
to three feet and a width of one to two feet. Under high light in
conservatories, or where it can be grown outdoors, it may reach 20 or more
feet high, with the flaring base several feet across!
The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) gets its name from the Latin
crassus meaning thick or swollen, which refers to the leaves and stems of
this and many other species. The leaves are glossy green (dark jade color,
hence the name), and occasionally have red margins. One cultivar even has
variegated leaves. The flowers are star-shaped and white to pale pink in
Jade plant has a moderate growth rate and may grow one to two feet in
height and width. The plant may need a heavy soil or pot to keep from
toppling as older plants become top-heavy. When watering the jade
plant, do not let the leaves get water on them because this will cause
leaf spots. If you are successful with this plant and want more, simply
take leaf or stem cuttings and root them in potting mix to grow additional
plants. Watch for mealybug insects, small white masses particularly
where leaves join stems.
Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata) is appropriately named for it
thick, dark green, fleshy and quite pointed leaves that arise from low on
the plant. They are quite marked with regular, horizontal white
stripes. Since its roots are shallow, you can give it a shallow
pot. Repot every year or two, as the plants need to get rid of old
roots to grow new ones. It only grows about 5 or 6 inches tall and
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) has whitish leaves from the soft
hairs covering them, making them irresistible to feel. Leaf edges
often have attractive contrasting red hairs. This succulent grows
upright, from 12 to 18 inches tall.
Hahn’s bird’s nest (Sansevieria trifasciata) often goes by its
genus name of just sansevieria (said as san-se-Veer-ee-ah). It has a
rosette of wide, tough leaves with irregular horizontal lighter
bands. It tolerates low light. It is compact, only getting
about 6 inches high and tall. Leaves are typically green, but you
may find ones with some gold.
There are a range of echeveria (said as etch-eh-Veer-ee-ah) you may find,
with thick leaves in rosettes of white, roses, and blues. Most
remain a few inches high and wide. Don’t let water sit in the rosettes or
it may lead to rots. Remove any dead, lower leaves as these are a
haven for mealybugs.
There are several senecio (said as sin-Ess-ee-o) you may find, generally
with tubular steely blue or grayish green leaves, and going by
descriptive names such as “chalk fingers” or “blue chalk sticks”.
Some of these remain low, others can reach a foot or more tall and easily
stretch if not in full light. If too tall, simply “pinch” them back
to promote branching.
Tree houseleek (Aeonium) come in many variations, from upright with
shiny black leaves (‘Zwartkop’ black rose), to bright colors of pale
yellow, white, green, and pink tips (‘Sunburst’), or pale yellow centers
when young maturing to red and green (‘Kiwi’ or ‘Tricolor’). Aeonium
often have woody and long, sometimes arching, stems with the rosettes of
leaves on the ends. They somewhat resemble echeveria, only with
Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) is actually related to the
poinsettia, having a white milky sap (and other common name of
Milkbush). Avoid getting the sap on skin or in eyes, as it may cause
a reaction. Leaves as you might guess are pencil thickness, or less,
and long. Plants can be highly branched and get 2 or 3 feet tall and
wide inside (up to 30 feet tall in their native Africa and India), but are
easily kept in bounds with judiciously pruning. This also helps
correct leggy plants. One selection with fiery red and orange young
leaves, turning green with age, is called Firesticks or a variation on
Although succulents prefer high light, they often adapt well to low light
of homes. Best is bright light most the day, such as a south-facing
window, or at least a half day of good sun as in an east-facing
window. If your plant starts to “stretch”, getting tall and lanky
with space between leaves, it isn’t getting enough light. Also,
rotate plants weekly if they are bending toward a light or window.
Succulents prefer the dry humidity of indoors, and don't like
overwatering. But they do like warmth. Be sure to keep them away from door
drafts, and from touching cold windows in winter.
A well-drained soilless mix with sand or perlite is the best potting
medium. Although the fertility needs for succulents is low, plants may
become pale and red if it is too low or they are too dry. One
fertilization in spring, with a general houseplant fertilizer, usually
Allow the potting medium to dry between waterings. Make sure pots don’t
sit in a saucer of water. Water less when the plant is inactive,
perhaps only once every couple of weeks, but water well when you do. When
plants are actively growing, probably water them once a week. One rule of
thumb is that the thicker the leaves, generally the less water the plant
needs. The thick leaves that make them “succulent” are designed to
store water under dry conditions.
Jade plant and succulents with fleshy leaves are easy to propagate.
If you want to make more plants, simply place leaves on damp soil to root
and grow new plants.
Consider and look for succulents this growing season for outdoor
containers, particularly smaller containers you might bring indoors to
enjoy over winter. Many garden centers, greenhouses, and even mass
market stores now offer succulents. Look for small ones for smaller
containers, dish gardens, or terrariums. Keep in mind they will
eventually grow, some faster than others. Although they do well
pot-bound, and this will slow growth, in a year or two they may need
larger pots or at least repotting.
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