Photo of several succulent cuttings laid on a table. 2023

I did not choose the succulent life; the succulent life chose me

by AK Krajewska

The first succulents I remember distinctly were a pair of cacti that my grandmother had in a sunny little back room that I had to pass through on the way to the outhouse. The cacti were rather small, and they lived in different places depending on the season. I mostly don't care for cacti, because I think they are out to get you, but I liked[1] my grandmother intensely and so I liked everything about her, including the cacti[2].

After that, I didn't think about succulents much for decades, despite spending the last two of those decades in San Francisco, where succulents grow spectacularly well, and so the sidewalks are planted with wonderful succulent gardens. OK, I am exaggerating a little bit. I did think about how pretty other people's succulent gardens were, and I took pictures of them sometimes, but I thought of them very much like other people's dogs or other people's Victorian houses with perfect paint jobs: Like very nice things to be admired but as something I would ever get involved with.

The first succulent that snuck its way into my house was a plumeria I bought in Hawaii in 2016. I didn't even know until this year that plumerias are succulents. The plumeria is pretty easy to care for and I have managed to not kill it for a long time. I even got it to bloom.

Photo of a blooming plumeria on a messy desk

Then, the pandemic started, and with it, for some reason, succulents began to enter my life and my house at an accelerated pace. First, my spouse got a mixed arrangement of pretty succulents in a big spherical pot as a thank you gift from work. Then, I got a tiny gift succulent as a favor at a friend's (outdoor) birthday party. Finally, I got a zebra plant (Haworthia attenuata) in a glued-in box that came in the mail as a work holiday gift. The Haworthia was so mysterious and slow growing that I speculated with my coworkers if it was really alive. I took pictures of it over time to prove to myself that it's alive.

Photo of a Haworthia attenuata in a conical blue pot.

The Haworthia is definitely alive, by the way. It needs to recover from its years glued-in though.

Most of the succulents in the pretty arrangement failed, because I didn't know how to care for them properly. The party favor plant also didn't survive. Well, sort of didn't, but also sort of did. Because I learned you could propagate succulents from leaves and other kinds of cuttings, and early last year I really got into that. You're telling me a single succulent leaf can sprout a whole mini-succulent plant with roots and you can just grow that? Sign me up!

Photo of succulent leaves lying on dirt. Some of them have sprouted tiny mini succulents and roots, while others appear to be dying.

I also started looking for broken off bits of succulents lying on the sidewalk and just started picking them up and sticking them in my pockets. Then I laid them down on some dirt to see if they'd grow. Most of them just shriveled up and died. But some of them flourished.

Then invariably, when I started trying to be nice to them by paying attention to them, they would begin to wilt. I couldn't figure it out. (It wasn't just over-watering, believe it or not.) I tried to read about succulents online, watched videos, and even joined the succulents Reddit, but I couldn't figure it out.

Finally, in early August, I signed up for an in-person terrarium-making class at Succulence. In that 2-hour class I learned more about caring for succulents than I had figured out from years of trial and error and reading the internet. Turns out, some things are really better learned in person.

Two photos of a terrarium filled with succulents, side by side. They show the same terrarium a month apart. The on on the right has a yellow blooming flower.

In fact, I was so completely convinced that in-person is the way to learn about growing succulents, that I immediately looked for some kind of club or society to join. And thus the day after I took the class, I joined the San Francisco Succulent & Cactus Society. Two days later, I attended the society's September meeting, where I learned even more, picked up a bunch of cuttings from the free cuttings table, and also quickly realized that I have to start learning the names of succulents if I want to grow them. Because, surprise surprise, not all succulents want the same thing, nor are they necessarily easy to grow, and the only way to figure out what your succulent wants and get advice from other people is to know what the darn thing is called.

So I went to the library and checked out a couple books about succulents, which is how I learned that plumerias are a succulent. There's so much to learn and I feel like I'm unlocking a key to a part of the world that was hidden in plain sight before.

A large number of small, potted succulents in a metal sink.

At the October meeting of the San Francisco Succulent & Cactus Society I picked up even more free cuttings. This picture is just the babies. The big succulents get watered separately. I'm running out of both dirt and pots. I have ordered a literal bag of rocks which is meant to arrive this weekend, along with more succulent potting soil and a bunch of perlite.

I don't know what I'll run out of first, sunny spaces in my house or enthusiasm for succulents. I know me, so I know these obsessions don't last for ever, but succulent growing is so full of satisfying variety, and so forgiving of the occasional weeks of neglect, that it might be a hobby that sticks.


[1] I also loved my grandmother, but it's all too common to love relatives without necessarily liking them, and so I think it's much more remarkable to say I liked my grandmother.

[2] But wait, you might be thinking, I thought this was going to be about succulents, not cactuses?! Well, actually, cacti are succulents, though not all succulents are cacti. It's a bit of a rectangle-square situation.