Succulent plants are a popular choice for many homeowners. Not only are they water-wise and low maintenance, but many have attractive structural forms that complement the minimalistic architectural styles of modern homes.
Succulents can be successfully incorporated in a mixed planting scheme and so avoid creating a harsh, arid looking landscape. The succulent garden can provide interest throughout the year as the plants are available in a wide variety of foliage colours and textures that can be combined. Many of South Africa’s indigenous succulents flower in the colder months, so we can be dazzled by brilliant red, orange or yellow flowers that brighten up an otherwise dreary winter scene. A bonus is that they attract a host of nectar-feeding birds to the garden.
In general, succulents are fast-growing and undemanding plants that favour rocky environments, but in a garden setting they merely require well-drained soil and full sun for most of the day (although some will grow in shade).
A succulent garden would be incomplete without an aloe or two. As South Africa is home to more than 140 Aloe species, gardeners have a vast selection from which to choose, depending on their local climate and location. These magnificent plants make excellent focal elements in a garden as their sculptural forms, leaf colour and texture are so distinctive. Most aloes flower in winter and they offer birds a rich source of nectar at a time when most other food is in short supply. In addition, the plants lure insects, which are then preyed upon by insectivorous birds. The fleshy flowers and seeds also provide some nutritional benefit to birds and other wildlife.
Tree Aloe (Aloidendron (= Aloe) barberae)
Undeniably a statement plant, the distinctive tree aloe creates a focal point in a succulent garden and it is often used to add impact to the entrance area of a home. However, it should be planted more than three metres from a built structure as the trunk needs space to grow and develop. Reaching a height of up to 12 metres, the tree aloe is often a favoured nesting place for birds such as sparrows, as the spiky leaves serve as an effective deterrent to predators. The pinkish-orange, nectar-rich flowers attract a number of bird species.
Bitter Aloe (Aloe ferox)
This large, single-stemmed shrub can reach a height of five metres and bears a rosette of fleshy, grey-green leaves that give it a striking, structural effect. Dense clusters of bright orange-red flowers are borne on torch-like flower stalks.
In the northern regions of the country, the more common A. marlothii (mountain aloe) has a similar growth form and can be used as a substitute for A. ferox. One notable difference is that its flower stalks are borne horizontally, not vertically. In addition to supplying birds with nectar, these aloes may be utilised for nesting sites. The birds either build their nests between the large, stiff and thorny leaves or excavate a hole in the stem just below the foliage.
Kranz Aloe (Aloe arborescens)
This aloe forms a dense clump two metres high and two metres wide and can grow in full sun, shade or semi-shade. It produces numerous upright flower stalks bearing red, orange or yellow flowers. The kranz aloe is effective when mass planted as a thorny barrier, but it can also be grown as a single specimen or in a large container. It attracts both nectivorous and insectivorous bird species.
Pig's Ear (Cotyledon orbiculata)
A low-growing succulent, the pig’s ear forms a small, neat mound of fleshy, grey-green foliage. It produces an abundance of pinkish-orange flowers, which hang like bells from its tall stems. Nectar-feeding birds visit the flowers and in doing so they receive a generous dusting of pollen, which then helps to pollinate the plants. Insectivorous birds frequently visit the plant and during dry periods, birds and smaller mammals may utilise the leaves as a source of moisture.
Spekboom/Porkbush (Portulacaria afra)
An attractive shrub or small tree, this versatile plant can grow in a variety of conditions from arid regions to coastal forests, and can tolerate full sun or semi-shade. The spekboom is efficient at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and its roots are excellent for binding soil to prevent erosion. It can be planted as a single specimen or used to create a dense hedge. It yields masses of tiny pink, star-shaped flowers that are a rich nectar source to insects, and they then attract insectivorous birds. Birds relish the dense cover of the foliage and often take refuge in the bush.
Carrion Flower (Stapelia gigantea)
This low-growing succulent has stubby, finger-like stems and can be planted at the base of larger succulents for interest. It produces large and attractive star-shaped cream flowers with distinctive maroon markings. The flower gives off a faint smell of rotting meat, which draws a wealth of flying insects that assist with pollination, and consequently a variety of insectivorous birds. Don’t be put off – the smell is only pungent when a number of the flowers are in bloom!