Take a look around Bill Hendricks’ collection of 4,000 succulents, and it’s easy to understand the recent craze for these high-style, easy-care plants. One with rosette shapes are taking center stage in container designs and bridal bouquets. More architectural forms are becoming the go-to accessory for today’s mantels and tabletops. And still other strappy types are being tucked in living walls, galvanized frames, topiary forms, birch logs, thrift-store stilettos, vintage spice tins, fairy gardens, green rooftops and even doghouse tops.
What trendy homeowners are now discovering, the 72-year-old Hendricks has known for decades.
“I’ve always been fascinated with succulents,” he says. “I’m fascinated by their diversity, their color and ‘wow,' and their stories from different places all over the world.”
At age 7, Hendricks says, he bought his first succulent, a thick-leaved aloe plant, at a Cleveland dime store. He credits that still-living aloe plant with spurring his lifelong love of plants and leading him to a successful career in the nursery business. Today, he is president of the 500-acre Klyn Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Perry, Ohio, and was named 2014 Grower of the Year by Nursery Management magazine. While his nursery grows 1,850 species of landscape plants, Hendricks says, he keeps the succulents as a hobby.
“I’m not into sports; I’m into plants,” Hendricks says. “That led me to an interest in geography and travel. So when I travel, I travel to see plants.”
Hendricks explains that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents are plants that have the ability to store water within their leaves, stems or roots. Like a camel’s hump, these adaptations allow the plants to survive long stretches without water. (Cacti, on the other hand, are a distinct family of succulents and are distinguished by their signature spines.)
Today, Hendricks grows succulents and cacti in a 100-by-30-foot greenhouse at Klyn Nurseries. All are meticulously labeled and grown mostly in clay pots packed onto raised tables, with a few hanging from containers.
He points to one Eastern prickly pear cactus, or Opuntia humifusa – he prefers using plants’ botanical Latin names – and shares the story of an East German plant-swapping friend. In the 1960s, Hendricks had sent him seeds from this succulent found in Castalia, Ohio. Hendricks was surprised to learn in his friend’s return letter that he was familiar with the town from his World War II days as a German officer; turns out, he had been a prisoner of war at nearby Camp Perry.
As Hendricks walks to the center of the greenhouse, he shares a story of the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) that once climbed to the ceiling with its Hershey Kiss-shaped base and palmlike top. In 1966, he purchased the plant in a 4-inch pot for $1.25. Over the years, it outgrew its various pots and eventually Hendricks’ greenhouse. Although he found a new home for the plant at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the 1,000-pound plant was too difficult to move, so it had to be cut into pieces and removed from the greenhouse.
Hendricks, who is president of the Midwest Cactus and Succulent Society and a frequent lecturer on succulents, offers advice on growing succulents. He not only draws lessons from personal experience but also his library of some 2,000 succulent articles and books:
Plant succulents in containers with drainage holes. If there are no holes, add some with a drill or use a liner pot with holes.
Water succulents thoroughly. Try placing a succulent pot in the sink and drenching it until water runs out the bottom. Let the pot thoroughly drain, then return it to its saucer on a windowsill.
Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Succulents prefer neglect, and one of the biggest mistakes made by beginners is overwatering them.
Choose a well-draining potting mix. Look for a cactus potting mix or create your own mix with equal parts of potting soil, pea gravel and coarse sand.
Give succulents as much sunlight as possible since most are sun lovers. A south- or eastern-facing window is ideal.
Occasionally trim succulents to maintain a shape, clip away damaged leaves or clean up dried tips.
In northern climates, keep succulents in a dry, indoor environment for the winter, then move outdoors for the summer. In southern climates, many succulents thrive outdoors year-round.
Take a class at a garden center or public botanical garden. Many popular classes cover how to use succulents to create wreaths, vertical gardens, and terrariums or dish gardens.
Join a local cactus or succulent society. For a listing, see the Cactus & Succulent Society of America’s website (www.cssainc.org).
You'll find succulents at garden centers, botanical garden gift shops, big-box stores and succulent society plant sales. Also, many online sites specialize in succulents. For newbies, Bill Hendricks suggests the following:
Aeonium: Enjoy these showy rosettes in green or dark burgundy.
Aloe: Find variegated or textured varieties for something new.
Crassula: Try jade plants or stacked varieties.
Echeveria: Look for ones with fuzzy, ruffled and bordered leaves.
Haworthia: Remember these aloelike miniatures for low-light conditions.
Lobivia: Marvel at the vivid flowers of this easy-to-grow cactus.
Mammillaria: Try one of the white-haired pincushion cacti.
Notocactus: Never fail with one of these globular cacti.
Rebutia: Count on these small, round cacti for their colorful blooms.
Schlumbergera truncata: Celebrate the holidays with this Christmas cactus.
With a collection of 4,000 succulents, plantsman Bill Hendricks shares growing, cultivating tips.