Echeverias: the indoor evergreen for houseplant-haters

Pots of echeverias with Verbena bonariensis Credit: Jonathan Buckley

Echeverias are perfectly matched to those of us who love plants in our lives, even now in midwinter, but are not the best at caring for houseplants.

I’m sorry to say, much as I love the house to be full of green – or grey – leaves in winter, when so much time is spent inside, I am excellent at killing things, forgetting to ­water for too long and then guiltily overdoing it.

These glaucous evergreens have a strong architectural presence – Spirograph crossed with Meccano set – and look just as good now as they do at the peak of summer. June onwards is when they flower, their coral plumes erupting and staying handsome for several months, but their plump rosettes are full and curvy at any time of year. And, the key thing is, echeverias truly are indestructible, or as near as you can get to that with a living organism.

They’re the plant that can be sent off with your child when they first leave home and like the idea of something green to take care of. I’ve tested this a few times and the pot comes back from a university room desiccated, the outside leaves crunchy, but the good old echeveria is still, just about, alive. Cactus play this role well too, but all too often come with lethal spines, whereas echeverias are brilliantly benign.

Echeveria elegans Credit: Jonathan Buckley

Originating from semi-desert areas of Mexico, echeverias are able to ­survive with only the most ­occasional ­watering and in fact the commonest cause of problems is not under, but overdoing it.

What to watch for

The only thing one needs to know is that they’re not hardy. If kept dry, echeverias will survive in the lightest of frost, but much colder than freezing and most turn to mush. You can keep them on a sunny window ledge or doorstep, even all through the winter with the shelter of a building, and as long as you remember to bring them in for the colder and wetter nights, everything will be fine. And inside, they’ll put up with almost whatever conditions you put them in.

This troop of plants is super drought resistant, but if you want to do well by them, they do even better with a fortnightly deep watering and an occasional liquid seaweed feed during the main growing season. This enriched watering once a month from May to September will perk them up  no end.

Echeveria 'Blue Prince'  Credit: Jonathan Buckley

We’ve grown Echeveria elegans here for a few years and I love it, but last spring, with more and more interesting varieties available, I decided to branch out and try several others.

With a reputation of putting up with less than ideal growing conditions, I wanted to experiment with them in a series of slightly tricky sites. The first place is on a zinc-topped table, filling a terrace outside our kitchen which we look at every day. This is the most exposed place at Perch Hill, open to the west and regularly blasted by wind and rain. I love to have a line of pots there to give us some colour in the view and an interesting silhouette.

We’ve tried several other, known to be tough, pot plant families. One year pelargoniums, the next erigerons, then violas and tulbaghias, but they’ve all struggled with the degree of exposure combined with the amount of heat coming off the zinc surface on a hot day.

Echeveria trial-winners 

So how did the echeverias fare here? In a range of different shapes, heights and sizes of terracotta pots, they made a handsome looking family and have been a triumph, looking strong, healthy and handsome from the moment they were placed there in May until we brought them in out of the wet and cold in the middle of ­November. Transferred ­inside as house plants, even in our very dark farmhouse sitting room, they’ve gone on looking good and giving me a plant lift every day.

Echeveria 'Duchess of Nuremberg', Pachyphytum bracteosum and Senecio serpens in a window box Credit: Jonathan Buckley

We also had echeverias on our main eating out ­table in the Dutch yard last year. Here it was good old Echeveria elegans, planted in a series of flat, shallow trays, some circular, some with a wavy, scalloped edge to the pot. The rounded terracotta edges turned out to be a good visual match to the curviness of the echeveria. Compact and low-growing, they were ideal as living table centres and were happy with truly minimal TLC.

We’ve also filled window ledges with mixed coloured pots filled with single Echeveria elegans “pups”, as well as several window-boxes around the place with mini desert scenes, ­mixing echeverias with the similar easy-going, rubbery crew of sedums, aeoniums and the glaucous senecios. These have all come into the greenhouse now, but are still looking good.

In total contrast, I have them mixed with forced hyacinths and ­paperwhite narcissi, each plant in its individual pot, but massed together and racked up in the greenhouse on a plant theatre, to cheer us through January and February. The echeverias give a bold, evergreen architecture, a contrast to the pretty bulb froth, the inanimate boulders through which the scented bulbs are flowering away.

I’ve been loving that vague imitation of a spring Mediterranean hillside scene and would recommend it to anyone – even the-kiss-of-death, non-green-fingered plant lover – for next winter.