Beginner’s Guide to Echeveria Species
by Tom Glavich
The genus Echeveria is one the principal members of the succulent New World Crassulaceae along with Dudleya, Pachyphtum, Graptopetalum and Sedum. Echeveria are principally plants of the mountains of Eastern Mexico, although there are species found from Texas into South America. Venezuela has a significant population, and there are species from Columbia and Peru. Echeveria have been extensively hybridized, with many wonderful plants appearing each year from some of the best botanical artists. This guide is concerned with the species untouched by the hand of a hybridizer. However, just as any plant buyer picks the best plant from a sales display, years of selection from natural variations in species have produced many plants that are listed as cultivars; that are still species. These are identified by a name such as Echeveria agavoides cv. ‘Lipstick’, where Echeveria is the genus, agavoides the species, and ‘Lipstick’ the particular cultivar.
The genus Echeveria is named after Atanasio Echeverria, illustrator of a projected Flora Mexicana prepared under the direction of Martin Sesse, from 1789 to 1803. Martin Sesse received a Royal Patent for a botanical expedition to Mexico from Charles III, King of Spain in 1788. Charles III was one of the most enlightened of the late 18th century kings, with widespread cultural and scientific interests. Unfortunately, the King died shortly after giving the Patent, and before supplying any money. Sesse went on with the expedition, and although often short of funds and sometimes sick, with Jose Mocino, Atanasio Echeverria, and others, collected hundreds of plants over a 15 year period.
They returned to Spain, expecting to become famous, rich and publish their Flora Mexicana; only to be ignored by Charles IV. The new King was not enlightened, not particularly bright, and unlucky. His only significant interest was hunting, and he left management of Spain to the Queen and her lover. He lost Spain to Napoleon, and spent the last years of his life in exile in Rome. He had no interest in natural sciences or horticulture. Sesse returned to his land holdings; Mocino went to work at the Museum of Natural History in Madrid, and Echeverria was hired as an artist’s assistant.
Mocino sent the original drawings to the famous botanist Alphonse De Candolle as Napoleon marched on Madrid. The originals were lost in the confusion of the Napoleanic wars, but the drawings were saved by Alphonse De Candolle, who hired 120 draftsmen to work for 10 days making several sets of precise tracings of Echeverria’s drawings. De Candolle also named the genus in a lecture in 1827, first publishing it in 1828.
Coming from mountainous regions, Echeveria prefer well drained soil and good ventilation. They also prefer having their roots kept cool, even when the leaves are baking in full sun. In hot climates, Echeveria do much better when grown in the ground. The cool-er soil will keep the roots in good shape. Most Echeveria change color through the year. The reds, yellows, blues and browns are most intense in autumn as they go into dormancy. However, in cultivation they often look their best in late spring when the leaves have the greens and yellows of new growth mixed with full color suite from the older leaves; flowers appear; and roots haven’t started to suffer from hot pots. Although they don’t go completely dormant in summer, growth slows, and in truly hot regions, plants tend to wilt and sulk, even with some shade.
Propagation of Echeveria is a required skill rather than an optional one. All Echeveria have leaves that dry and fall off as they age, leaving a thick, and often ugly stem. As the stem elongates, the leaves get smaller. With time, most Echeveria offset between the older leaves. These offsets can be removed, the bottom-most leaves of the offset removed, and the stem and remaining leaves planted as soon as the cut stem is dry. Successful rooting almost always follows. The terminal rosette should also be periodically removed and restarted in the same way. If a few of the older leaves are left on the stalk, offsets generally form. These can be removed as well and propagated. As long as one or two are left on, the stem may keep on producing offsets. Even when the old stem is preserved without leaves it may produce a few offsets. It’s worth waiting a month or two in the spring to see if anything develops. If no offsets appears after 6 months or so, the stem is not worth keeping. Echeveria have flowers on an extended stalk (raceme). The raceme has small leaves on it, and occasionally, rosettes. The rosettes will root easily. The leaves sometime root and sometimes produce offsets, but not always.
Many Echeveria will offset directly from detached leaves as long as the ‘ears’ where the stem attaches to the leaf are left on. The leaves can be placed on damp potting mix, and kept damp and fairly dark. Roots appear after about 6 weeks.
Echeveria are attractive to mealybugs and aphids. The presence of ants anywhere around an Echeveria should be viewed with suspicion. Aphids are generally found on the flower stalk, and it is not unusual to find a plant aphid free one day, and covered less than a week later. Aphids spread quickly, and the best way to remove them is to cut the flower stalk off and discard it away from other plants. Alternatively they can be hosed off by high pressure sprays, or brushed with alcohol. Pesticides are also effective, but the bright colored flowers of Echeveria are extremely attractive to bees and hummingbirds. Mealy bugs are often found in the crown of the plant, generally with presence of ants nesting in or around the pot. These can be removed with your favorite toxin, or with a hose spray, followed by a long soak of the entire plant (hours to overnight) in soapy water. Echeveria are also subject to various fungi and rusts, particularly during long periods of cold damp weather. A fan helps prevent this, as does separation of the plants, and removal of dead and dying leaves for better air flow. The infected parts should be cut off and discarded.
Favorite species include:
Echeveria agavoides, forms large light green rosettes, with red tips when grown in full sun. Two popular cultivars are “Lipstick” which has red edges and “Ebony” which has dark red-purple edge. The colors are enhanced by sunlight, and are at their very best when the plant is just short of sunburn. The cultivar “Ebony” is shown with this article.
Echeveria ciliata is a smaller species, generally only three or four inches in diameter. The name comes from the small hairs at the edges of all the leaves. It offsets slowly, but can be easily propagated from leaves. The offsets should be removed when they are about an inch across. They will grow quicker on their own roots.
Echeveria potosina (now lumped with E. elgans) is a smaller species with pale green leaves that makes an excellent bedding plant.
Echeveria leucotricha is one of the few species that look best as clumps of long stems surrounded by shorter stems and new heads at ground level. The stems are a near uniform light brown. The green leaves have short white hairs, almost bristles, and the tips of all the mature leaves are dark brown.