Succulents for the Landscape

No Saguaros here!

The world of succulents is fascinating, filled with amazing geometric shapes, and diverse forms.  These plants have evolved specialized tissues to store water in challenging environments, some in their leaves, some in stems and others in roots.

We are lucky to be able utilize a variety of different succulents in the Central Texas landscape, but there are some important constraints which limit our selection:

  • our short, sharp, winter freezes;
  • periods of high humidity;
  • and propensity for torrential downpours at certain times of the year, which can quickly saturate the ground.

The main groups of succulents growing in the landscape here are: agave, cactus, yucca, sotol, and nolina.  There are other succulents that we sell but many of these require protection from freezes so will not often be used as landscape plants.  Read on for descriptions of the varieties that we recommend for landscape use, and some basic care tips for them.

Agave are part of the Asparagus family.  There are over 200 species of agave native to the Americas.  There is a huge variety in shape, size, color and thickness of leaf so there is plenty of choice to suit any landscape need.  Check the label carefully when purchasing to ensure the plant will have space as it matures.  Also remember that agaves are “monocarpic” which means that after they flower, the main plant will die.

Squid Agave – Agave bracteosa

Size:  2’ x 2’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun to Shade

Unusual agave species with strappy, recurved leaves and smooth margins.  Much more adaptable than all other agaves.  Does fine in poor, rocky soil or amended garden beds and tolerant of all sun exposure.  Also tolerant of both drought and some excess moisture.  Cold hardy to at least 10°F.

Artichoke Agave Agave parryi v.truncata

Size:  2’ x 3’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Light Shade

Compact agave with a tight rounded rosette that resembles an artichoke & beautiful silvery-blue leaves tipped with a very dark terminal spine. Hardy to about 10 degrees. Must have well-drained soil and supplemental water only in summer (very little necessary if in ground).

Agave salmiana var. Ferox

Size:  4’ x 4’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Large, generally evergreen perennial with thick, fleshy, grey-green foliage with sharp barbs along the edges and at the tips.

Variegated Agave – Agave americana v.marginata

Size:  6-8’ x 6-8’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Large agave with stunning bluish-green and yellow variegated leaves.  Deer and drought resistant, will grow faster with supplemental water in summer.  No supplemental water in winter.  Must have well-drained soil.  Hardy to about 20°F, protect when small below 29°F.

Weber Agave – Agave weberi

Size: 4-5’ x 4-5’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun

Large agave with beautiful thick, clustered, silver-grey foliage.  Hardy to 10°F.

Whale’s Tongue Agave – Agave ovatifolia

Size:  2-5’ x 3-6’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun

Mexican native with unique cupped leaves that becomes more beautiful and distinctive as it ages.  Solitary habit.  Hardy to 5°F.  Must have well-drained soil, no supplemental water in winter.

Rough Agave – Agave scabra

Size:  3’ x 5’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun

Open rosette-forming agave with rigidly curved, broad based, lanceolate, textured grey-green foliage with marginal teeth and a barbed tip. Tall yellow bloom spikes.

Mountain Agave ‘Baccarat’ – Agave montana ‘Baccarat’

Size:  3-4’ x 3-4’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Bright Diffused Sun/Part Sun

Gorgeous selection of Agave montana with scalloped margins and strong bud imprinting reminiscent of cut crystal.  Plant in well-draining soil.  No supplemental water in winter, may benefit from a little in summer.

Queen Victoria Agave – Agave victoriae-reginae

Size:  2’ x 2’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun

Compact agave with stout, dark green leaves, and distinctive white bud imprinting. Forms a tight rosette giving it a very neat and architectural look. Great in xeric beds or containers. Hardy to 10°F.

Agave ‘Blue Flame’ – Agave shawii x A. attenuata

Size:  2-3’ x 2-3’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun/Part Sun

Compact hybrid with broad blue leaves and smooth margins. Cold hardy to about 20°F, protect in a hard or extended freeze.  Plant in a well-drained soil and allow some drying time between waterings.  Appreciates some supplemental water in summer, none in winter.

Center Stripe Agave – Agave lophantha ‘Splendida’

Size:  1’ x 1-2’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Attractive and tidy dwarf form of a tough native agave.  Each leaf is highlighted by a pale stripe down the center.  Little water once established, perfect for rock gardens or containers.  Hardy to single digits.

Century Plant/Maguey – Agave americana

Size:  3-6’ x 6-10’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun/Part Shade

Evergreen, hardy succulent with pale bluish-green leaves.  Deer and drought resistant.  Must have well-drained soil and low water use.  Supplemental water not necessary.  The largest and fastest growing species.  Blooms after 10-20 years, then dies.

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ Agave attenuata x A. ocahui

Size:  2’ x 2-3’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun/Filtered Sun/Light Shade

Beautiful small agave hybrid with solitary rosettes of blue-green leaves with red margins.  Hardy to about 18°F, protect in a very hard or extended freeze. Great in pots too.  Best with some supplemental water in summer.

No Saguaros here!  Texas is home to more than a hundred cactus species, in fact, more species of cacti are found in Texas than in any other state.  These range in size from spreading mounds of opuntia which grow up to 4 feet tall but sprawl much farther, to the diminutive button cactus; but the saguaro, with its iconic shape, is not found here, even in the far Western reaches of the state.

Fishhook Barrel – Ferocactus wislizenii

Size:  6’ x 2’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun/Dappled Shade

Hardy cactus (to 5°F) with vertical ribs on the body of the plant studded with big, sharp, hooked spines.  Native to Arizona and West Texas.  Provide with well-drained soil and allow to dry out between waterings.  Yellow/orange flowers.

Wavy Spineless Prickly Pear – Opuntia gomei ‘Old Mexico’

Size:  5’ x 4’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun

Large, padded variety with wavy spineless pads and large yellow flowers in spring followed by magenta fruit.  Drought tolerant.  Needs good drainage.

Golden Barrel Cactus – Echinocactus grusonii

Size:  2’ x 2’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Classic xeric plant that really shows off when planted in clusters.  Coveted for its golden color.  Mature plants hardy to 14°F, protect when small during periods below 20°F.  Good drainage is essential.

Spineless Prickly Pear – Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’

Size:  3-4’ x 5’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun/Part Sun

Upright evergreen cactus with thick smooth pads dotted with tiny, invisible spines (glochids) and stacked at angles one on top of another. Very architectural look. Deer, drought, heat resistant. Needs well-drained soil. Yellow flowers in summer

Yucca is a genus of perennial shrubs and trees in the Asparagus family, like the Agaves.  Four species are native to Central Texas and 16 species to Texas.  They are tough, drought-tolerant plants needing very little care. They can range in size from a few feet tall to over 20 feet and can provide a useful architectural and evergreen accent to any yard.

Twistleaf Yucca Yucca rupicola

Size:  2’ x 2’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Shade

Evergreen succulent with medium green spikey foliage which twists as it matures.  Endemic to the Edwards Plateau.  Deer and drought resistant.

Yucca Blue Sentry – Yucca flacida ‘Blue Sentry’

Size:  2’ x 2’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun/Part Sun

Attractive variegated succulent with long, narrow flexible leaves striped yellow and green.  Much more “friendly” than other yuccas, it also is much more tolerant of moisture and shade and, being native to the Appalachians, needs more water than desert species.  Very cold hardy.

Spanish Dagger Yucca treculeana

Size:  6-12’ x 6-12’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun

Large evergreen succulent native to Southwest Texas with long, stiff, dagger-like leaves.  Produces big bloom spike of creamy white flowers in spring.  Super-tough as long as good drainage is provided and it’s not overwatered.  Deer and drought resistant.  Also called Don Quixote’s Lance.

Yucca ‘Mexican Blue’ –  Yucca rigida

Size:  5-12’ x 4’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun/Light Shade

Upright, spikey, trunk-forming succulent with stiff, blue-green leaves and dramatic taller spikes of flower clusters in early summer.  Deer and drought resistant.  Best performance in well-drained soil with some supplemental water in summer.

Softleaf Yucca – Yucca recurvifolia (Y. pendula)

Size:  6-10’ x 4-6’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Bright Filtered Light/AM Sun

Trunk-forming, strappy-leafed succulent which is very adaptable.  Produces a dramatic spike clustered with white, bell shaped blossoms in summer.  Tolerant of drought, being native to Southeastern US, but performs best with regular water in summer.  Deer resistant.  Very cold hardy.

Yucca ‘Color Guard’ – Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’

Size:  2-3’ x 2-3’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun/Part Sun

Compact, evergreen succulent with long, narrow, flexible leaves which are attractively variegated with a bright yellow midstripe.  Deer resistant.  Has good drought tolerance but better with some supplemental water in summer heat.  Cold hardy to single digits.

Paleleaf Yucca Yucca pallida

Size:  1-3’ x 1-3’
Growth:  Fast
Exposure:  Sun to Shade

Compact evergreen with broad, pale bluish strap-like foliage with pointed ends.  Endemic to the Blackland Prairies and adjacent slopes of North Central Texas.  Great for small spaces.

Buckley’s Yucca –  Yucca constricta

Size:  2’ x 2-3’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun

Hardy succulent with grey green strappy foliage with sharp pointy ends. Stays compact, no trunk. Sends out pups. Extremely drought and deer resistant. Native to Central and Southwest Texas. Well-drained soil.

Beaked Yucca – Yucca rostrata

Size:  8-12’ x 4’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun

Trunk-forming succulent native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas and Northern Mexico with narrow blue leaves and tall stalks of cream-colored flowers in spring.  Develops a lovely rounded head over time.  Must have really good drainage and little to no supplemental water.

Moundlily Yucca – Yucca gloriosa

Size:  2-3’ x 4’
Growth:   Medium
Exposure:  Sun/Part Sun

Lovely specimen yucca with stiff, narrow, bluish-green leaves and bell-shaped, creamy white flowers on a tall stalk mid to late summer.  Must have good drainage.  Appreciates some supplemental water during summer dry spells.  Cold hardy to at least 5 degrees.

Aloe Yucca/Spanish Bayonet Yucca aloifolia

Size:  5-10’ x 4’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Full Sun/Light Shade

Lovely cold-hardy yucca which clumps over time to form a nice evergreen hedge.  Produces bell-shaped creamy white flowers when mature.  Needs well-drained soil and occasional water only in hot, dry periods.  Native to Southeastern US.

Technically not Yuccas but Hesperaloes, these plants are widely used and are excellent landscape additions:

Red YuccaHesperaloe parviflora

Size:  3-4’ x 3-4’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Evergreen succulent with narrow foliage and long-lived salmon-red flowers throughout the warm seasons, which are very attractive to hummingbirds.  Probably the toughest and most adaptable plant in the nursery trade, not picky about soil and very drought tolerant.

Red Yucca ‘Brakelights’ – Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Brakelights’ USPP 21729

Size:  2-3’ x 2-3’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

A selection of the popular evergreen succulent chosen for its darker flowers and compact habit.  Blooms on and off all year; very attractive to hummingbirds.  Red yuccas are the toughest and most adaptable plants in the nursery trade, not picky about soil and very drought tolerant.

Members of the Nolina family are native to the Southern states of the USA and Mexico. Unlike most agaves they are polycarpic, meaning they produce flowers in successive years, with decorative spikes of numerous small creamy-white or pinkish flowers.

Many members of this family have swollen trunks which store water and food reserves, and have thin, grass-like or sharply toothed leaves. They are useful in the landscape as they provide a clumping, grass-like effect but will remain evergreen and are very drought tolerant.

Blue Nolina – Nolina nelsonii

Size:  4-12’ x 3-4’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Full Sun/Light Shade

Trunk-forming evergreen succulent with rigid upright blue leaves up to 3’ long. Makes an impressive specimen for the xeric landscape.  Deer and drought resistant.  Must have good drainage and low water use.  Blooms only after reaching maturity.  Native to northern Mexico.

Texas Sacahuista – Nolina texana

Size: 3’ x 3’
Growth: Medium
Exposure: Sun to Part Shade

Evergreen perennial with long, weeping yellow-green foliage making a grass-like mound and has white to pinkish flowers from March to July.  Deer and drought resistant.

Mexican Grass Plant Dasylirion longissimum syn D. quadrangulatum

Size:  3-12’ x 5’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun

Tree like succulent with erect then spreading foliage forming a trunk over time.  Produces a taller flower stalk with bell shaped white flowers in summer.  Xeric.

Devil’s Shoestring – Nolina lindheimeriana      

Size:  2’ x 3-4’
Growth:  Slow
Exposure:  Sun to Part Shade

Clumping xeric plant with narrow grassy-looking foliage and tall spikes bearing sprays of unusual white flowers late spring-early summer.  Very drought tolerant and deer resistant.  Native to the Edward’s Plateau.

Wheeler Sotol Dasylirion wheeleri

Size:  4-5’ x 4-5’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun

Clumping evergreen with hook toothed slender leaves.  Spectacular creamy flower spike up to 12′ tall May-July.  Native.  Heat, drought, deer resistant.

Texas Sotol  Dasylirion texanum

Size:  4-5’ x 4-5’
Growth:  Medium
Exposure:  Sun

Clumping evergreen with light green hook toothed slender leaves.  Spectacular creamy flower spike to 15′ tall May- July.  Native.  Heat, drought, deer resistant.

Cold Hardiness

Mature Saguaros aren’t found in Texas because they cannot tolerate our sharp freezes.  Many people relocating from Coastal California try to replicate their former gardens, and quickly find after the first winter that it is a futile exercise.  In Central Texas we determine which succulents to select for our landscapes by paying attention to their cold hardiness.  Many of our labels will include the minimum temperature to which that species can be exposed.

Succulents in well-drained ground will survive a freeze better than in wet ground.  Covering plants can help too, but ultimately they will still be subject to the limits imposed by their genetic makeup.

The Austin Cactus and Succulents Society website has a very useful list of cacti and other succulents and their relevant cold hardiness in Central Texas.

Assess cold damage by examining and feeling the leaves and center. Mushy bits should be removed from the rest of the plant immediately.

Care and Maintenance

Soggy soil = succulent death

It is critical for succulents in the landscape to have excellent drainage.  To make sure the soil drains well, mix in decomposed granite or expanded shale.  If the soil retains a lot of moisture, mound up the soil and plant into the mound so that the succulent’s root ball rests above the existing soil level.  Try and replicate the soil conditions that the plant would grow in naturally, for many, that means very low organic matter and high mineral content.  When planted in containers, adequate drainage holes are vital.

More succulents are killed by overwatering than anything else.  Make sure any irrigation system is not watering succulents on the same schedule as the lawn or other more demanding plants.  For succulents in containers, use a moisture meter to determine whether they need additional water.

Don’t overfertilize, most landscape succulents do not need high fertility levels.  An annual application of a low nitrogen fertilizer is sufficient. 

Keep bark mulch away from the base of plants.  These can cause high humidity and moisture levels which could allow fungal issues to develop.

Plenty of sunlight is a must for most landscape succulents we use here but our full summer sun is not always beneficial.  Sometimes species of succulents benefit from a little afternoon shade, either from orientation, shadowing by other plants, or by the strategic use of shade cloth.  Transplants brought in from less sunny locations and younger plants can often be susceptible to sun scorch.  We source a lot of our plants from Arizona and California and recommend the use of shade cloth until the plants have adapted to our harsh Texas sun.

Trimming of dead leaves can be done using a sharp blade.  Take care to use eye protection against the sharp spikes, and wear long sleeves, as many succulents have caustic sap which can damage skin.