Succulents: Water Warrior Heroes

by | Oct 11, 2023 | Gardening, Water Wise | 0 comments

Nature has provided plants with a number of adaptations to save water. Choose succulents and plants with the following traits and you’ve found your water warrior winners.


In plant terms, a succulent is a plant with fleshy leaves or stems that it uses to store water in. Each leaf is a little JoJo tank that adds up to enough water to get the plant through from one rainfall to the next. Since we live in an arid country, there are hundreds of succulent species that spring to mind, but here are three succulents to look out for:

Aloe: From the tiny guineafowl aloe (Aristaloe aristata) to the massive tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae), there is an aloe for just about every role in the garden, although most gardeners would prefer something in between these two. The spectacular hybrids are very popular, like Aloe ‘Porcupine’ and Aloe ‘African Sunset’.

Crassula: There are over 200 Crassula species, but the most popular garden crassulas in South Africa are the jade plant (C. ovata) and the fairy crassula (C. multicava). The former is an attractive shrub while the latter is a beautiful, petite groundcover.

Portulacaria: The spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a hugely popular shrub to small tree, offering delicate pale green leaves perched on red stems that mature to grey. The leaves are edible too! It comes in a few forms, from upright to sprawling, and some varieties have pale, almost golden leaves.

Grey or silver foliage

Grey or silver foliage is often seen in drought-tolerant plants, as the lighter colour operates as a natural sunblock, helping to reflect sunlight, thereby reducing leaf temperatures and lowering water loss. This is often paired with other water-saving characteristics such as succulent leaves. Here are three grey/silver plants that won’t let you down during a hot summer:

Coleus neochilus: Blue coleus, formerly known as Plectranthus neochilus, has to be one of the toughest plants out there. It’s also beautiful, forming a lovely groundcover in semi-shade or full sun.

Dymondia margaretae: The silver carpet is, yes, silver and, yes, forms an attractive carpet. The foliage is particularly attractive, but bright yellow daisies pop up in spring and summer too.

Salvia aurea: This indigenous salvia is commonly known as golden sage, and also has the scientific pseudonym of Salvia africana-lutea. It grows quickly into a shrub of about 2m high, with lovely bronze-orange flowers.

Other water-saving traits

If you were to stick to just succulents and silver/ grey plants, you would still have enough options to fill countless gardens, but there are also other interesting water-saving traits to keep an eye out for:

Waxy leaves: Waxy leaves reduce water loss in sun and wind. Kalanchoes are one group of plants that do this, and it’s also the reason why the incredibly popular plant, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, survives such inattention.

Hairs on leaves: Hairs on the leaf surface are another characteristic that has evolved to reduce water loss – they do this by slowing down air movement over the leaf’s surface. An example of such a plant is the silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum).

Tubers or bulbs: This one might not be as easy to spot, but plants often store their water below the earth’s surface, away from the heat of the sun. The ever-popular Agapanthus is one plant that does this, while the Dietes is another that is used extensively in modern landscaping.

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