Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
Europe is home to many kinds of succulents and cacti, both native and naturalized. This article will focus on species that are commonly seen in the Mediterranean region.
Several species of the ice plants are native to the Mediterranean. These arenít the Delospermas, which are also known as ice plants. They are members of the Aizoaceae or Mesembryanthemum family.
Ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) is native to the Mediterranean. This plant features flat, oval foliage. The ice plant is named for the shiny swellings that look like ice. It has large, conspicuous flowers that are over an inch wide.
Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum is an annual species of ice plant. This is found throughout the Mediterranean. Tolerant of salt, it grows along shores. Its oblong leaves are shiny. The coating on the plant is not as uniform or prevalent as it is on the perennial ice plant.
There are two species of Hottentot figs that have naturalized in Europe. These were originally native to South Africa. Red Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus acinaciformis) is a trailing perennial with a spreading growth habit. Its shiny, tapered leaves appear in pairs and can fuse together at the base. This is named for its large, colorful red blossoms, which can be nearly five inches in diameter. Its stamens are vivid purple.
Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica)
Also known as Barbary fig, this was originally native to tropical America. It has naturalized in the Mediterranean and Portugal. This shrubby plant, over nine feet in width, has many branches. Its spiny green pads are flattened. During June and July, the golden yellow blooms open along the edges of the upper pads. These are nearly three inches across.
A rather tender species of the houseleek (Aeonium arboreum) was originally native to North Africa. This has now naturalized in parts of Europe, including the Mediterranean. This perennial is a member of the Crassulaceae or Stonecrop family, which makes it a relative of the Sedums and Sempervivums. It features a stout, branched stem up to three feet or more in height. This woody stem is marked with noticeable leaf scars. At the tips are rosettes of fleshy leaves that overlap like those of hen and chicks. The flat oblong foliage has bristles at the tips. From December to March the sunny yellow blooms open. They are nearly an inch in diameter. These appear in dense, rounded clusters.
The century plant (Agave americana) is a native of Mexico that has become naturalized throughout most of the Mediterranean. This plant is known for its large, spiny-tipped foliage. Six feet or so in length, these are lance-like. They form an oversized rosette over 12 feet in diameter. When the plants are about ten years or so in age, they produce a gigantic flower stalk. This can be over 30 feet in height. This features yellow blooms opening in spike-like clusters along the length of the flower stalk.