An ultra-low maintenance plant once used for air conditioning and to ward-off lightning and witches, succulents have a long history that is still debated. Odd yet uniquely beautiful in appearance – at times called “fat plants” – succulents survive in the most arid climates and poor soil conditions, making them ideal for urban living.
They store water in their thick fleshy leaves, and “succulents” is the umbrella term for xerophytes and geophytes (the key difference between the two being the roots, and whether the plant “retreats” underground to save itself in very dry conditions). A rule of thumb: Cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti; a cactus does not have leaves, the thorns are the “leaves.”
Aloe, agave, sempervivum and jade are among the most popular non-cacti succulents. Romans planted sempervivum on their roofs to provide air conditioning and even to prevent lightning strikes. Thought to protect against thunderstorms and called a “House Leek” – said to prevent decay and witchcraft – Charlemagne also ordered that people plant succulents on their homes. The juice was used as an astringent (shrinking human tissue and aiding in blood clotting) and to treat eye disease.