Succulents and Tropicals:
What's the difference?



Succulents are booming in popularity for two simple reasons: they are beautiful and nearly indestructible under the right conditions.

Technically, a succulent is any plant with thick, fleshy (succulent) water storage organs. Succulents store water in their leaves, their stems or their roots. These plants have adapted to survive arid conditions throughout the world, from Africa to the deserts of North America. This adaptive mechanism has resulted in an incredible variety of interesting leaf forms and plant shapes, including paddle leaves, tight rosettes, and bushy or trailing columns of teardrop leaves.

As a group, succulents include some of the most well-known plants, such as the aloe and many almost unknown plants. Cacti are a unique subset of the succulent group. Succulents make excellent display plants in dish gardens. No matter what kind of succulent you're growing, the rules are pretty similar between the different species.

General Rules for Growing Succulents


Succulents prefer bright light. Watch the leaves for indications that the light level is correct. Some species will scorch if suddenly exposed to direct sunlight. Alternatively, an underlit succulent will begin to stretch, with an elongated stem and widely spaced leaves. The solution is to provide better light and prune the plant back to its original shape. Many kinds of succulents will thrive outdoors in the summer.


Succulents are much more cold-tolerant than many people assume. As in the desert, where there is often a marked contrast between night and day, succulents thrive in colder nights, down to even 40ºF.


Succulents should be watered generously in the summer. The potting mix should be allowed to dry between waterings, but do not underwater. During the winter, when the plants go dormant, cut watering back to once every other month. Overwatering and ensuing plant rot is the single most common cause of plant failure. Be aware, though, that an overwatered succulent might at first plump up and look very healthy. However, the cause of death may have already set in underground, with rot spreading upward from the root system. A succulent should never be allowed to sit in water. The following are signs of under- or overwatering:

Overwatering - Overwatered succulents are soft and discolored. The leaves may be yellow or white and lose their color. A plant in this condition may be beyond repair, but you can still remove it from its pot and inspect the roots. If they are brown and rotted, cut away dead roots and repot into drier potting media, or take a cutting and propagate the parent plant.

Under-watering - Succulents prefer generous water during the growing season (spring and summer). An under-watered plant will first stop growing and then begin to shed leaves. Alternatively, the plant may develop brown spots on the leaves.

Potting Soils:

Succulents should be potted in a fast-draining mixture that's designed for cacti and succulents. If you don't have access to a specialized mix, considering modifying a normal potting mix with an inorganic agent like perlite to increase aeration and drainage. These plants generally have shallow roots that form a dense mat just under the soil surface.


Many species of house plants have originated in tropical or sub-tropical climates. Their needs for water and light vary from those of succulents. While succulents need bright light to thrive, not all tropicals require bright lights needs and do well indoors in low and medium light also. Even if you have a dry home in winter (or summer), no sunroom or bay window, and days are often cloudy, you can grow some tropicals in your home -- without pain for you or the plant. The trick is to know what conditions you can provide and what your particular type of plant needs.

Low, Medium, High - What does it all mean?

Many plant labels come with care instructions that read that a plant needs high, medium, or low light. How do you know if that's what's available in the spot you want to place the plants?

Here’s another way to check out the light in your home:

  • On a sunny day, get a piece of white printer paper and place it where you want to put a new houseplant. Then hold your hand 12 inches above the paper. Can you see an indistinct shadow? If so, that's low light.

  • If the shadow is a  bit fuzzy but mostly looks like a hand, that's medium light. A clear hand shadow indicates a high level of light.

  • Although light is always going to be brighter near a window than in the middle of a room, some windows allow more light through than others. Big ones more than smaller ones, for instance.

Because light levels are naturally lower in winter than in summer,  a plant that was perfectly happy on an east-facing windowsill in summer may need to be moved to one with a western exposure after cold weather arrives.


All plants enter a dormant phase in winter. Their growth slows down and their needs for water and fertilizer are greatly diminished. Tropical plants need to have a regular watering schedule maintained but note water requirements for individual plants. Plants that have low water requirements will need to be watered less. Plants that need constant moisture will still need to watering but check the soil in the plant before you water.