How To Care for Aeoniums
Aeoniums might not readily come to mind when new gardeners think of succulents but besides being a great waterwise plant, they are also decorative and are surprisingly easy to care for.
If you were to make me limit my succulent collection to only a handful of varieties at least two or three aeoniums would be on the list. The funny thing is I didn’t realize that they belonged to the succulent family when I first became enamored by them. Succulents, in my mind, were either cacti, aloes or when rosette-shaped, plump and chunky. But I was wrong.
Where do Aeoniums Come From?
We’re quite fortunate in California to have access to so many aeonium varieties. What I’ve learned is that most of them are hybrids of the few natural populations remaining on the Atlantic Moroccan coast (source: University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program). I’d always thought that all aeoniums originated from the Canary Islands but in fact, aeoniums had their start from different parts of the Atlantic (besides the aforementioned, also from Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands).
I used to get a kick out of counting the number of aeonium varieties in my garden but hoarder that I am, I lost track a long time ago. Like other succulents they come in all shapes and sizes–light and dark, solid and variegated, small and large, clumping and leggy–but they all seem to respond to the same type of care, unlike echeverias which cover the low-to-high-maintenance spectrum. Here are some things I’ve learned from experience.
Aeonium Growing Season
Aeoniums are widely recognized as winter-to-spring growers, which means they go to sleep (go dormant) during the summer months. From experience however, aeoniums can be all-season growers, too. What I’ve discovered is that it’s less about the time of year and more about the conditions they live in. Specifically, temperature and sun exposure have greater impact on their behavior than the date on the calendar.
Aeonium Growing Conditions
A moderate climate is an aeonium’s happy place so even though I just mentioned that seasons are less a factor than sun exposure, they still wouldn’t be the best choice for areas with mostly freezing temperatures in winter or the high-desert summer heat of Arizona.
Aeoniums are happiest in what I’d like to describe as the Goldilocks zone, not too hot and not too cold and they will grow in summer if they are protected from the harsh afternoon sun during the hot months.
Aeonium Sun Exposure (Heat and Light)
SUMMER: In my San Francisco Bay Area garden (about 30 miles inland from the coast) summer temperatures average in the 90s (ºF) but oak trees and foliage provide a wide-range of micro-climate zones. Here is how my aeoniums behave according to the following conditions.
Morning Sun/Afternoon Shade or Mostly Bright Shade/Short Burst of Late Afternoon Sun: This is ideal for aeoniums (most succulents, actually) because morning temperatures are gentler on plants so they get a lot of growth-promoting light without the damaging heat of the afternoon sun. Under these conditions aeonium rosettes will stay wide open and continue to grow–even cuttings will root in summer (more below).
Dappled Light Most of the Day: This is a good environment for aeoniums because they get the best of both worlds–consistent light but protected from too much heat. Just like with morning sun exposure, aeoniums will grow in summer with these conditions.
Morning Shade/Afternoon Sun or All-Day Sun: If you’re lucky enough to live on or near the coast you don’t have to worry about protecting your aeoniums from afternoon sun. The rest of us, however, must deal with the heat. In my garden, the aeoniums that aren’t shielded from the summer sun do go into dormancy mode–they close their leaves and sleep the summer away.
All-Day (Full) Shade: While this can protect aeoniums from the heat, it’s not necessarily the best environment for them. Like other succulents, aeoniums that don’t get enough sunlight stretch with elongated rosettes over time.
WINTER: Away from the extreme conditions I mentioned above, aeoniums thrive in winter. Cooler temperatures bring out their best colors and they can be exposed to all-day sun with no problem.
Aeonium Water Needs
As long as aeoniums are planted in well-draining soil (read more about my soil mix here) they will prove hardy and not be prone to rot like other, more sensitive succulents.
I grow aeoniums both in the ground and in pots (large and small) and they are all on the same watering schedule.
SUMMER: After the last rain in spring and until the first in fall my aeoniums receive a good watering once a week, regardless of sun conditions (described above).
WINTER: The last few winters here in Northern California have been wet ones and my aeoniums have been very happy. Where I lost one or two finicky echeverias to rot from back-to-back rainy days, all my aeoniums welcomed the rain with open arms and thrived. Again, if they have well-draining soil, even lots of water is their friend.
Aeoniums are Monocarpic
A monocarpic plant is one that flowers only once then dies. Aeoniums are one such plant but it’s not all bad. A blooming aeonium goes out in a blaze of glory (check out the blooming Zwartkopf in Image 2 above, top right and one getting ready to bloom in Image 10 below), producing a cone-shaped cluster of little flowers from the center of its rosette.
Most of the time, the main stem of the blooming aeonium will sprout multiple offsets to replace the terminal mother plant.
Maybe the biggest reason for identifying an aeonium’s growing season is to know when is the best time to behead them. For lack of a better term (or at least one I don’t know of), beheading sounds like a terrible thing to do to an aeonium (or any succulent) but it’s sometimes necessary. Some aeoniums grow into beautiful clusters but others stay as solitary rosettes with tall, leggy stems. Left like this the aeonium becomes top heavy and will begin to droop.
This is when beheading them is beneficial. Clipping the leggy stem gives an aenoium a fresh start . But this is where my experience in my garden has contradicted popular belief about how to clip the stem…and when.
When to Behead an Aeonium: Most sources will recommend that aeoniums be beheaded only during the winter months in order to coincide with their growing season. This is true to a point. A dormant aeonium will not easily root so yes, I agree that the best time is during their growing season but this is not only in winter. As I mentioned above, with the ideal year-round conditions, aeoniums will grow in summer, too, so yes, it’s okay to behead them then. Really.
Last summer I beheaded all the aeoniums you see in images 1-5 in this post. The stems had grown well over a foot tall and I didn’t want to wait until winter to give them relief since they were beginning to droop. All these planters happen to live in the most premium real estate in my yard (morning sun/afternoon shade) so I felt reasonably confident that they would be fine and they did so much better than I expected. They didn’t miss a beat–these aeoniums rooted in no time and flourished in the middle of summer.
How much Stem to Cut off When Beheading an Aeonium: The same sources that recommend only winter beheadings also say to clip the aeonium stem where it is green and tender, usually just an inch or two below the rosette. But for large, mature varieties that tend to have long, floppy leaves like A. Sunbursts and A. Starbursts (the ones I beheaded in Images 1-5) the cuttings would lose all their height and not be very balanced or attractive.
When I beheaded these large aeoniums I clipped them seven to eight inches from the rosette. I also didn’t wait for them to callous before sticking them right back in the pot (another big no-no). Furthermore, since the other plants were rooted and needed watering, the aeonium cuttings were watered, too (yes, another no-no). Again, they rooted quickly and beautifully and it’s because they enjoy ideal conditions year round.
Exception: I have noticed that A. Mardi Gras (Image 8, front) and A. Fiesta (Image 9) do not root as readily as the rest of my aeoniums. They are also more sensitive to sun than other varieties. It is still okay to behead them in summer but keep them in full shade and don’t expect them to root until the fall or winter.
Propagating Aeoniums: The most common way to promote aeonium offsets is to behead them the way I described above. Another way others have seen success is to pinch the crown of an aeonium–taking off just the center of the rosette leaving several of the outer leaves intact on the stem–as soon as it shows signs of blooming. For most common aeoniums pups will sprout from the leaf nodes, forming a new cluster where the main rosette used to be.
Fun Tip: If you ever find yourself with an aeonium stem that has been trimmed from both the root end and the rosette end, don’t toss it. Stick one end in the ground and watch it grow pups for you. Succulents are the gift that keeps on giving.
Conclusion: Aeoniums are some of the easiest succulents to grow so don’t be intimidated by them. And because of their flowery appearance they blend well with non-succulent varieties and would do well in different types of gardens.
Upcoming Succulent Posts: Should you Fertilize your Succulents? and A Guide to Succulent Arrangements
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