The easy growing succulent has a look for every growing environment and garden setting
The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) is a tough succulent from South Africa that thrives in our desert-like climate with zero care. I have a number going free-range on the west-facing slope above the vegetable garden &madsh; all decedents of an escaped potted Jade plant my mother gave me back in the 90’s .
They’re actually a bit of a pest because our dogs will brush the plants with their tails as they pass by, knocking off a leaf or two, and, before I know it, there are little jade plants taking root somewhere else.
If it weren’t for the fact that they’re essentially fireproof and make a defensible barrier between my house and the native chaparral (which loves nothing more than a good brushfire), I’d be a lot more diligent about controlling their spread.
Other than its flame retardant qualities, one of the things I’ve learned to like about the Jade is they have all kinds of looks — from structured and minimalist to “Jurassic Park on Mars” — based on where it grows and how you trim it.
I’ve got Jades scattered around the various gardens. They’re all escapees from the same mother plant, but looking at them you might not believe it.
Jade in the Shade
I think this plant is the oldest. It grows on the west side under the eaves of the house and shaded most of the day by the patio. In the summer it gets between 5 and 6 hours of direct / filtered sunlight. In the winter it’s more like 3 hours.
The plant is compact (24 inches tall and wide), but leggy and the leaves are a deep green growing at the end of the extended branches. It’s an interesting formality that I think gives it a bit of a “horticultural specimen” vibe as opposed to the “succulent gone wild” that it really is.
Jade + A Little Sun = Flower
This Jade is also on the west side near the house, but about 30 feet to the north. It’s the tropical garden and the patio cover ends about halfway through, so those plants get considerably more sun, especially in the summer when the sun sets further north. In the winter it gets 6 hours of shade / filtered sunlight. In the summer it gets about the amount of filtered sun and another 3-4 hours of the full late afternoon sun.
The extra sunshine not only encourages the plant to grow about a foot taller than its shade-bound relative, but it also flowers a lot more (as you can see).
Additionally, the color of the leaves changes from a deep green to a lighter green, with the tips tinged with yellow and red.
Morning Shade, Full Afternoon Sun
Out from under the cover of the patio and house, jades really start to stretch their legs and grow quite a bit taller. This one makes its home in the southern dry garden where it’s shaded the first few hours of the morning by a couple of large trees to the east, but spends the rest of its day under the full San Diego sun. In the winter it gets about 6 hours of full sun and in the summer it’s closer to 10 hours.
In this location the plant has grown to be about 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. The morning shade makes it reach upward from more sun, so it provides an interesting “alien tree” backdrop for the white squill (another “alien” looking plant when it flowers), low growing aloes and Bee’s Bliss sages that line the bed in front of it.
This plant also flowers more than the two in the shady areas near the house, and the leaves are a yellow-green with red tips.
Full Sun All Day
Jade plants are native to South Africa which has has an arid, sun-drenched climate very much like we do here in San Diego, so the western slope here at the Acre must seem like home to them. This garden receives full sun from shortly after sunup to sundown year round. In the winter that’s 7-8 hours, the summer is more like 13 hours.
And it’s dry. No water from roughly April to late November, which seems to be exactly what Jades really enjoy.
The jades on this slope live with a collection of California native sages and a few Spanish lavenders, and grow to 8 feet tall and equally wide. The “trunks” on these plants are as thick as an elephant’s leg — 12 inches or more in diameter — but their growth habit is significantly more compact. The stems and leaves stay close to the main trunk which makes the plant look like a gigantic leathery-leafed shrub rather than the “alien tree” form their shady relatives a dozen yards away have.
The dense shape is, of course, to keep its roots cool and help conserve water in the blazing desert sun. But that same sun also makes these Jades the showiest of the group. In winter they’re covered with little white flowers often so dense the plant looks like a giant fuzzball that would be quite at home in a Dr Seuss book (Theodore Geisel, aka: Dr Suess, was a San Diego resident, so it’s possible he took inspiration from these plants, which are quite common in landscapes here, in his works).
As the flowers fade, the leaves on Jades in the full sun become a pale green with red tips, almost like nature was putting lipstick on them, making them an interesting counter to the blue-greens of the sages and lavender around them.
A Lot of Looks
Of course, I didn’t mention that Jades do just fine as indoor plants as well (don’t water them!), but the lower amount of light tends to keep them deep green, flowerless, and a little more tree-like than ones that live in full sun.
No matter though. If you want to put a little blush on your Jade, make it bigger, or grow denser leaves and more flowers, just move it to somewhere bright, hot and dry, and it’ll transform for you. One plant, many different looks, no special hybrids or varietals required!