When looking at all those beautiful and unusual forms, colours and textures in succulents, it is easy to think that all that is there for our enjoyment. I’m afraid that is not the case; most of it is purely functional. For me, rather than being disappointing, this fact adds to my pleasure and admiration. What can be more likeable than things that are both useful and pleasing to the eye? In this post we will have a look at some of the contraptions that succulents use to conserve water.
The one thing that sets succulents apart from all other plants is their ability to store water that they can use during periods when there is no external supply. Obviously it is not much use to store a lot of water if you do not have the means to conserve it as well. Managing the stored water sparingly, mainly has to do with reducing transpiration.
The rate at which plants lose water by transpiration is influenced by a number of factors: size and form of the plant, temperature, humidity, intensity of sunlight, precipitation, wind speed, land slope etc.
On some days the temperature of the soil surface may rise as high as 75 degrees C, but a few centimetres higher up it will usually be much cooler (up to 40 degrees less ). The two extremes will be separated by a layer of still air.
Comparable layers with gradients of humidity and temperature are found above plant surfaces; they have a great influence on transpiration. These layers are disturbed or even destroyed by wind. Because of this, many succulents have a cover of hairs, spines, etc. on the surfaces of their leaves or stems. This helps in producing and protecting these layers. Such a cover also gives a certain shade and helps to diminish exposure to strong radiation –especially when it is light in colour. It has been found that tissue temperatures below spines of the cholla cactus (Opuntia bigelovii) can be reduced by as much as 11 degrees C.
In this Anacampseros albidiflora, short hairs on the leaves and long bristles between them, cooperate to keep the plant cool
Many people think that spines are only there to protect the plants against browsing animals. In line with what we have discussed here, I think that spines play a certain role in that respect too, but that it is not the only, or even the most important, one.
In cases like Othonna euphorbioides (above) and Euphorbia stellispina -and in many other plants- the spines are actually hardened remains of inflorescences
Leaf and stem surfaces are often thickened too, or coated with a layer of wax (Senecio stapeliiformis, on top) or cork (Othonna herrei)