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What is the difference between sedum and succulent and cacti? Kalanchoe seems to have many different types. Is Kalanchoe a succulent because it is not winter hardy? Is Dr. John Creech a sedum because it is from the Mountains and is winter hardy?

This question makes an apples-to-oranges comparison, and some basic botany principles are useful in answering it, so bear with me.

Scientific plant identification is called Plant Taxonomy. The entire hierarchy for identifying plants consists of Kingdom, Subkingdom, Superdivision, Division, Class, Subclass, Order, Family, Genus, Species and Cultivar. Fortunately, as gardeners we normally only need to be concerned with the last three classifiers: genus, species and cultivar. Sometimes it’s useful to go up a level and explore Family as well.Genus is a group of closely related species clearly defined from other plants. Species are sub-categories of the genus.

An example of genus and species would be maple trees: Acer is the genus for all maple trees. Under that genus are the species Acer japonicum (Japanese Maple), Acer rubrum (Red Maple), Acer succharinum (Silver Maple) and so on.

A cultivar is a plant or grouping of plants selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation. Most cultivars have arisen in cultivation but a few are special selections from the wild. Continuing with the Maple tree example: Acer japonicum ‘otaki’ identifies a specific cultivar of the species Japanese maple.

Most gardening references and plant tags will provide one to three names. If there are three names given with the first capitalized, the second in lower case and the third in single quotations you have the genus, species and cultivar in that order. Example: At your local nursery, a purple coneflower plant would likely be labeled: Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus' (genus, species, cultivar) If there are only two names given, the first is the genus and the second is the species. If only one name is given and it doesn’t sound like English (usually it’s Latin), it is usually the genus (in this case Echinacea).

If the single name is English, it’s probably the common name, which in this case would be Purple Coneflower.

If you want to read more about taxonomy, here’s a link to a good description of taxonomy from Colorado State University Extension:

Okay -- So with that out of the way, let’s look the specific plants you’ve asked about:

The term succulent is used to describe plants having some parts (leaves, roots, or stems) that are more than normally thickened and fleshy, usually to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions. But plants are not either succulent or non-succulent. Within the same genus and family there might be plants with thick leaves and normal stems as well as plants with very thickened and fleshy leaves or stems. So deciding what is a succulent is often arbitrary. “Succulent” is a term of description, not a category in formal plant classification.



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Book Review: Bring Nature Home

PLEASE READ THIS:   Bringing Nature Home-How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, by Douglas Tallamy, Ph.D.

     Do you feel pretty good about your understanding of the importance of native plants in your landscape? Or---do you think “the native plant thing” is yet another fad and you know red roses and nandinas form the framework for all “good” gardens? It doesn’t matter at all—either way—this is the book for you.

This is not the perfect book for us here in Texas. The author lives in the Northeast and any of the plants profiled are specific to that region. However, that in no way diminishes its value. The basic ideas remain the same whatever the location. Dr. Tallamy, whose doctorate is in entomology, presents the wonderful, terrible idea that what we, as caretakers of our land, no matter the size, are making life or death decisions for a host of creatures simply by our plant choices.

The book effectively makes it clear that Nature is “here” in our gardens now. We cannot assume that plants and animals are fine somewhere “out there in the wild” because there just is so little of the wild left.

That’s upsetting—it means taking responsibility for our actions. But its also an incredible opportunity to make a difference for ourselves, our family, our community—and beyond.

The introduction presents the major concepts to be considered. The wild creatures we want in our world simply will not be able to live without food and places to live. Things look grim, for creatures are gone or greatly reduced in numbers. But hope is there its not too late to save many plants and animals—but to do it we must change our ways.

Alien plants have replaced native ones to an alarming extent. Now all plants capture the energy from the sun but most alien plants are not able to provide support to native insects, as they cannot eat them. Insects are the major way that energy is transferred to other creatures. This is not just the author’s opinion—there is research to prove it.

Increased use of native plants can produce at least a simplified version of the diverse ecosystem that used to exist. The charts that show the insect populations supported by native plants as opposed to alien ones are truly eye opening.

All of the chapters on insects are educational—but the one on aphids—do not miss it. Aphids are amazing creatures—you will never think of them as disgusting little pests ever again.

If you read even a part of this book you will gain insight into the complex web of interactions between plants insects and other animals.

by Susan Thornbury