Drought tolerant plants: succulents and pelargoniums

Val Bourne

How to choose the best varieties of drought tolerant and hardy plants for when you're away in the summer.

Both succulents and pelargoniums can survive two weeks of neglect or more. The succulents store water in their fleshy leaves, while the pelargoniums have tough leathery leaves designed to shrug off the rugged South African climate. 

The most drought-tolerant pelargoniums are the ones with scented foliage. The oily, aromatic covering on the leaves acts as a sun screen and also prevents water loss. There are lemon-scented, rose-scented and peppermint varieties and some have finely divided foliage in soft greens variegated in cream. Others, like 'Attar of Roses', have more substantial velvet-textured leaves covered in downy hairs.  Although the flowers are often insignificant, you can create a tapestry of interesting foliage by mixing three or five varieties. They mingle very well with the silver sage-like Plectranthus argentatus.

Succulents are often dramatic plant sculptures in their own right so they need space to shine. Many make excellent subjects planted singly in containers and they vary from tree-like aeoniums to prickly, rosetted agaves.  

Scented pelargoniums

Many were bred in the 18th century for their scented foliage and there are still 150 named varieties -some  dating from that era. They have prospered because these strong plants are easily raised from cuttings taken in the summer months. They can be used indoors and out - although they are frost tender.  Plant them near a path or a doorway where you can brush against them so that they release their fragrance. Or put them on a sunny bathroom or kitchen window sill to freshen the air. Cuttings overwinter easily if protected with fleece in cold spells.  

Ten excellent varieties

  • 'Ardwick Cinnamon' - grey-green leaves - cinnamon scent
  • 'Attar of Roses' - lobed rose-scented soft-green leaves and mauve flowers
  • 'Chocolate Peppermint' - chocolate-blotched leaves with a peppermint fragrance
  • 'Graveolens' - lemon-scented divided leaves
  • 'Lady Plymouth' - pungent variegated cream and green divided leaves and delicate pink flowers
  • 'Little Gem' - rose-lemon scent with pink flowers
  • 'Orange Fizz' - orange-scented leaves 
  • 'Royal Oak' - pungent oak-shaped leaves with a dark blotch
  • 'Sweet Rosina' - citrus and rose with large grey-green leaves
  • 'Torrento' - ginger-scented leaves and veined pink flowers


These need good drainage and a sun-baked position to thrive. They will also need shelter during winter - either place in a shed, or an unheated greenhouse or in a conservatory. The technique is to dry them off from September onwards and then keep them as dry as possible over the winter months. Cover with fleece during severe weather.

Like all fleshy-stemmed plants they are susceptible to vine weevil so use gritty compost as a planting medium and surround the plants with a surface mulch of  grit as well. Check them regularly by tugging the leaves. 

Destroy the plant if you find any weevil grubs and repropagate from leaf cuttings or offsets. You could also use hardy house leeks (sempervivums) in the same way as succulents. They are hardy and can be kept outside in winter if kept dry. 

Most succulents reproduce by forming new rosettes or off shoots. However all are easily raised from cuttings as well.

Sometimes when they flower they die as many are monocarpic. Avoid buying flowering house leeks (sempervivums) for this reason.

Six excellent succulents

  • Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop' (velvet rose) - a tree-like succulent with branching stems tipped with shiny dark rosettes of soft leaves 
  • Agave americana (American aloe) - the easiest starting point with a jagged rosette of very prickly, blue-grey leaves
  • Crassula perforata (String of Buttons) - blue-green succulent foliage with burgundy tinges to the tips
  • Echeveria secunda  var. glauca (Common echeveria) - easy, glaucous rosettes topped by orange-pink flowers - very prone to vine weevil attack 
  • Kalanchoe thyrsiflora 'Bronze Sculpture' (Paddle plant) - a simply beautiful sculpture plant with matt-green succulent leaves which blush to burgundy towards the margins
  • Sempervivum tectorum (Common houseleek) - rosettes of hairless leaves and red flowers

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