Master Gardeners’ Bookshelf: The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents

The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents, by Terry Hewitt

Reviewed by Stephanie Halcrow, Extension Master Gardener

The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents, by Terry Hewitt, is the perfect companion for anyone growing succulents. I first read Mr. Hewitt’s book when I began growing succulents for information and I still use it today for inspiration. If you were to have only one book on succulents in your personal library, I would recommend this one.

The Complete Book is just that – complete. The book begins with information about what a succulent is as well as where succulents come from. The book emphasizes that all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. In general, succulents are highly specialized plants that store water in their leaves, stems, and roots. Because of this, succulents can survive long periods of drought. This ability to survive stressful environments makes succulents great plants for beginners. Not only is this background information interesting, it provides the foundation for enjoying and appreciating succulents.

One of the most useful parts of the book is the plant catalog. Divided into two sections, one on cacti and one on other succulents, the plant catalog is filled with bright stunning pictures of specimens as well as useful information about each individual succulent’s ideal growing conditions. I particularly appreciate the information about how large a succulent will grow, depending on whether it is grown indoors or outdoors.

I’ll highlight two of my favorite succulents found in the book. The first is Aeoniums, which are striking to look at, as they are characterized by colored leaves formed in a rosette at the end of a long thick stem. Even so, in the introductory class I teach on succulents, I don’t include Aeoniums because I find them fussy. They are particular about their light and water, and they don’t like to be moved. Hewitt must have also loved Aeoniums as the book contains a two page spread on these lovely succulents.

The second plant of note is the Testudinaria, also sometimes referred to as Dioscorea.  Specifically, Dioscorea elephantipes (elephant foot plant) is a yam family vine from southern Africa with a slow growing caudex (fat, swollen stem) covered in bark that looks like the back of a tortoise shell. This is one of my favorite succulents because I was gifted a 26-year-old Dioscorea elephantipes from an aging local grower who was reducing his stock. When you see the photo in the book, I think you’ll want to acquire one as well.

Dioscorea elephantipes (elephant foot plant)

Whether you choose to grow an Aeonium or a Testudinaria, a challenge for many new succulent owners is figuring out the right combination of soil, light, and water. Hewitt covers all three. His book also includes directions on how to propagate succulents from seed, cuttings, division, or grafting. I’ve used his information to improve my own propagation efforts. The book covers the types of equipment one might need to grow succulents and even provides helpful tips on how to decorate your house with succulents.

The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents was first published in 1997. But like succulents, Mr. Hewitt’s book has survived the stresses of time and remains the complete word on succulents. It is available online in both paperback and hard cover editions.

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