Of all the succulents I grow, lovely Graptopetalum paraguayense is among the easiest. Here's how I plant, cultivate, propagate, keep them healthy, and show them to advantage. You'll also learn why, in different locations, they look different; and you'll discover intergeneric hybrids such as Graptoveria and Graptosedum.
Echeverias are closely related and showier, but I suspect graptopetalums are tougher. Those in my garden are true survivors. Damaged or withered stems? No problem. No water? The plants hunker down and look the same for months. Frost? It’s gotten down to 17 F, and the graptopetalums were fine. They're also unfazed by hot sun, high heat, and too little light.
Graptopetalums change color and size depending on growing conditions. Those in partial or dappled shade are blue-gray; in full, hot sun, gray-pink; in bright shade to full sun, pinkish yellow. They're smaller (about 2 inches in diameter) when stressed and larger (4 inches) when pampered.
The plants come not from Paraguay, as the species name implies, but Mexico. The common name "ghost plant" references pale, opalescent leaves. These form overlapping, rounded triangles arranged in a Fibonacci spiral.
Graptopetalums bloom in spring, producing dainty sprays of star-shaped flowers on stems that grow toward greatest sun. They're pretty and attract hummingbirds, but cutting them off helps preserve the vitality of the plant (and as cut flowers, they're long-lasting). Up to you.
Handle with care
Like pachyphytums and large-leaved sedums, graptopetalums have leaves that pop off easily. I wince when I hear that little snap. All parts of the plant are fairly brittle because it wants to break apart and reroot.
No surprise, these are among the easiest succulents to propagate. Leaves that land on the ground below the mother plant sometimes sprout beadlike leaves and threadlike roots from the stem end. These feed off the leaf, draining its nutrients. As the tiny plant grows, the leaf shrivels.
If you have orphan leaves, set them atop soil out of direct sun. Don't bury or water them, or they may rot.
Graptopetalums, as well as sedums, echeverias, crassulas and other stem succulents, may become bearded with roots as they seek soil in which to root. Tuck cuttings into niches in rock walls and let the plants cascade from terraces, pedestal pots and hanging baskets.
Graptopetalums can be used as a ground cover, but like all succulents, they can’t be walked on. As in the photo above, they also may be crested (leaves form tight clusters).
The genus Graptopetalum can be crossed with Sedum and Echeveria; such hybrids are "intergeneric crosses." Named cultivars exhibit the best of both genera and benefit from hybrid vigor (they're tougher). Graptopetalum + Echeveria = Graptoveria, and Graptopetalum + Sedum = Graptosedum.
Take and start cuttings
As days shorten and summer heat abates, tidy your graptopetalums and other leggy succulents. In autumn, an overgrown plant's exposed inner areas and raw cut branches are less vulnerable to sunburn and desiccation. Plus in fall you won't be trimming off flower buds, as you might in spring. Use trimmings to start new plants.
Don't expect much top growth during winter, but rest assured, roots are spreading and preparing to fuel spring growth.
In their new pot, my graptos will cascade, lengthen and branch. When I tire of them or they get untidy, I'll snip off the rosettes and start them over again as cuttings...or pass them along to neighbors and friends.
Looking for a mail-order source of Graptopetalum paraguayense? I recommend Mountain Crest Gardens.
And in the category: "I would if I could"
Above: A Newport Beach, CA, floral designer ornamented his home's Art Nouveau architecture with cast-concrete graptopetalums---his "signature plant."