Survivor Succulents: A close look at Echeveria elegans

Over the last almost two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to take some time to reflect and spend time with themselves and their loved ones. However, one can only take so much introspection and instead it can be favorable to find new hobbies. For me, that involved adopting many, many succulents. As a Residential College Advisor, succulents also provided a way for me to foster community from afar.

Tending to the plants not only reminded us of the flourishing life outside our quarantined homes, but they also provided a much needed sense of routine. But while these little succulents bring color to a room, how exactly do they look under a microscope?

Here is an image of the succulents I cultivated for my first year students. You'll see a variety of species.
Here is an image of the succulents I cultivated for my first year students. You’ll see a variety of species.

Some of the hardiest species in my experience have been members of the Echeveria genus. Echeveria elegans, for example, is native to Northeastern Mexico, they thrive in subtropical climates and can thrive as small house plants. A common survival mechanism with these plants is a phenomenon called etiolation. Etiolation is a process of growing taller and extending the space between leaves in order to search for greater access to light under light depravation conditions. You may notice some etiolation in the succulents displayed above after their weeks in a dark shipping container and subsequent month in storage.

A true survivor and model of the resiliency we have all needed to persist in the pandemic, many succulent species have an amazing ability to shed their leaves in times of stress and then bud new life from the droppings.  This process also allows for easier propagation with cuttings or leaves or division of the offsets or “pups”.

Echeveria elegans cuttings beginning to propagate.

Looking closely at the image above you can see two small pinkish strands growing out of the succulent tip in the front, marking an age of rebirth. With new life so near, this marked the perfect opportunity to use my Foldscope to take a look closer and see what exactly was happening at that growth site.

1& 2. Pink growth tip ofEcheveria elegans 3 & 4. Green cutting of Echeveria elegans

Interestingly, the cell walls were not as visible in the new growth as compared to the older cutting. Moreover, the growing tip was not as colorful as the body, suggesting a lack of the chlorophyll known to give plants their green hues. Is the lack of distinctive cell walls correlated with limited chlorophyll? Do new tips lack of rigidity from the need of high energy plasticity at the tip? Are these tips more flexible to bend toward the nourishing light? Or am I still learning how to properly use the Foldscope? My bet is that it’s probably a mixture of all of these options.

Regardless of how they look at the microscopic level, these little survivors remind me of nature’s wondrous resiliency and bring me joy. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to easily take a deeper dive with the Foldscope.

I conducted this project as part of Professor Pringle’s EEB321 class at Princeton University.

Citations

“Echeveria Elegans.” Echeveria Elegans (Mexican Gem, Mexican Hens and Chicks, Mexican Snow Ball, White Mexican Rose) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/echeveria-elegans/.

Succulents Box. “Succulent Etiolation and How to Fix It.” Succulents Box, https://https://succulentsbox.com/blogs/blog/succulents-etiolation-and-how-to-fix-it

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