(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 29, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Over the years I have increased my reliance on mail order for obtaining succulents and cacti (primarily aloes) as my local options slowly diminish and I add to my overburdening collection of weird stuff. There is so much to be collected in this category of plants by mail order, and the availability of certain species is constantly changing. And ordering plants by mail is like having Christmas over and over again. The following are my experiences with mail ordering these plants, along with some suggestions and things to look out for.
When I first began my foray into the world of mail ordering, I really knew next to nothing about succulents or cacti, and the dizzying lists of names and photos of plants was just too much for me. I didn't know where to start or what were ‘good deals' or ‘bad deals'. So I just ordered willy-nilly. Some orders were fantastic and some were hugely disappointing. One good thing about most succulents and cacti is they tend to be cheap (until you progress in your collection mania to the point where you ‘need to have everything'...then the costs skyrocket.) So if you order some things that weren't what you expected, at least you aren't out much money. And unlike a lot of other plant types, most cacti and succulents travel by mail quite well and survival rates are excellent (unless at your end you don't know what you're doing--but at least poor survival is rarely the fault of the vendor.) I have had several orders get ‘lost in the mail' for weeks (even months) and when they eventually arrived, most were still alive, often apparently totally unaffected by their lives spent on the road in a dark box for weeks on end.
Some plants just don't mail well... these three species died everytime I ordered them by mail for some reason, despite my having good luck with most plants (Agave margaritae, Aloe bosseri and Aloe succotrina)
These are three plants in a large order than 'accidentally' went to Minnesotta in early winter, instead of to me in California... I got the order about 3 weeks later and all plants looked fine
Years later I am still not sure I know a good deal or a bad deal, but I have learned some important lessons. I have learned that some plants just shouldn't be acquired by mail order, while others can ONLY be acquired this way. I have learned that new names are not necessarily new plants, and that many vendors like to just make up new names (or so it seems at least), or spell the old ones so badly that I think they are new species. Some places don't seem to know what they are selling, and others seem to be very accurate in their correct identification; however I have also learned NO place is perfect. I have learned some places won't mail some plants at certain times of the year (this is true with most mail order plants, not just with cacti and succulents); though they may not necessarily tell you this at the time of ordering... just months later when you are pulling your hair wondering if you just threw your money away. So far, everything I have ordered made it to me eventually (with one exception I will discuss below.) I have learned that some places sell things really small, while others sell things really big (I personally prefer that latter.) Some places are more likely to sell diseased plants while others are invariably in immaculate condition.
Aloe 'Corumba' is a made up name from a well known vendor. No such plant exists (first two photos)- probably a hybrid. Still, it's a nice Aloe, whatever it is. Third photo is what was supposed to be one species of aloe, but was really another (vendor was just wrong).
another incorrectly identified aloe (sadly I had uploaded photos of it onto Davesgarden, and then once I realized the vendor goofed, I had to remove them all); sencond two photos are of mythical plants (names that don't mean anyting)... a common problem when ordering mail order
Before you start to acquire succulents or cacti by mail order, you should probably try your local garden outlet stores first. I don't know if Home Depot or Lowes have the same plants all over the country or not, but I would go there first. You can get a huge and varied collection of all sorts of cool plants. They will be cheaper, and will be already somewhat acclimated; in addition, you can see what you're getting, and there will be fewer surprises. But big garden centers and many nurseries don't have properly identified plants. That may mean nothing to you, but if it matters to you--as it does to me--I suggest you get some books on succulents, peruse Dave's Garden (it is one of the most complete photographic sites on succulents in the world), or start ordering your plants from reputable mail order sources. Knowing your plants opens the door to discovering how to properly care for them. Otherwise you will only be guessing--and you might guess wrong.
Once I get an order by mail, I take a photograph of every plant with a digital camera. This does several things for me. It documents the condition of the plant on arrival, in case there are problems with it later on. It also helps me add the plant to my plant catalogue (something I really recommend all serious collectors start, or else you quickly lose track of what you have.) It also helps me see how much my plant has grown (or in some cases, has suffered and deteriorated in my care) over the weeks, months and years.
Group photos to record what plants looked like when they arrived (Agaves mostly in first photo, Aloes in the second and some Euphorbias in third photo)
Inspect each plant carefully for scale, mealy bug and aloe mite. If there is scale or mealy bug, rinse the plant well, apply bug stuff (your choice) and complain. If your aloe has aloe mite, I would send it back. Aloe mite can be treated successfully, but treatment is painstaking, often doesn't work and you risk your entire aloe collection in the process. I have not had any vendor refuse to send a replacement for an infected plant.
Aloe mite infection on a Aloe comosa I ordered (left); close up of what Aloe mite can look like on an Aloe flower- you don't want this in your collection!
Then I plant everything in pots in dry soil. This might not be the wisest move, and many others would recommend putting them in pure pumice. But I have had few problems putting them in dry cactus soil, though I do tend to add a lot of extra pumice, even if there is pumice in the soil already. (Note: perlite works about as well as pumice, but I prefer pumice.) Rarely do I kill something by underwatering it although I have done that, too. Mostly, I kill things by watering them too much or too soon. Patience is a virtue...one that I don't have. If I were really doing the right thing, I would probably not water anything I received by mail order for weeks after planting it in dry soil. But I can rarely wait that long and most of the time, things work out okay. But most mail order plants have desiccated roots, and they can't absorb water; watering them at this point will only make them rot. The plant must form new roots before watering can do the plant any good. So have PATIENCE (do as I say, not as I do!)
Once I get an order in, I put them all in a pot (in first photo, pot already had a cactus in it) until they either 1) die, or 2) I figure out what to do with them. Some may stay in these group pots for up to a year and by then they are well established and easy to move elsewhere.
Do not place new arrivals directly in the hot sun, even if these plants normally grow in hot sun. Most mail order plants come from greenhouses, even if from climates where you would think they would be outdoors. I have fried countless plants this way, even cacti that should love being in the sun. Acclimate these plants slowly to sunlight by putting them out in early mornings and gradually increase their exposure. It may take months, so patience is important.
Aloe viguieri, a true sun worshiper, here at time of receipt (left), suffering in sun (middle) and finally moved to protected area and looking great (right). Eventually it will move back out into the sun again.
Cactus just planted out in full sun- fried to death (literally)... acclimate slowly!
All you need to do is go the Garden Watchdog's category for cactus and succulents or Cactus Mall to discover dozens of mail order sources for these fascinating plants. Nearly every source I have tried has been excellent in one way or another and only a few have been disappointing. However, as my collection grows I struggle to keep finding new and interesting species, and my list of ‘great' mail order sources for succulents has dwindled to just a few, with several continuously surprising me and keeping me interested. But if you are a beginner, and you do not live in an area where thousands of species of cactus and succulents can be found locally, then there is an exciting and long list of mail order places to try out.
While I have definite opinions about certain companies, I feel uncomfortable making any comments about them that could be taken as negative in any way, so if you need to know more about a particular company, you should go to the Garden Watchdog and read all the comments about each vendor. That is probably the best way to find out what to expect from each company and it is a far better forum for that sort of information and criticism than this article is.
You should be cautious about ordering succulents and cacti from overseas, for a variety of reasons. Though some of the overseas vendors have lots of stuff that simply is unavailable here in the U.S., sometimes there is good reason for that. I had the very disappointing experience of ordering some very rare aloes from a company overseas only to find my order held up in a quarantine station. The USDA considered some of my plants possible CITES protected plants and needed proper paperwork to send them on to me. It turns out getting that paperwork required me to jump through far more hoops than I was prepared to do, and I lost the entire shipment (it was quite a costly order, too.) Not only that, but I learned the hard way how many Euros were in a dollar (not many) and that my order was far more expensive than I originally thought it would be. Additionally I learned from friends who finally got their orders that even though succulents travel well, there are indeed limitations. Some overseas orders looked like they had been blow-torched (they probably froze.) I will never try to do that again. Be prepared if you are ordering from overseas!
There is one company I think is close to perfect for ordering succulents and cacti: Arid Lands Greenhouses in Arizona (and no, I don't work for them.) Click on their website, go to the online catalog, and prepare to be impressed! They have a huge inventory, and unlike many other vendors, they have everything on their website... even the actual number of individuals remaining, so if you order something, they will have it. I have never once been told they ran out of something that they said they had. Once they do run out, the plant immediately disappears from their site. They have a photo of every single species they sell, and what the actual plant looks like that you'll be getting (not just a photo of the ‘perfect' plant yours could be someday if everything goes well). And the people there are knowledgeable, always nice, and bend over backwards to keep the customer happy. It is an amazingly efficient website, run by amazingly efficient and pleasant people and they have terrific plants. All other mail order places should look to this site as a model for service and selection. But saying that, they do not have everything. So you must still use other mail order sources if your search is for everything.
just three of hundreds of plants I have gotten from Arid Lands Greenhouses that are among my favorite plants: Bowiea garipensis, Aloe aageodonta and Euphorbia vulcanorum
So if you want succulents and don't mind waiting a bit, get online and start ordering some by mail. It will indeed seem like Christmas all over again!