Tag Archives: succulents

you paid money for that?

At the plant sale attached to the recent succulent show a couple of the society members looked at one of the plants I had in my hands and made all sorts of approving noises. “Great plant!” or “Wow, you scored!”

That was not the reaction when I got the plants home.

While John didn’t quite come out and say something like, “You paid good money for that?,” it was there in implication in what little he said.

I suppose it’s the curious gardener’s curse, getting all excited over some of the odder botanical life forms that didn’t get sprinkled on with the magic unicorn glitter that makes a plant conventionally pretty. Add to that the more general gardener’s curse of being able to see the future in recognizing the promise in a packet of black seeds indistinguishable from dust or a bag of brown bulbs looking no more promising than a heap of shallots.

Here’s one of the little plants, Ipomea platensis, a species in the same genus as morning glories. This is the young plant.

Some day it’ll grow up into something looking like this plant in the main succulent show. Very cool, but we’re missing the magic unicorn glitter.

This is a cool plant with a Latin name that would draw snickers from a junior high school science class, Fockea edulis.

Some day I hope mine grows up into something looking like these larger plants in the main show…

Here’s a more mature specimen of Dioscorea elaphantipes, another of the little plants I got. I think the form of the caudex on this one looks pretty amazing. So far these are three caudex-forming (caudiciform) species, but the inflated plant parts all look quite different from each other. The foliage, too, looks totally different one plant to the next.

Oper­culi­carya decaryi also has a cool inflated stem…

…and tiny, dark, delicate leaves.

And then there was this one, Tyle­codon striatus, a plant that even I think is kinduv ugly. Lots of brown stem and not much else. They have competitions to find the ugliest dogs. Do they have ugly plant contests? This species stands a pretty good chance of winning. And I paid good money for it!

Not all was lumpy and bulbous at the plant sale, and there actually was a lot of unicorn glitter spread over many of the plants.

Echevaria Afterglow and Sedum adolphii 'Oranges'
Golden sedum
Dudleya brittonii
Flower on Adenium obesum, a relative of the tropical plumeria. Like most of the plants I purchased this species will form a dramatic caudex, but people seem to buy it at least as much for the flowers.

I liked the forest of plant labels at this vendor's booth. One of them bears the really unhelpful plant name of succulent...

There were succulent-friendly pots, too. Just look at all that drainage.

And of all the pots I came so close to going home with this one by Don Hunt Ceramics. Isn’t the glaze terrific? You wouldn’t care if the plant inside was as ugly as one of my new ones!

Considering what I purchased–and especially what I did not buy–this might just be the last time I’m allowed to go shopping unattended.


Rebutia muscula
Copiapoa hypogaea var. barquitensis

One of the halls in San Diego’s Balboa Park almost always seems to have a plant show dedicated to one group of plant or another. This past weekend it was the turn for cactus and succulents, courtesy the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society.

This show featured an expected sampling of cactus, but a surprisingly low number of plants with colorful, splashy foliage like you’d find on some sedums or echevarias. Maybe some of them don’t transport so easily, and many others get too big to take to a show. Or maybe there’s a certain snobbery against easy-to-like plants that are probably a little overexposed in garden centers and home stores around town.

I'm not sure how to react to this entry, a carved up specimen of the common San Diego County coastal prickly pear, Opuntia littoralis. Most botanical gardens will have vandalized cactus and succulents, with initials carved into plants that will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. And here's another act of creative vandalism. It's fun, but I'm a little too uptight to enjoy it without feeling some guilt or dis-ease. But in the end it’s probably a better deal for the plant than to chop up the leaf for a big serving of nopales.

Notocactus leninghausii
Mammillaria carmenae
Sulcorebutia rauschii

Rebutia fulviseta--sorry for the awful focus on this one...

Euphorbia poissonii
Euphorbia unispina
And yet another euphorbia, this one E. misera, native right here in coastal San Diego County.
Oops...I didn't get the name of this wonderful wonder. Sorry. Maybe one of you knows? EDIT JUNE 12: Hoover suggested that this might be Cal­ibanus hookeri, and it looks like that is indeed the plant. Thanks, Hoover!
This decades-old specimen is Adenia glauca.

Whatever the reason for the dearth of “pretty plants,” weird was in, and I found myself gravitating to the side of the exhibition hall with plants that took up the idea of succulent growth habits and ran with it in ways you don’t see in cactus or rosette-forming succulents. Pretty many of them are not, but there’s a major cool factor with these.

Out of these I really grooved on the caudiciform species, plants that develop grossly enlarged stem bases, stems or roots to store water for the plant to use during the dry months of the year.

It was easy to snap up a big pile of photos at the show with my cellphone camera, but the quality of almost all of them was been pretty pathetic. Low indoor light = Slow exposures = Blurry photos. And controlling focus is really really touchy to nearly impossible.

I’m not about to give up my real cameras, but gosh these little devices are handy, like the convenient Hostess Twinkies of the photographic world. Amazing how much we’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience. Still, every now and then the photographic Hostess Twinkie goddess smiled on me and gave me sharp images that were focuses almost where I’d have focused with my camera.

Anyway, you might have guessed that where there’s a plant show, there’s usually a plant sale. But that’ll be the topic of a future post…

roadkill flower

When I got home Monday it was almost dark, one of the sure signs that summer is over. Out in the garden a pot of Stapelia gettleffii was showing off its first flower of the season. It was dark enough that I had to use the camera flash.

I’ve only had this South African plant for a few months and this was its first bloom for me. Elaborately striped and fuzzy with hairs that look like fur, I’m trying to decide whether the flower is “pretty” or not. It’s definitely in the weird and wonderful category, though. The flies like it too, mainly because it’s gently fragrant like something that’s been run over on the interstate.

I’ve grown another of these carrion flowers, Stapelia gigantea, for a few years now. That plant has flowers that last for just a day, and I was expecting the same thing with this species. But when I went out earlier today that first flower was still open, drawing a small crowd of adoring flies. (They got camera-shy for this shot.)

This is a frost-tender plant, so it’d work only if you brought it indoors for the winter in regions colder than zone 10. I’m not sure I’d want this as a houseplant when it’s flowering, but it fortunately blooms before it gets so cold outside that you’d have to bring it inside.

Pretty or not, it’s definitely a conversation-starter.

solana succulents

Indulge me, if you would, a quick return to last month’s San Diego County Fair. There, in the flower show going on in the botanical building, I ran across this one class they had for “most unusual foliage.” Flowers are great, but so are leaves. This little display included a few pretty special examples.

Here you see variegated milk thistle and a fuzzy kalanchoe leaf, thick and rigid like many layers of felt.

This was the winning leaf, from a succulent echevaria. Not the prettiest thing on earth, but it definitely fit the “most unusual” category.

While at the fair I ran across the display I ran across the display mounted by Solana Succulents. The place has been around for a while, but I’d never taken the short trip to north county to check it out. This past weekend I took John up for a quick visit.

Heading north, once you clear the thin atmosphere of Del Mar, you come upon a chain of fun, funky little beach towns on the way up the coast. A visit to Solana Beach and neighboring Encinitas will give you some comfort that the 1960s never went away very far, though they did get a little reinterpreted and gentrified.

Solana Succulents occupies the outdoor spaces of a little house that’s been converted into a shop. I liked its tight, funky feel. You’ll find little succulent gifts, bigger landscape specimens, as well as some wild curiosities that’ll probably keep a connoisseur happy. With so many pointy, sharp plants around, this is no place to take your toddler. But for two people who find succulents totally cool it was a great way to spend part of an afternoon.

Here’s a brief gallery of some of the hundreds of neat plants there. I tried to get the names, but a few plants weren’t labeled. And beyond that there were some unknowns mixed into the offerings.

A cool red aloe or gasteraloe hybrid.
Another aloe or aloe hybrid with cool red summer coloring.
Aloe andongensis, a species with gentle spots and a distinct gold aura.
The fuzzed flower buds of Aloe tomentosa. The plant is a pretty basic green aloe, but these woolly flowers make up for the ordinary plant.
Espostoa lanata: Was it Freud who said, 'Sometimes a succulent is just a succulent?'
One of the variegated forms of Agave lophantha, a nice little spiky bundle not much over a foot across at this point.
A nice boxed euphorbia specimen.
Euphorbia polygona, one of many Old-World euphorbias that mimic New-World cactus.
And a real New World cactus, one of the weirdly blue-colored species in the genus Pilosocereus. The owner needed to look up the exact species, but he said it wasn't the more common azureus.
I really flaked on the name of this one. Maybe one of the stapelia relatives? EDIT 7/16/2010: Thanks to Candy, who has identified this plant as Euphorbia pugniformis f. cristata.

There was this short little plant with a bulbous, succulent base. It had fewer than a half-dozen leaves. But what stunning leaves. I thought they had a great gold-dust effect to them. And then John suggested that I wipe the potting soil off the leaves. Okay, no more gold dust effect, but still a great plant. Not all succulents are squat, spiny, leafless little auditions for a horror movie. This plant is proof. But I think a lot of the other plants I've shown are further proof of that.

fairly cool plants

On my recent trip to the San Diego County Fair the horticultural displays seemed to divide into two big categories: exhibits that featured cool designs (usually entered by a landscape design firm or individual) and those that feature some pretty cool plants (mostly in exhibits assembled by specialty nurseries).

I’ve talked enough about the cool designs. Here are some fairly cool plants. Some have been around for centuries, others are fairly new to our gardens. Hopefully the new introductions are fairly tame, otherwise you might be seeing here the new exotic weed pests that’ll be keeping us busy for the next hundred years.

Ptilotus exaltatus 'Platinum Wallaby,' a plant that has been showing up in nurseries this past year.
Oh look: Another noteworthy plant, another ptilotus, Down Under.
Christmas in July? The Ecke poinsettia ranch folks who supply a huge percentage of the world's poinsettias were showing off this new white variety, Polar Bear. My county used to be poinsettia central for the world, but cheaper production costs have driven a lot of that to Central America.
Chartreuse, green, white and near-black: Lobularia Snow Princes, two kinds of ipomoea, with Coleus ColorBlaze Alligator Tears.
Geranium crispum, variegated form. This is one of many foliage plants that have flowers that don't seem to add much to the foliage.
Gosh, yet another noteworthy plant with a 'Noteworthy Plant' sign next to it. (Kinduv reminds me of those turnoffs labeled 'scenic viewpoint' on highways through spectacular landscapes, as if you needed the sign to tell you you were looking at something scenic or--in this case--noteworthy.) This was labeled a 'Pine Needle Fern,' but not with its species name. My quick web trawl didn't turn up much with that name, only a fact that it's considered one of the more primaeval kinds of fern. Very cool, whatever it is.
Rice flower, Ozothamnus diosmifolius, a plant drought-tolerant selection that, like the ptilotus plants, comes from Australia. You'd think they'd have run out of their notable plant signs by now.
Mention the word succulent and people have visions of a fairly desert-ey landscape. Here's a display by Cordova Gardens that instead comes off as a really lush flower arrangement.
Deuterocohnia brevifolia, a fairly amazing succulent. (Edit: this is actually a bromeliad!)
Mammilaria parkinsoniana, a fairly amazing cactus.
A nice mixed planting of cactus and succulents at the Solana Succulents display.
A gorgeous purple prickly pear Opuntia Santa Rita, part of the Solana Succulents exhibit.
Agave victoria-reginae, a normally prim little bundle of green and white botanical joy. Check out bloom stalk in the next photo, however...
OMG, when that thing blooms, stand back! This little two-foot plant has probably produced a twelve-foot inflorescence. How do you design with this plant? Is it a foreground plant? Or something for the background? Not a bad quandary to be in.

the huntington desert garden

The late-December light was fading when I headed to the wild and wonderful plants that make up the Huntington’s Desert Garden. The garden dates back many decades and features some immense specimens the likes of which you’ll almost never see. But what I love most about the garden is that it incorporates these great plants into landscapes that both honor the plants and use them in striking combinations.

Many aloes were blooming with their dramatic spikes of hot, bright colors. The theatrical lighting helped to make some of the scenes even more dramatic.

(Be sure to click onthe third image to enlarge it. In its unearthly weirdness, it’s got to be one of my favorite garden photos I’ve ever taken.)

One zone of the garden focuses on plants you’d find in California. Here a creosote bush serves as a screen for a radiant gray-white agave.

And this scene employs the coastal and Channel Island buckwheat, Saint Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)–a plant that technically doesn’t come from a desert–with other dryland plants. The gray-green foliage on all of them helps to unify this diverse planting.

The Huntington is in a warm subtropical area just east of Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean that it’s warm enough for all of these plants. Patio heaters of the kind that you see outdoors at restaurants keep plants warm at night in one area of the garden. (These are the frigid depths of December, after all.)

Now, as much as I was trying to focus on the overall landscape, I have to share a few photos of individual species that caught my eye.

Looking up at a very large Yucca filifera from Mexico…

(There’s an extremely similar shot of the exact same plant on the Germanatrix’s post on her visit to this same garden at the end of November. Check it out: here.)

Two tall palms with immense tree aloes, Aloe barberae. At the Huntington the species is identified as A. bainesii, but the taxonomists have had a change of heart. I have two of these in my little front yard, the tallest of them still under twenty feet but still impressive at that size. The writeup on this plant says it can hit fifty feet or more. The Huntington specimens are just about there, I’d guess.

A dynamic and lyrical tangle of leaves on several plants of the variegated form of Agave americana… (Homage to somebody… later Willem de Kooning? Franz Kline?) Agaves with their perfect rosettes seem to appeal to the part of our brains that appreciate symmetry and order. This planting subverted the expected into a beautiful mess.

A tall, dense stand of Cleistocactus straussii

As we left the Huntington the light that had made the Desert Garden extra-interesting was coloring up the flanks of Mount Wilson and the the rest of the San Gabriels.

Not far away from the Huntington is Pasadena, the site of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade, which should be getting under way not long after this post hits the web. (Okay, it’s sort of a lame way to try to segue this post to the topic of New Year’s Day, but–hey!–I had to give it a try.)

Happy New Year’s to all of you, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous year filled with amazing botanical highlights.

agave update

We interrupt our series on the gardens at the Huntington Library with this quick update on the progress of the bloom spike of my Agave attenuata.

At this point there flowers have opened on about three feet of the spike. The lowest ones are beginning to wither.

So far the blooms are proving to be extremely popular with the honeybees. (Notice the bee on the flower and ignore the bright red car in the background. Thank you.)

In this last image you can even see the pollen that the bee has attached to its back legs for transport back to the hive.

Thanks for your patience. With the next post we return to the gardens at the Huntington…

Previous posts on this plant:
One agave, eight ways (December Bloom Day)
When plants collide

when plants collide

Agave attenuata colliding with tree aloes

Fifteen years I’ve been waiting for this plant to bloom. Fifteen years. And now that it’s blooming it throws its big bloom stalk into a tangle of two tree aloes growing together in what’s now a big three-plant smashup.

The flowering plant is Agave attenuata, the foxtail agave. Native to higher elevations in Mexico, it’s supposedly fairly rare where it originates. But in zone 10 and 9b-plus Southern California gardens it’s fairly common, with several gardens in every block of my neighborhood having one or more plants.

Many agaves, including the local native Shaw’s agave, Agave shawii, come armed with attractive but sharp spines. But A. attenuata is as soft and friendly a succulent as you’ll ever meet, and that’s one of its big appeals for home gardens. Another bonus is that it requires no supplemental watering in gardens near the coast.

Almost all of the agave species will bloom once and then die (monocarpy). Fortunately one plant of this species will have many rosettes, with only the blooming rosette dying back, leaving the rest to bloom in future seasons.

Agave attenuata with maturing bloom spike

At this point the stalk is taller than I am and is starting to grow downward in a thick arc.

Agave attenuata flower stalk with buds

The individual blooms are still closed up for business. Soon, though, the individual greenish white flowers will open up a few at a time, beginning at the base of the inflorescence and then slowly moving towards the end.

Agave attenuata at the neighbors

Here’s a plant at a neighbor’s house in full bloom last winter so that you can see what the agave does when it isn’t busy running into other plants. Very graceful, don’t you think?

I wish the flowering stem hadn’t collided with the aloes. The stalk is assertive and solid so that there’s no staking it or coaxing it out of harm’s way. Oh well. I can sit back and enjoy the flowering, even if the flowers aren’t in the place where I’d like them.

Anything that you have to wait fifteen years for it to bloom isn’t going to be the most convenient of species.

lawn reform

Susan from Blue Planet Garden Blog dropped me a note about a new initiative she was involved in. Lawn Reform, a collaboration of nine bloggers from around the US, is trying to reshape how we all think about lawns and their roles in gardens.

If you’re not already out there crying, “Kill your lawn” (or at least something like “Reduce the size of your lawn”) the site lists six good reasons to think again about the green monster outside your house, “Polluted Waterways,” “Pesticide-Treated Lawns that are Toxic to Humans and Pets,” “Guzzling of Water, a Resource in Short Supply,” “Single-Species Monocultures that Provide Nothing for Wildlife,” “Frequent Mowing, with Air Pollution” and “Overtreated and Overwatered Lawns that Waste $$ and Keep Asking for More.”

To that list I’d add a more philosophical reason to rethink a green expanse, the idea that a lawn represents some weird macho domination of all things natural, that nature isn’t acceptable to live with until it’s been chopped to smithereens and reshaped into something that’s a pale imitation of itself. Start with this mindset and it’s not a a big leap to Silent Spring, global warming or The Bomb.

To promo Lawn Reform, Susan is hosting an “I used to have a lawn but now I have…” contest, where you’re encouraged to submit photos and stories related to transforming lawn into something else. The winners, drawn at random, will receive a copy of John Greenlee’s new book, The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn.

Dead Grass

I’ll share a couple of life-after-lawn photos of my own. The newest expanse, which might be described as “I used to have a lawn but now I have dead grass,” is a fairly unattractive alternative to lawn, a patch of unwatered grass that’s in part a response to our current water rationing. This is probably nothing that’s going to make anyone do something else with their lawn, but it’s ugly enough that we’ll have to do something about it.

Front yard overview

The second shot is an overview of my front yard, taken during the unflattering light of midday in the heat of September, something like 18 years after the we took out the front lawn. At the time we, along with much of Southern California, were into a lot of South African species, so there are a couple different forms of a stately tree aloe, Aloe barberae (a.k.a. A. bainseii) to the right, along with a big mound of Aloe arborescens. To the left is a big clump of the maligned red fountain grass from farther up in the African continent; it’s a plant that people tell you not to plant because of its invasive tendencies, although this version hasn’t self-sown in two decades. (Other versions of fountain grass, however, can take over an ecosystem in no time.)

We’ve tried various California natives over the years in this space. The most successful has been the row of coyote bush brush cascading over the front wall, Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point.’ It’s a plant that’s been said to have a ten year useful life. For us it’s doubled that number of years, though it’ll probably get renewed this planting season. Another corner of the ex-lawn, not shown here, features some buckwheats and plants from the Channel Islands. They’re filling in nicely as they provide more of a California flavor to the yard and soften a yard that used to be a lot more about succulents.

Front yard succulents

Before we undertook this big lawn replacement we asked a question about what we really used the front lawn for. Mostly we walked through it on the way to the front door. Why not put big mounding accent plants where we’d never walk? And in the place of where we used to have one species of grass that required lots of water and pampering we now have several dozen species of plants, almost all of which will make it through the summer with next to no additional watering. Greater diversity, check; less water use, check. The project also succeeds in all the other ways Lawn Reform suggests a lawn replacement would succeed.

But that’s just one success story. There are probably as many different ways to replace a lawn as there are gardeners. What would you do?

not in the doldrums

It’s the end of summer and most areas of the garden seem to be in some sleepy botanical torpor, exhausted from the heat. Not much is blooming. Brown is everywhere.

August succulents with Crassula perfoliata

And then by contrast there’s this little over-performing corner, formed in large part by chunks of succulents that John has collected over the years…

Cascading over a back wall are the shocking red flowers of this crassula (I think it’s Crassula perfoliata var. minor, a.k.a. Crassula falcata). Its companions in this photo are a couple of other succulents, one of the goth-black aeoniums (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’) and what’s likely Graptopetalum paraguayense. The three are pretty easy to find and like nice combined.

Crassula perfoliata with curled summer leaves

After the winter rains the foliage on all of these plants plumps up and looks pretty spectacular. But as summer settles in the aeonium and and graptopetalum drop their larger leaves in favor of a tight cluster of leaves packed at the growing end of the stalks. The bigger the leaf the greater the water loss. The crassula will retain its leaves, however, although they’ll look a little shriveled in the drought. The fact that the leaves are folded in half probably helps to shade the leaf, reduce transpiration and reduce moisture loss.

August succulents with Crassula perfoliata last year

The flowering of the crassula varies by year. The photo above is from this season, actually not one of the better years. To the left is a shot from last August. This year’s not quite as flashy, but in the slow heat of August and September, I’ll take it.