The following article (with slight variations) first appeared in The Southern California Gardener in 1995.


I found him weeding among the senecio and lassoed him to my side. Could he, by any chance, stop for a moment and help me identify an unlabeled plant?
The gardener at the Jardin Exotique in Monaco seemed only too happy to oblige. I won't flatter myself -- anything's better than weeding -- but whatever the reason, we clicked. Though I couldn't decipher his Italian and he didn't understand my English or French, we managed to make a connection through a little Latin and a shared love for succulents.
"Pereskia," Salvatore informed me, as he reached into the mystery vine, snaring and paring for me one of its thorny fruits. His smile broadened as I smacked my lips, and soon he was leading me past stands of species crassula and aloe, pointing out rare kalanchoe.
This was my idea of heaven: a whole botanical garden devoted to succulent plants -- and the resident gardener as my guide. In fact my head was in the clouds. It was a toss as to what was more stunning at the Jardin Exotique: its situation on a forty-five degree slope high above the Mediterranean, or its remarkable collection of six thousand species of plants -- all mature, handsomely landscaped and in the peak of health.
I peppered my new friend with horticultural questions. I noted everything in sight. At the time of this visit, I'd only just discovered the usefulness, beauty and incredible diversity of succulents. I had all the balance and distance of a neophyte. Even now there's no way I'm blasť.
How could I be in the face of such vitality? Succulents, as the word's Latin root suggests, are plants that are full of juice. Their stems, leaves and branches serve as water reservoirs, allowing them to survive prolonged periods of heat and drought.
Succulents are found in some fifty different plant families (Cactaceae being the most familiar) and almost every place on earth. Though desert areas thirty to thirty-five degrees to either side of the equator are the regions most heavily colonized by succulents, they are also at home in tropical forests, saline shorelines and arid mountain tops.
Everywhere, and always, they've been known for their utility. Take the humble houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum. The Greeks used it in a love potion; the Romans grew the plants on their roofs to ward off fire. Over the ages and in many lands, houseleek juice has been used to counteract the inflammations caused by shingles, gout, bee stings and burns.
Aloe vera, another ancient curative for burns, has been used as a purgative since the days of Dioscorides. In France, not so very long ago, A. vera was supposedly spread on the thumbs of bad little boys and girls to stop them from excessive thumb-sucking.
Agave species have been used for fiber, soap and scouring pads, not to mention tequila and mescal. Opuntia cacti give us prickly pear fruit; the tropical pereskia yields Barbados gooseberries. Need a little poison? West African natives mixed certain caudiciform euphorbias with other toxic plants to concoct a lethal coating for their arrow tips.
Much as I enjoy the folklore and history of these and other succulents, I find that -- having limited use for poison arrows and being unable to locate the recipe for Love Potion #9 -- I get more satisfaction out of succulents through their utility as landscape plants. And with reason. The more than forty species I now grow in my Los Angeles garden out-perform their peers in nearly every situation -- sun or shade.


As ornamentals, succulents couldn't be more distinguished. Some, like the aloes, are natural focal points. With over two hundred species ranging in size from two inches to fifty feet high, their variety of habit is arresting -- climbing, trailing, clustering, you name it -- not that you'd notice next to their drop-dead flowering stalks of red, orange and yellow blossoms.
Bulbine caulescens is another imposing presence. A bed of this spreading, two-foot-tall succulent will sport hundreds of brilliant-yellow, bouquet-worthy flower spikes for at least five months of the year. In fact, a surprising number of succulents are great sources for cut flowers, if you can bear to reduce the dazzle in the garden. In my house there's always a vase filled, in season, with the bulbine or red tubular bells of gasteria or the wispy white flowers of Crassula multicava.
Other succulents steal the show through their horticultural curiosity. That's certainly the case with the compact Faucaria tigrina. It looks like the tiger's jaws its species name suggests, or to those with darker sensibilities, not unlike the maws of death. Crassula falcata is less creepy. Its large flat leaves, set on edge, have been described as sickles or airplane propellers. Both plants have showy flowers, as if form weren't enough.
While most visitors to my garden are drawn to the drama of the plants described above, my favorite succulent, the Baja California native Dudleya brittonii, has neither flower power nor bizarre architecture. What it does have is grace, and a drape of alabaster leaves.
And that's the other compelling aspect of the succulents' ornamental appeal: their striking foliage can add gentle unifying color year-round in the landscape, whether it's the blue-grey tones of Senecio mandraliscae as it snakes toward the dusty miller, or the more subtle gradations of greys and greens that the eye, overtaxed with warm colors, turns to for relief. There's always the need, too, for foliage plants as backdrop. In my garden the common jade plant, Crassula argentea, assumes the role with ease, forming an evergreen hedge that stays crisp year- round.
There's also a case to be made for the use of succulents as deterrents. A garden scheme that relies heavily on succulents is natural protection against fire. Residents of fire-ravaged Malibu might want to heed their history and, like the Romans, grow houseleeks on their roofs.
And though personally I haven't exercised this option, one could also take a tip from the Nigerian tribes who surround their villages with thorny members of the genus euphorbia. Why use a shotgun to defend your turf and castle (and risk a messy trial)? The milky latex of these succulents stings and blinds the eyes. Intruders, deterred by your white-sapped pencil bushes, Euphorbia tirucalli, and colorful crowns-of-thorn, E. splendens -- not to mention your wicked, sharp hedges of opuntia and Aloe ferox -- will surely go elsewere in their quest for easy loot. Or perhaps, intrigued by their surprising encounter, they will drop their crowbars and consider switching professions -- from heist to horticulture.


If for no other reason, you've got to admire succulents for their resourcefulness. In impossible situations, succulents never say die. The southwest slopes of my garden used to sear every plant alive till I sent in "rosea" ice plant, Drosanthemum floribundum. It not only flourishes as a ground cover, furnishing sheets of pink flowers every spring, but it performs on nothing but rainwater. Talk about a trouper.
Poor soil? Succulents are supposed to demand excellent drainage, but I've found their special virtues actually work to create those conditions. Years ago, my side garden was so badly compacted, not even weeds would grow. To solve the problem I could have dug in piles of crushed rock and sacks of amendments, but I had better things to do (like change the kitty litter...), so I just threw succulent plants down on the ground instead. I knew they'd cover the problem and look good for awhile, but what I didn't figure was that within six months they'd have insinuated their roots and aerated the soil. There they've stayed -- lush and glamorous -- ever since.
Dry shade, once a problem in my garden, has become an opportunity: I grow Crassula multicava alongside gasteria, haworthia and sansevieria species, and let their flowers brighten the gloom.
Because many succulents have evolved shallow roots in order to survive on dew and scarce rainwater, they're also surprisingly useful as living mulches. By covering the soil around and between other plants, they moderate soil temperature and conserve humidity, while never interfering with deeper root systems. I've used the ghost plant, Graptopetalum paraguayense, this way with great effect. It quickly forms a thick mat of opalescent beauty and is striking when interplanted with other ornamentals.
Succulents vary in their hardiness and in their requirements for care, but the ones I've placed in my landscape are so adapted to what they've got that the only way they'd ever die is if I drowned them during their dormant periods.
Maintenance is more a function of directing the flow than anything else. I let them do their number and see if I like the effect, though sometimes I find I'm not conducting Mozart and Bach, as I thought, but instead Philip Glass. It's true, some species are so exuberant they become minor pests. But with a little weeding and positive thinking, this can be turned into a dividend, and the overflow of succulents can be potted up and used to adorn a terrace or a home's interior. Some species are so astounding in their juicy vitality that they don't even need soil. They'll just sit there in their pots, forming roots, waiting patiently for the day they'll be given away to family, friends and neighbors -- and anyone driving down your street. Forget putting leftover succulents on the compost heap; they don't know the word "decompose." Carting them to the garbage can is asking for cardiac arrest, for this is when you fully appreciate the density and weight of water. I've become quite inventive in ways to unload the surplus. The holidays offer a fine occasion: succulents as decorations on presents, or as centerpieces, wreaths, or ersatz Christmas trees.
Still, in the end I am forced to admit these are only stop- gap measures for my ever-growing excess. No, there's really only one solution: I will need to buy up all neighboring lots in order to accommodate my collection.
I can see it now:
It's late winter and the light is low over the acres of starfish flower, ocotillo, elephant's foot and hundreds of other succulent species I'd always wanted, but never had the room to grow. A mockingbird is singing atop the pencil bush that has grown to a thirty-foot-tall tree. Hummingbirds whiz between aloe and echeveria flowers searching for nectar to sip.
Weeding on a nearby ridge is Salvatore, of course. He's come from the Jardin Exotique in order to help me out. I wave to him to take a breather and we eat a prickly pear or two. But soon we are back at work. There's still so much to be done.
Any day now, we're going to announce the opening of Southern California's own "Juicy Gardens," our tribute to succulents.


* Stromme no longer writes for the Silver Lake Press/LA Alternative Press

(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.