The following article (with slight variations)
first appeared in The Southern California Gardener in 1995.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
NEVER SAY DIE
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
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
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