Succulents: You Got A Problem Wit Dem?
by Billy Goodnick
Why do some people have such a problem with succulents? Sometimes it borders on the irrational. Maybe it's because their moms were frightened by a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana while they were gestating. Just a thought.
I was just at someone's house this week for a design-coaching visit. I asked her, "Do you have any favorite plants you'd like to use in the garden?" I always ask this question because I can quickly narrow down someone's sense of aesthetics and preferred garden style if I have a few key plants I know they like.
"No, nothing really comes to mind," she said. That's not my favorite answer, because it leaves me with about a brazillion plants I can choose from. "Whatever you like, but NO SUCCULENTS!"
"What's the problem with succulents?" I asked. "Sounds like you have a pretty strong opinion on them."
"They can poke your eye out and they have toxic sap that can burn your skin off. Besides, I don't want my yard to look like a desert."
Granted, there are some plants that fall into the "succulent" category that have pointy spines. And a lot of euphorbias have white sap that can be an irritant, even cause blindness. Probably the most well-known euphorb is poinsettia and most folks know to keep away from the sticky "milk".
And the "looks like a desert" rap is a bit of a narrow view. Succulents come in all shapes and sizes, and they grow in lots of places other than deserts. So let's clarify our terminology.
The term succulent applies to any plant that stores large quantities of water in its stems, leaves and roots. (It also describes a perfectly cooked slab of Chinese barbecued pork, which I rarely use in my garden designs.) Water storage is an adaptation of many plants that grow in arid climates, but can also include plants that grow anywhere that water-uptake is a problem-think Dudleyas that grow in sandy soils near the beach or Sempervivums found in crags in alpine rocks.
Certainly, if your home looks like a cute-as-a-bug's-ear English cottage, no designer in their right mind is going to suggest that you scatter Saguaro cacti and dragon trees around your yard. But I have seen aloes, agaves and yuccas used with great effect in formal Euro-style gardens to create dramatic bursts and dynamic sculptural effects. Additionally, there are succulents that have stunning foliage colors that include deep purples, brilliantly splotched yellow variegation and ghostly silvery-blue. All of these effects can be used to enliven any planting design.
There are also water-storing plants that look like your basic flowering foundation shrubs, perennials and ground covers, but have the added benefit of requiring little or no supplemental irrigation. For example, many plants from the genus Sedum are versatile ground covers, some dainty enough to grow between stepping stones while providing the bonus of bright yellow or white flowers.
I'm pretty sure you already know this, but we live in a very arid climate and with climatic changes coming at us like a BMW 650i Coupe on the Autobahn, we should all be thinking of plants that can get along without life support. Did you know that more than 30% of southern California's residential water use goes into the landscape? If your water agency tells you to get by on a fraction of what you're currently using, I'm guessing that drinking, bathing and clothes washing will get top priority and that the high-water using plants you've been subsidizing will take the hit.
Most succulent plants can survive with little summer water, though they look more robust when they get an occasional deep soaking. But compared with much of what is growing around Santa Barbara-area homes, you'll be in a much better position to ride out diminished water rations if you start adapting your landscaping now.
For more info on local water conservation ideas check out sbwater.org.
(If you're reading this in a crowded theater, I hope I didn't start a panic.)
This past Thursday night, author and photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin spoke about her book, Designing With Succulents (Timber Press) at Chaucer's Books.
Aside from being a drop-dead-gorgeous book filled with sumptuous pictures and imaginative and useful garden design ideas, Designing With Succulents explains the role that these plants play in protecting property from fire. Here's a shot from her book showing how masses of aloes and agaves close to the building helped to suck much of the energy out of a rapidly approaching fire in San Diego county.
I've seen the same thing, first hand, in the aftermath of our recent fires and it's worth considering using these versatile plants in high fire locations. You can learn more about the role of landscaping at the City of Santa Barbara's Firescape Demonstration Garden at Mission Ridge and Stanwood Drive, or by reading my November 8, 2008 post at Edhat.
I still don't think I'll be using any of the stereotypical arid-look succulents in my new client's garden-the design will be going in a very different direction. But I think I'll be e-mailing her a link to this article just to see whether I've jogged her thinking a wee bit.
If you have strong feelings about succulents-either fer ‘em or agin' ‘em-I'd love to hear from you. Or click over to the Edhat Flower Collections Gallery and post a pic.
Here are a handful of succulents I adore.
Except the first one; this is why so many people HATE succulents.
Variegated agave accentuates the golden leaves of golden licorice plants (Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight')
Hen & Chicks (Echevaria splendens) has a ghostly color that enlivens plant compositions
This form of Agave americana has an exquisite array of color variations. Where's Georgia O'Keefe when you need her?
From Debra Lee Baldwin's own garden: Agave americana Medio-Picta-Alba in a glazed ceramic pot.
More of Debra's garden, using succulents that show the wide array of forms and foliage colors that make them so versatile
Aloe flowers against a navel orange
Leave it to Madame Ganna Walska's Lotusland to find such a whimsical use of succulent ground covers, used here at the giant ground-mounted clock.
One of the more bizarre, yet elegant succulent plantings I've seen is at the main house at Lotusland. Euphorbia ingens drips, Dali-esque, over golden barrel cactus.
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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