I don’t remember my first succulent plant.
I’m sure it must have been a Jade Plant. Thirty years ago Jade Plants and Iceplants were about the sum total of our succulent possibilities. Much has changed since then.
Designing with succulent plants is now the hottest trend in gardening; not only in southern California, but throughout much of the United States and Europe. Just last month, garden guru Thomas Hobbs, visiting from Vancouver, proudly proclaimed to an audience of 400 local plant leaders “We are being consumed by a Succulent Tsunami”.
Many succulents are living sculptures; tall or fat, but always architectural. Others appear more like art objects in a garden; either geometric or irregular in shape, as if exploding out of the garden. Some cover the ground, many have colorful leaves, a few resemble rocks and scores more offer flowers – during any month of the year.
In the most basic terms, succulents are simply plants that store water in their stems and leaves. Why are these plants suddenly so popular? For the past decade or so, gardeners have been refining a growing appreciation of plant shapes, forms and geometry. Professional landscapers have known forever that there are three elements that create a pleasing landscape design: form, texture andcolor.
Less common in today’s gardens are colorful beds filled with hibiscus, daisies and star jasmine, fronted by masses of petunias, pansies or other flowers. Today’s gardener wants not only color in a garden, but form and texture too; and succulents provide plenty. Desires to conserve water and maintain less has contributed to the surge in succulent popularity. A less conscious desire to use less fertilizer and to create less clippings and green waste may also translate to more succulents. Succulents are certainly very California Friendly.
But I suspect it is succulents’ tough-as-nails adaptability that is most responsible for their popularity in gardens. These are some of the most accommodating of plants, persisting against unreasonable circumstances; on steep hillsides, in forgotten pots, tucked into crevices or flourishing in neglected corners. Succulents are “tough love” to tens of thousands of brown thumb gardeners.
Even when neglected, under-watered, under-fed and ignored these camels of the plant world carry on. Unrequited love is love that is not reciprocated. Four hundred years ago Don Quixote’s unrequited love for Dulcinea consumed him. To today’s errant gardener it may be succulents that provide the same unrequited love.
It seems as if there is a succulent for every situation. They’re used on eco-friendly green roofs, as indoor specimen plants, as fire resistant barriers around homes, as theft deterrent plants and even as shapely and elegant topiaries. While it is true that many succulents come from desert-like climates, many others inhabit the cold, windy alpine mountains of Europe or the tropical jungles of South America. Almost any environment is suitable for growing some species of succulent and Orange County’s is almost custom made for a succulent garden.
My own collection of succulent-leaved plants is growing out of control. A new cutting came home with me in my cupholder today. Unusual Aloes have been added with abandon. I now subscribe to an arcane publication, Euphorbia World. Mail order shipments arrive with juicy new treasures, Crassula’s, Delosperma’s and Kalanchoe’s. I’m driving to L.A. for the Cactus and Succulent Society’s big sale. For months, I’ve been searching frantically for the rare variegated version of the common Foxtail Agave. I am consumed by it. I must find one. If you have one, please tell me.
Like Don Quixote, my heart aches. Not for Dulcinea, but for Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’. Please put me out of my misery.
The succulent tsunami is upon us.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar