3 succulents to consider for California gardens

by Nan Sterman

Californians' love affair with succulents began centuries ago. In the 1800s, German immigrant garden designer Rudolph Ulrich created intricate, formal landscapes for the wealthy, northern California elite such as railroad barons Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker. Ulrich specialized in assembling expensive plant collections including his renowned "ribbon beds" and "carpet beds." These ornate, tapestry-like designs were created with succulents carefully chosen for their texture and color.

Today, as in Ulrich's day, California gardeners are attracted to succulents for their odd appearances, complex shapes, color and easy care.

Succulence describes a plant's ability to store water in its leaves, stems or roots. Water storing structures are thick and fleshy, ensuring a constant supply in environments where it is extremely limited. Plants evolve succulence not just in deserts, but in many dry environments including the dry tropics, mountains and along coastlines.

Succulence occurs across the plant kingdom. Some genera like Agave are entirely succulent. Others have succulent members: succulent leaved oreganos, amaryllis, geraniums, succulent members of the cucumber family, begonias, orchids and many others.

If you live in a frost-free area, you can grow just about any succulent. If your winter temperatures dip below freezing, pay attention to the cold hardiness of the succulents you adore. Here are some types to consider:

Aeoniums

Aeoniums form rosettes of spoon-shaped blades at the tops of corky gray stems. Several types form mounds of low-growing green rosettes.

Aeonium "Zwartkopf" makes 2-foot-tall stems topped in black-leaved rosettes. "Sunburst" rosettes have soft yellow and green striped leaves with pink edges.

Aeonium takes full sun along the coast, part shade inland and prefers no summer water. Green Aeonium are hardiest, down to about 25 degrees.

Look for named varieties and generic Aeonium in the nursery. If you see one you like in a friend's garden, ask for a cutting and stick it in a pot of cactus and succulent mix to root.

Aloes

Aloes are among my all-time favorite succulents. Tiny aloes, such as "Blue Elf," make good ground covers. Tree-types (Aloe barberae) can reach 20 feet tall. Shrub-style aloes (Aloe speciosa) form colonies 3 or 4 feet tall and wide.

Still others form single rosettes (Aloe rubroviolacea). Aloe blooms are candelabras of coral, fiery red, orange, yellow, pink and multi-colored. Many bloom in winter when nothing else is in flower. Hummingbirds fight over the nectar.

Most aloes are hardy down to 25 degrees. Plant in soil that drains well and in full sun and supply occasional deep watering in summer, but little to no water in winter's rainy season.

Agaves

Agaves are also hugely varied succulents. Agave attenuata is almost emblematic of California gardens. It forms 4-foot tall and wide colonies of big, soft green colored rosettes with pointed, but not spiky, leaves. Plant amid billowy green tufts of grass-like Lomandra "Breeze."

Agave attenuata prefers full sun along the coast but light shade inland and in the desert. Plants are damaged at temperatures below 30 degrees and will die if the air gets below 25 degrees.

Agave bracteosa, or spider agave, is another soft-leaved specimen. This one forms single rosettes with curving leaves. They're ideal for pots or for mass plantings in the ground. Spider agave prefers full sun and is hardy to about 10 degrees.

Nan Sterman is author of “California Gardener’s Guide Volume II.” She’s a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her yard.


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