Echeverias: Mexico’s Gift to Gardeners

After a recent silent auction of succulent plants, I brought home a fine specimen of Echeveria agavoides, which is one of the most popular species of the genus Echeveria, which includes 130 species. Plant hunters are finding and identifying additional species in Mexico’s mountainous terrain, where the plants are difficult to access and study.

The generic name honors Mexican botanical artist Atanasio Echeverria, who made some of the first drawings of the plant around 1787. My plant’s specific name, agavoides, means “looking like an agave.” The common name for this plant is Molded Wax Agave. Note that agaves are members of an entirely different botanical family.

Echeveria agavoides

Echeveria agavoides


The fleshy, succulent leaves of all Echeverias form rosettes, but the genus includes plants of many different sizes, leaf and blossom colors and special characteristics, e.g., frilly or bumpy leaves. The plants grow during the summer months, and are dormant from November through February. Plants may be evergreen or deciduous, and all are polycarpic, meaning they may flower and set seed many times during their lifetimes. (Monocarpic plants die after flowering.)

Many gardeners’ first contact with this genus is with “hens and chicks,” which is a common name for E. elegans, E. secunda and other plants.

Echeveria species are generally easy to propagate by separating offsets, rooting leaves, or planting seeds. The species also can be crossed easily with each other and even with species from some other genera, e.g., Graptopetalum, Pachyphytum and Sedum.

Growers have created many hundreds of generic and intergeneric hybrids. Hybridizers have named and formally introduced the more attractive cultivars, but have also released many of the less successful cultivars into the market. Hybrid plants are not propagated from seeds, but only by asexual methods, i.e., rooting offsets and detached leaves.

Selected variants within a species also can be cultivars. E. agavoides, for example, includes two popular cultivars: ‘Lipstick’, which has a rosettes in clumps that are 6 inches tall by 8 to 12 inches wide with apple-green leaves with vivid red-pink edges, and ‘Ebony’, which is similar in size, with gray-green leaves that have vivid red edges that, when grown in bright sun, blend in a dark red terminal spine.

‘Ebony’ is a natural hybrid that can be difficult to grow and propagate. In the silent auction ‘Ebony’ attracted more and higher bids than my choice, which looks to me to be ‘Lipstick’.

Excellent books about Echeverias include “The Genus Echeveria” (2008) by John Pilbeam and “Echeveria Cultivars” (2005) by Lorraine Schulz and Attila Kapitany. Another good source of information is the website of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society. The Society is the local affiliate of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Echeverias are available in a variety of forms, and all are easy to maintain and propagate, drought-tolerant, and interesting in color and form. They can be a fine addition to the garden, where they will develop the best colors, or an indoor container. Look for them in your local garden center or online.

Protecting the Pollinators

The next time you are in your garden, tell the bees a national strategy now exists to protect their health.

The document, dated May 19, 2015, responds to President Obama’s memorandum of June 19, 2014, establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and including representatives of fourteen other federal agencies. The president asked for a report in six months, but it required eleven months.

Monarch Butterly

Monarch Butterly

Several federal studies on pollinator health had already been conducted, and most observers recognized that the decline of honeybee and butterfly populations was resulting from several factors:

Loss of Habitat. The use of Roundup to kill weeds in crop fields also has been eliminating milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) that Monarch larvae eat.

Exposure to Chemical Pesticides. The use of neonicotinoid pesticides (“neonics”) also has been killing honeybees and leading to Colony Collapse Disorder, and perhaps killing birds as well.

Attacks from Pests. The Varroa destructor is a tiny parasitic mite that first appeared in the United States in 1987. It infests bee colonies and feeds on bee blood.

Other threats to pollinator health include loss of nutritional forage, diseases, and even stresses related to trucking beehives to pollinate agricultural crops.

The Task Force report addresses four themes: research on pollinator losses, public education and outreach, improving pollinator habitat, and developing public-private partnerships to carry out these activities.

The Task Force also identified three target outcomes:

  • Reduce honeybee colony losses by to no more than 15% within ten years;
  • Increase the Eastern population of Monarch butterflies to 225 million butterflies by 2020;
  • Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

The Task Force, working with numerous federal agencies, has developed a series of action plans and resources to pursue these intended outcomes. It also has committed to annual assessments of progress toward these goals.

Another bureaucracy has been created!

Bee-friendly organizations have been less than enthusiastic about these plans. For example, the Xerces Society said, “The national strategy includes valuable long-term plans that could, over time, strengthen the pesticide regulatory system. But it fails to offer pesticide mitigation to address issues currently facing pollinators.”

Similarly, the Center for Food Safety said, “the plan is unfortunately too weak to actually accomplish these goals.” The Center called for speedy action to reduce uses of chemical pesticides and herbicides that have been identified as threats to pollinator health.

We’ll watch for the results of these action plans. We would like to tell the bees that the federal strategy is working.

Meanwhile, help to protect our hardworking pollinators by keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using the less-toxic alternatives. For more ideas, the Pollinator Partnership has provided,  “7 Things You Can Do For Pollinators.”

Source: Nature First Pest Control, Inc


Another bee-friendly group that advocates reduced uses of neonics is Beyond Pesticides.

California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The California Master Gardener program has released a major revision of its handbook for gardeners.

MG Handbook

In this column, we look between the covers to see if this book would be helpful to you.

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has been training Master Gardeners since 1980, and has produced many useful publications. UC Cooperative Extension “brings practical, unbiased, science-based answers to problems across California.” It serves California’s agricultural industry, mostly, but the Master Gardener program works with home gardeners, providing information and training in gardening, land and water management, and healthy living.

Many UC Cooperative Extension publications are rather technical, and oriented to farming on a large scale, but the California Master Gardener Handbook has been designed for both master gardeners in training and other serious home gardeners.

The first edition of the Handbook, which was published in 2002, struck me as a compilation of publications that were intended originally for farmers. That’s OK, because the advice for farmers is valid for home gardeners as well, if they skip sentences like this one from the Berries chapter: “Set heavy posts at least 2 feet into the ground at each end of the row. Set lighter posts about 20 to 30 feet apart in the row.”

The new second edition (2015) has some similar content, but a significant amount of new material is clearly aimed at home gardeners. All of the content is easy to understand, and well supported with clear photos and illustrations.

Dennis Pittenger, a veteran of the Master Gardener Program, edited the Handbook and also contributed several chapters; an additional 25 educators are acknowledged as authors of specific chapters. Much expertise is represented between the covers of this book.

The Handbook includes 756 pages, which can be categorized as follows:

  • General Horticulture (30% of the pages): Chapters include Introduction to Horticulture, Soil and Fertilizer Management, Water Management, Plant Pathology, Insects, Weeds, Pests, and Diagnosing Plant Problems.
  • Ornamentals (22%): Plant Propagation, House Plants, Lawns, Woody Landscape Plants, Landscape and Garden Design, and Poisonous Plants.
  • Edibles (40%): Home Vegetable Gardening, Grapes, Berries, Temperate Tree Fruit and Nut Crops, Citrus, Avocados.
  • Additional chapters: Overview of the California Master Gardener Program, Useful Conversions, Glossary, and Index (39 detailed pages!).

The Handbook complements UC Cooperative Extension’s online publications ( and Sunset’s Western Garden Book, which the Handbook mentions respectfully.

I’ve always thought of a “handbook” as a publication that fits in the hand, and is suitable for ready reference in the field. Indeed, such books have been called vade mecum (which is Latin for “go with me”). This 4.5-pound tome might be called, more appropriately, a gardening encyclopedia, but by any other name it would still be a valuable reference for a serious gardener’s library.


Both books are available on

California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide


Choosing Plant Containers

When choosing a container for an indoor plant, consider both practical and aesthetic factors.

The challenge to successfully match a pot and a plant could arise in two ways: you want an exceptional pot for a fine plant, or you want a find plant for an exceptional pot. In either case, the objective is a prominent display and you want the pot and plant to complement each other.

If you have a large number of plants in containers, the individual specimens tend to be lost in the crowd, and the containers might all be the same.

Rather than taking an abstract view of such decisions, let’s examine a case study of finding the right pot for a particular plant.

This is not fictional scenario, but a real-life challenge to select the right pot for a particular plant.

The challenge originated when a friend persuaded me that a freshly planted wall in my home should have an Amazon Lily (Eucharis amazonica), from central and South America. The generic name combines two Greek words meaning “good, true” and “loveliness.” The plant has impressive features: glossy, dark green evergreen leaves; plentiful white, daffodil-like blossoms; sweet and spicy fragrance; and no serious problems from pests and diseases. Because it prefers indirect light, it’s well suited as a houseplant.

Eucharis amazonica

Click to Enlarge



Here is an example of the Amazon Lily, from aJanuary 2011 article in the Shreveport Times.


Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.58.34 AM

The Amazon Lily will grow to 18-24 inches high and wide in maturity and can remain in its pot, root-bound and happy, for many years.

This suggests a pot just large enough to accommodate the root ball and provide stability for the plant, while not requiring much soil to fill the space.

In addition to its capacity, the height of the pot should be considered. While there are no firm rules for pot height, a good starting point would be one-third to one-half of the plant’s mature height. In this case, we should choose a pot that is nine or ten inches high.

Pots suitable for houseplants are available in various materials: terra cotta, glazed clay, plastic, metal, etc. Many favor terra cotta pots, which are are widely available and inexpensive. Their porosity allows oxygen to reach the roots of plants, but also allows the soil to dry out quickly. Other materials are better for retaining moisture.

Both glazed clay and plastic pots offer many options of color and decoration. My preference is for glazed clay because it has more weight to stabilize the plant. Plastics in any form have negative impacts on the environment.

Notice that we are not considering black plastic nursery cans for houseplants!

Color is another consideration for the choice of container. Here are some options.

  • Monochromatic scheme: Given the plant’s striking, ever-present leaves, one or more shades of green would be ok. A simple dark green would provide a visual match.
  • Analogous scheme: This approach uses colors that are side by side on a color wheel. Starting with green (to go with the leaves), other colors might be blue and yellow.
  • Contrast Scheme: Create vivid contrast with three colors that are far from each other on the color wheel, e.g., blue-green, red-violet and yellow-orange.
  • Complementary scheme: The most dynamic combination uses two colors that are opposites on the color wheel, e.g., green and red.

When displaying a plant, it is generally best for the plant rather than the container to be the focus on attention. A pot that deserves to be featured should not contain a plant!

My choice is narrowing down to a dark green glazed clay pot that is no more than ten inches high. There are many possible choices with those features.

Very quickly, I found a pot that meets this objective. That was a surprise, because I had been looking off and on for a couple weeks, without success. Soon, I’ll post a photo of that pot (but I’m off to a garden tour right now).