Designing with Succulents

An avid gardener I talked with recently mentioned that he and his wife are not at all interested in succulents. They have none in their garden and do not intend to add any.

I wasn’t advocating succulent plants at that time, but I find their preference to be puzzling. In fact all plants store moisture to some degree; those we call “succulents” just have more effective ways of managing during dry periods.

Given this perspective, we might consider the reasons why many gardeners find succulent plants to be appealing and others do not.

Some who don’t like these plants might think all succulents are cacti with sharp points, and don’t want to be harmed. We must respond with the old line that all cacti are succulents, but all succulents are not cacti. Also, a few cacti do not have sharp points, and a few succulents that are not cacti also have sharp points. With simple precautions the gardener can avoid being poked, and with study can appreciate Nature’s strategy for some plants to defend themselves from hungry predators. (Cactus spines are really modified leaves designed to minimize moisture loss.)

Other gardeners who don’t like succulent plants might just be unfamiliar with their great variety of forms, structures, colors, landscape value, and unique qualities. For these gardeners, an excellent introduction to succulent plants is Debra Lee Baldwin’s new book, Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2017). This book, due for release later this month, is the completely revised second edition of Baldwin’s 2007 book of the same title.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.28.50 PM

Baldwin has organized her ideas about succulent plants in six sections: essential garden design ideas; specialty gardens; cultivation advice; descriptions of selected plants; categorized lists of plants; and drought-tolerant companion plants.

Each section includes the author’s solid information based on her own gardening knowledge and inputs from other experts, and excellent images from her own work and other photographers. Baldwin brings a strong background of garden writing and photography to this task, as well as extensive experience in gardening. She is also a popular speaker and a producer of many short YouTube video recordings on succulent gardening.

Other books provide an encyclopedic resource or a botanical analysis of succulent plants, but Designing with Succulents, as its title indicates, focuses on design ideas for landscape vignettes, plant combinations, and containers. The book shows and describes exciting examples of designs from public and private gardens in southern California, and several other parts of the United States.

Among many other ideas, Designing with Succulents demonstrates the aesthetic value of larger plants in the landscape. Familiar good advice for adding plants to the garden includes being aware of the plant’s mature size. Buying only small plants minimizes expense, but filling the garden with plants that will never grow into larger size leaves the landscape with little drama or architectural interest.

Gardeners new to these plants will find both useful information and inspiration in this book. Experienced growers of succulents also will discover motivation to explore possibilities for refining their gardens and containers, and enjoying gardening with succulents.

Succulent Dish Gardens

While the rain soaks your garden, there still good ways to explore the world of horticulture. Planning landscape improvement and browsing the Internet for ideas or answers to questions both can be rewarding.

Developing a dish garden is a third option, one that involves actual gardening, albeit on a small scale.

Dish gardening can be enjoyed at any time, but it’s well suited as a rainy-day activity: it requires little time or space, yet it invites the application of gardening knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities.

A wide range of plants could be placed in a dish garden. Generally, good choices include plants that produce small leaves, grow slowly, and will thrive in the environment intended for placement of the finished garden.

Plant selection determines the design of the project, which might emphasize foliage, color, shady setting (e.g., a moss garden), a miniature landscape (e.g., a fairy garden), a Zen garden, a rock garden, cacti, or succulents. For inspiration, browse to Pinterest and search for “dish-garden” or “succulent dish garden” or other design concepts.

Here are two very different examples

Zen Dish Garden

Zen Dish Garden

 

 

 

Succulent Dish Garden

Succulent Dish Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article focuses on succulent plants, which have good form while young, and many will either stay small or grow slowly.

Start by selecting plants. If you are already growing succulents, you will have ready access to small plants or cuttings that will root easily in a dish garden. If you don’t have sufficient succulents, small plants are readily available at garden centers. Gather plants with a specific grouping in mind.

Another important consideration is container selection. Dish gardens usually are placed in shallow containers; they provide enough root room for small plants, and they are lightweight enough to move easily. Bonsai containers work well, but any container could be pressed into service. Even actual dishes could be used, but they could be tricky to provide ample soil and to water without drainage (water lightly!)

As a practical matter, choose a container that will fit in the location intended for the finished dish garden.

Once the plants have been placed, parts of the planting surface might remain exposed. These areas could provide an aesthetically desirable context for the plant, like “white space” in graphic design. They could be covered by a top dressing that would complement the design: sand, pebbles, gravel, and decorative rocks are popular options.

Non-plant elements are optional. Some designs call for the inclusion of natural components, e.g., rocks, driftwood, shells, etc. They should be selected for their attractive character because they will be viewed close-up.

Some designs require artificial decorative items for completion or enhancement. Such items should be selected and placed as integral components of the design, rather than included merely because they are cute or colorful.

It is at this point that we note that personal preferences are of paramount importance. Dish gardens are, after all, expressions of an individual’s creative ideas, so whatever pleases the dish gardener stands as a success.

So, when weather frustrates your gardening goals, consider dish gardening as an indoor alternative.

Spring is the Time for New Plants

The first day of spring, astronomically speaking, will arrive on March 20th. It’s time to think about planting for the spring.

Actually, as we’ve noted more than once, the fall months are the best time for planting, to allow time for root development before the warmth of spring awakens the plants. The coming of spring might be regarded more as the traditional time for planting because that’s when the first tastes of warm weather awaken the gardeners.

The garden centers and online nurseries are oriented to the spring rush of gardeners seeking a few floriferous features for their gardens. The surge of mail-order catalogs and magazine galleries of new introductions manifests this orientation.

It can be quite interesting to peruse the new plants that are offered at this time each year. There are many familiar favorites, but the real headliners are plants that have been recently discovered by plant hunters or created by hybridizers.

Some plant hunters roam the globe in search of garden-worthy plants that have not been seen in their natïve lands. The history of gardening includes a long list of plant hunters who have served to relocate plants from exotic places to the gardens of Europe and, more recently, the United States. The best known of the contemporary plant hunters is Daniel Hinkley who shares his travels and horticultural discoveries in his books and articles in Horticulture magazine and other periodicals. Check out his website.

Plant hunting doesn’t always require traipsing through distant lands. New discoveries also can be made by close observation of large groups of plants in cultivation. As plants pollinate each other, potentials exist for mutations or “sports” to appear with novel characteristics. Because these natural changes are random rather than evolutionary, they will include a significant percentage of uninteresting innovations, but occasionally a natural mutation results in a desirable variation of a familiar plant. Then, the grower’s role is to propagate the newcomer to produce enough plants for commercial distribution, come up with an appealing name for the plant, and introduced it into the trade.

A third approach to developing new plants involves hybridizing. The process is quite simple, at its core: the hybridizer selects two plants of the same species with different but desirable traits. For example, one might have a good blossom color and the other might have strong stems. The hybridizer transfers pollen from one plant to the other, plants the seeds that result from this mating, and examine the seedlings for the desired combination of traits. Typically, the hybridizer will reject many of the seedlings as unsuccessful relative to the objectives, and, with luck, will find one or more successful results. These are propagated further for commercial distribution.

Given the uncertain outcomes of this process, it requires time, patience, and good record-keeping to result in a financial payoff.

This brings to mind the secret to making a small fortune in the plant breeding business: begin with a large fortune.

The process of finding or creating new plants always targets the individual gardeners who want to add the latest introductions to their gardens. One that has caught my eye is a Sempervivum hybrid ‘Gold Nugget’, available from ChickCharms, which specializes in collectable hens & chicks. It’s a little pricey but quite striking.

Sempervivum 'Gold Nugget'

Sempervivum ‘Gold Nugget’

 

 

 

 

 

The gardener might enjoy bringing new introductions to the landscape but could also stay with familiar and reliable options. Either way, enjoy your garden!

The Bold Dry Garden

Book Cover

It’s not often that we see a new book about a garden that’s both famous and near enough for a one-day visit. We now have The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden (Timber Press, 2016), written by Johanna Silver, with historic photographs and excellent new photographs,

This is a three-acre garden in a residential neighborhood, packed with over 2,000 cacti, succulents, trees and shrubs. Visiting is not a sprawling and overwhelming experience, with too much to take in without camping out, or an extended visit. Instead, it offers a relatively compact display of a wide variety of succulent plants.

The book begins with the garden’s history. Ruth Bancroft developed this garden at her home in Walnut Creek, beginning in the 1950s. Like all personal gardens, it began tentatively, with the purchase of few small plants, and grew slowly as the owner’s interest deepened and her vision broadened.

By the early 1970’s, Ruth was ready to map out her future garden. She brought in garden designer Lester Hawkins, to draw the setting for a dry garden, and to recommend plants to add to her growing collection. The initial planting was accomplished formally in 1972, although Ruth had already collected a significant number of plants.

The plants grew in number and size, and the collection grew in sophistication and beauty. It deeply impressed, Frank Cabot, a nationally prominent gardener from the Quebec area, who became concerned about preserving the garden into the future. In 1989, he founded the Garden Conservancy with the goal to preserve exceptional private gardens, with preservation of the Ruth Bancroft Garden as its first objective. By 1994, the Garden’s site was officially transferred to a non-profit corporation, Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc., dedicated to maintaining and improving the garden, and to make it available to the public.

Today, Ruth Bancroft is recognized as a dry gardening pioneer and innovator. She has reached the age of 107 and she maintains her love of her collection.

The longest chapter of The Bold Dry Garden, “Signature Plants of the Dry Garden,” describes and pictures garden’s diversity, organized in sections: The Smallest Players, Aeonium, Crassula, Echeveria, Haworthia, Sedum, Sempervivum, the Importance of Rock, Architectural Elements, Agave, Cactus, Yucca and Other Swords, Flowers and Foliage, Aloe, Euphorbia, Gasteria, Protea, Terrestrial Bromeliads, The Softer Side, California Natives, and Trees. Whew!

Reading this fine book can be a pleasant introduction to the world of succulent plants. Visiting this extraordinary garden is an opportunity to see many different forms of these plants, and to become inspired to develop your own collection…and to come again to the garden.

For more about this garden, and everything you need to prepare for a tour, visit the garden’s website.

The Garden Conservancy is both a preserver of private gardens and guide to seeing them through its Open Days program. Browse to the Conservancy’s website for more information.

The long-time curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Brian Kimble, is scheduled to speak at the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society on Sunday, March 19th. See the Society’s website for details.

The Bold Dry Garden is a good read for any gardener, excellent preparation for a visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden, and a fine addition to any library of garden books.

Cold, Rain, and Buttercups

We have had welcome rains, and apparently we should expect more around the time that this column appears. That’s good, but that weather prompts some salient observations.

First, although the drought has been broken for the present, we should regard the present period as a hiatus, rather than an end to dry times. Long-term projections still indicate below average rainfall in future years,

Most importantly, our aquifers were depleted significantly during the drought years, and replenishing them will require many years of at least normal rainfall. We will have to wait for encouraging reports on that front.

Meanwhile, examine your garden for possible negative impacts from the recent cold and rainy days. The plants in my garden are nearly all native to California or other summer-dry (Mediterranean) climates, so they managed well during the dry days.

One exception was a mature Chilean Myrtle (Luma apiculata) that succumbed to the drought, and had to be removed.

That experience recalls a thoughtful comment by Alexander Graham Bell: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” In this case, the tree had grown larger than expected and closer to the house than wanted, so while I regretted its loss, its absence opened space for new plants.

Almost all my succulent plants shrugged off the cold spell, with the exception of a Foxtail Agave (Agave attenuata), which I had been growing in a large container. I planned to plant it in the ground eventually, to provide the space it will need to reach its full size of four feet high and eight feet wide. The plant’s rosette is quite attractive and dramatic, but its distinctiveness is based on its flower stalk, which grows five-to-ten feet, reflexes to the ground and then arches upward again. I learned too late that this plant is unusual among Mexican native succulents for its susceptibility to cold weather. I should have covered it, or brought it inside. It lost some leaves, but now appears to be coming back.

I have been taking advantage of the fine weather between rainstorms by catching up (with help!) on the seasonal weeding tasks. This work includes the annual battle with Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae), a South African native that thrives in California’s coastal gardens, and opens its bright yellow blossoms in late winter or early spring.

Bermuda Buttercups

Bermuda Buttercups

I have been puzzled by the relentless and random spread of this annoying plant. The explanation on UC’s Integrated Pest Management website (ipm.ucanr.edu/) has been incomplete:

“Viable seed never has been documented in California, and rarely has it been seen anywhere else in world. Foliage dies and the bulbs become dormant when temperatures rise in late spring and summer. Bermuda buttercup reproduces vegetatively by bulbs and spreads when plants are divided or soil containing the bulbs is moved to un-infested areas.”

I have learned that this plant is tristylous, an uncommon morphology meaning that it has three flower shapes (morphs). All the flowers on a given plant will have the same shape, but the pollen from a flower on one morph cannot fertilize another flower of the same morph.

Tristyly does not necessarily affect the propagation of the Bermuda buttercup, but it might explain its spread in gardens, and provide a clue to its management. The search goes on!

Meanwhile, we continue with weeding and mulching, and preparing to enjoy the garden in the spring.

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

Recently, a group of cactus & succulent gardeners car-pooled to the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, for a tour of the Garden’s collection of cacti & succulents.

The 34-acre Garden holds one of the largest and most diverse collections in the United States, with most plants organized geographically in several regions of the world. In addition to the Geographic Collections, the Garden includes Ethnobotanical Collections and Taxonomic Collections.

These collections include nearly 17,000 different plants, called “accessions,” each of which is documented thoroughly in a computerized database, which can be searched online. The Garden’s website has this information about its database:

“Detailed records are kept for each accession, including their place of origin, which enhances their scientific and educational value considerably. Each accession is accompanied by a public display label including accession number, family name, scientific name, and place of origin, and where appropriate, common name.”

Such records are essential for a research collection, and a good idea for any garden. The Garden’s plant database is searchable online.

This group headed for the Arid House, which is one of Taxonomic Collection. The Arid House is a climate-controlled space that includes a cacti & succulents collection open to the public, with a diverse collection of plants from multiple geographic locations. Each plant has an informative label, and the room includes interpretive signs with broader information.

This public space is connected to a staff-only large room with a large research-and-conservation collection of mostly small plants. The specimens on one side of this room can be viewed from an adjacent walkway, through a security barrier.

Our group tour was led by Bryan Gim, the Horticulturist for the Arid House collection. He noted that the majority of the plants in the Arid House are succulents (which includes cacti) and also includes other plants with similar climatic requirements.

Many succulent plants grow well outdoors in the UC Botanical Garden’s environment, which is similar to that of the Monterey Bay area. So, many of the Garden’s succulent plants can be seen outdoors, in several regional collections, particularly Deserts of the Americas; Mexico and Central America; Southern Africa; and Mediterranean Collections. Most of these are close to the Arid House.

Agave stricta

Agave stricta (Hedgehog Agave, Mexico)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aloe plicailis (Fan Aloe)

Aloe plicatilis (Fan Aloe, South Africa)

Boophone Disticha

Boophone disticha (Veld Fan, South Africa)

The UC Botanical Garden is an exceptional resource that is easily accessible to all in the Monterey Bay area. It offers unique opportunities to study plants, or just to enjoy a walk through a fascinating collection of both exotic and familiar plants and escape the concerns of the day. The site, although fairly limited in size, presents a great resource for both avid gardeners and all who appreciate nature’s bounty.

 

 

Visit the Garden’s website for more information. Explore the page “About/The Garden” for a timeline of the Garden’s since its establishment in 1890, and “About/Collections” for an introduction to each of the individual collections.

My visit was with the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society;of course, the Garden welcomes all interested individuals and groups year-round.

Seasonal Succulents

Succulent plants, like all plants, have seasonal growth patterns. Plants in this category come from numerous genera, and have a wider variety of forms, textures, and colors, but they can be divided into just two principal growth patterns: Winter Dormant (“summer growers”) and Summer Dormant (“winter growers”) (see lists at the end of this page).

It would be comforting to find that Winter Dormant succulents are native to the Northern Hemisphere and Summer Dormant plants are from the Southern Hemisphere, but it’s not that simple. It could be that growth patterns sometimes reflect a genus’s adaptation to its adopted environment.

In any event, a succulent plant’s growth cycle affects its need for water and its bloom period. These plants require minimal watering during their dormant period and will produce blossoms during their growth period.

If you have a large and varied collection of succulents, a good practice is to cluster separately the Winter Dormant and Summer Dormant plants, to simplify watering.

Except for their blossom periods, many of which are delightful but rather brief, succulent plants are favored mostly for the shape, texture, and color of their foliage, which changes little through the seasons, except for size.

Most popular plant genera have very specific annual cycles. Shows and sales of roses, irises, dahlias, tulips, daffodils, and amaryllis, for example, are very seasonal events. Succulent plant shows and sales, however, could occur at any time of the year.

In contrast, California’s cactus & succulent societies hold their sales during the period from April through September. These sales offer the greatest variety and best prices, but gardeners can find at least the more common plants at their local garden center throughout the year.

For local gardeners, important dates for cactus & succulent sales include the spring and fall events organized by the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. These occur each year in late April and late September or (this year) early October.

Another noteworthy occasion is the Succulent Extravaganza, presented with free admission by Succulent Gardens, a commercial entity. A highlight of this year’s event, on September 23 & 24, was Debra Lee Baldwin’s talk on “Bulletproof & Beautiful Succulents for your Garden.” Ms. Baldwin, called the Queen of Succulents, described a variety of attractive plants, emphasizing various forms of the genus Echeveria. I brought home an unusual and rare carunculated (warty) hybrid, Echeveria x Barbillion, which is shown by the accompanying photograph.

echeveria-x-barbillion

During our brief conversation, Debra Less Baldwin and I exchanged stories about “midnight acquisitions” of succulent plants from both public and private gardens. I’ll write on that topic in another column.

The next important opportunity for gardeners to build their succulent collections is the Fall Show & Sale of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. This event offers opportunities to talk with other gardeners who are enthusiastic about these plants and choose from an amazing array of small, inexpensive plants. There will also be a display of exceptional specimens, which you can vote on for a People’s Choice award, and a selection of unique containers that are right for artful presentation of succulent plants.

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Talking About Gardening

A popular activity whenever gardeners get together is for someone to give a talk. This links the speaker’s desire to share what he or she knows about gardening and the listener’s thirst for learning something—anything—about the enduring mysteries of horticulture.

Often, there are pictures.

When a speaker addresses the methods, techniques, or practices of an aspect of gardening, the presentation amounts to teaching. When teaching equals performance in the front of the room, good teaching (according to some studies) requires the teacher to have knowledge of the subject, have a positive attitude toward the subject, and to be prepared.

The same basic criteria apply to talks about gardening.

Being prepared, in particular, means having specific goals for the talk, organizing the information for clarity, and providing a level of detail that is right for the audience.

More is needed, however, for the talk to be successful. The additional criteria apply mostly to the method of the presentation:

  • Speak loudly enough for everyone to hear
  • Make eye contact with audience members
  • Listen to questions from audience members (and observe their body language)
  • Restate and respond to individual questions so the full audience can hear
  • Know when to stop

The Internet contains more ideas for effective public speaking. Many recommendations are about the style of presentation, e.g., incorporating humor, adding personal anecdotes, pausing occasionally for dramatic effect, etc.

With many familiar recommendations like those listed here, we might expect generally successful talks about gardening, but really good presentations are actually exceptional.

A recent presentation for the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society exemplified a good talk on gardening. The speaker was Gunnar Eisel, a long-time college professor of music theory and history, a long-time collector of cactus & succulent plants, and general manager of the Cactus & Succulent Society of America.

His experience in public speaking was made evident when he appeared fully equipped with his own computer, digital projector and a sound system of very good quality. Clearly, he had one too many encounters with inadequate technology provided by his hosts.

Gunnar Eisel titled his talk, “From Windowsill to the Poor House: Building and Maintaining a Cactus and Succulent Garden.” He organized his information in sections: Why Collect?; Kinds of Collections; Sources of Plants; Right-sizing Your Collection; Visual Tours of Selected Collections; and Culture Recommendations.

His presentation reflected his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for his subject, and maintained the rapt attention of his audience for about one hour with good pacing, well-selected images and short video clips, and friendly humor.

Once you’ve enjoyed a really good talk on gardening, it’s tempting to be rough on speakers with less expertise, but this talk has inspired the Society to develop a tip sheet for its future speakers on gardening topics. That is work in progress. Sources of potentially useful ideas include the website for Great Garden Speakers, which provides links to gardening experts, and Jeff Haden’s “20 Public Speaking Tips of the Best TED Talks.”

Not every garden group is prepared to bring in outstanding speakers, but expert gardeners who share their expertise with others can refine their presentation skills.

A Primer on Succulent Plants

California’s recent drought, which promises to stick around in future years, has inspired a surge of interest in succulent plants, which, as a group, grow nicely with limited moisture. If you already know all you want to know about succulent plants, you can skip this column, but if (like many gardeners) are just becoming interested in such plants, here is a primer.

Gardeners who explore the world of succulent plants soon discover that these plants have more to offer than drought tolerance:

  • They bring a great range of forms, foliage colors, blossom colors, and sizes
  • Some grow well in bright sun, while others thrive in filtered light
  • There are are winter dormant varieties (“summer bloomers”), and summer dormant varieties (“winter bloomers”).

These characteristics make succulent plants terrific for landscaping and container gardening.

Cream Spike Agave

Cream Spike Agave, from Mexico

Cream Spike Agave - cu

A closer look

The world of succulents includes some ambiguities to get used to, as follows:

First, the term “succulent” refers to the plant’s biological ability to store water during dry spells, and does not indicate a botanical category. The succulent characteristic occurs within about sixty different plant families. Succulence is a variable trait: succulent plants differ in their needs for moisture.

Second, some definitions of succulent plants exclude geophytes, which are plants that store water underground structures called bulbs, pseudobulbs, tubers, corms, rhizomes or other terms. Interestingly, plants that store water in a caudex (a modified stem that might be partially underground) are considered succulents even when geophytes are not.

Third, all cactuses are succulents, but all succulents are not cactuses. Cactuses are in the plant family Cactaceae. All plants in this family have specialized structures called areoles, a kind of highly reduced branch that produces spines, which are highly modified leaves.

Fourth, except for the cacti, succulent plants do not have spines, but some have leaves with hazardous sharp points or spiked edges, intended to discourage predators.

Always the best way to learn about plants is to grow them. Hands-on experience and regular observation are the best forms of education.

There are faster ways, however. The Internet contains vast informational resources about succulents, accessible by searching on any plant name or botanical term in this column. Very helpful Internet resources for this purpose include Wikipedia for botanical information, Pinterest for photos of succulent plants, and YouTube for video clips on all aspects of growing and displaying succulent plants.

Another very good strategy, especially for Monterey Bay area gardeners, is to join the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society (http://mbsucculent.org/). This non-profit group has monthly meetings in Watsonville, with expert presentations, a fine lending library (listed on its website), and public shows and sales in the spring and fall. The shows at these events include displays of a great variety of expertly grown and often extraordinary succulent plants. The sales present a vast number of small and not-so-small plants in great variety and for attractive prices.

If You Go

What: Spring Show & Sale of Cacti and Succulents

Who: Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society

When: Saturday, April 23, 9:00 to 5:00 and Sunday, April 24, 9:00 to 4:00

Where: Community Hall, 100 San Jose Avenue, San Juan Batista, California

Admission and Parking: Free for all visitors

Drama for the Landscape

 

One of the most spectacular plants from South Africa, in exuberant bloom at this time of the year, is Aloe arborescens. It can be seen throughout the Monterey Bay area, occasionally having spread into impressively large clusters of plants.

The specific name means “tree-like,” because the plant can grow to close to ten feet high. Structurally, the plant consists of several branches, each of which ends in a rosette of leaves edged with small spikes. Each rosette can generate several flower stalks that produce cylindrical inflorescences (racemes). The individual flowers, typically a bright orange-red, are tubular and attractive to hummingbirds. The clusters of flowers resemble the flame of a torch, leading to the plant’s common name: Torch Aloe.

DSCF0022 DSCF0023 DSCF0024 DSCF0025

Several years ago, I planted my first specimen of this succulent plant, a single rosette, in a well-drained bed. It grew rapidly and extended runners (stolons) that produced new plants, ready to take over the bed. Not knowing its full growth potential, but realizing that it was too productive for that small bed, I shovel-pruned it, replanted three rosettes in front of a nearby compost bin, and placed most of the rest in the bin.

The replanted rosettes grew readily into a dramatic presence in my garden, and also shielded the compost bin from view.

A. arborescens is related to A. vera, a smaller, more familiar South African native that is popular for its ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal values: its juices reportedly have rejuvenating, healing, or soothing properties.

The Torch Aloe also reportedly has value in promoting good health. Some people advocate a drink made from the pureed whole raw A. arborescens leaf, unheated raw honey and 1% certified organic alcohol. This drink is claimed to support immunity from a range of diseases and provide general cleansing for the whole body. It is reported to be “bitter, but unctuous and savoury as well, thanks to the honey.”

I have plenty of leaves but have not tried the drink. This is not a testimonial.

A. arborescens is one of about 500 species of the genus Aloe, which includes natives of South Africa, tropical Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Many grow well in the summer-dry climate of the Monterey Bay area. Most species, unlike A. arborescens, are stemless: the rosettes grow directly on the ground.

A smaller, yellow-flowered variant, called Golden Torch Aloe (A. arborescens lutea), can be found in limited numbers.

Another yellow-flowered form, Yellow Aloe, was discovered in a private garden in Santa Barbara. This plant might be a variant of A. arborescens, a hybrid with another species, or an entirely different species: A. mutabilis, which has red flower buds that mature into yellow.

Aloe arborescens can be an attractive and interesting addition to a landscape that has sufficient space.