San Diego Succs


By Catharine L. Kaufman
Photos by Brevin Blach
(unless otherwise noted)

What do succulent plants, camels and pregnant women have in common?

They all retain water.

The difference is, camels and expectant mothers-even those exhibiting a maternal glow-can’t enliven windowsills and landscapes like succulents can. (Plus, pregnant women require higher maintenance than cacti.)

Even at the hands of delinquent gardeners who forget to water them for weeks, these hearty plants thrive in San Diego climes, adding distinctively Southwest appeal to manicured yards, public parks and freeways.

No lawn? No problem. You can grab some of this robust green from just about anywhere-nurseries, grocery stores, even Ikea.

First, let’s see what else local experts say succs around here.

From Aloe to Zebras
Debra Lee Baldwin, a local author who wrote the guides Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, regards San Diego as “the epicenter of all things succulent in the United States.”

More than 1,000 varieties of succs (including hybrids) grow in San Diego, where the arid, coastal climate is similar to those of the plants’ birthplaces, including South Africa, Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia.

The common Aloe, a flowering succulent, is best known for its homeopathic sibling, Aloe Vera, the pulpy leaves of which produce a clear gel used topically to soothe sunburned skin.

Other succulents that grow naturally in San Diego include mother-in-law’s tongue, with its long, serrated and sword-like leaves; thick, ground-covering ice plants, which bejewel hillsides along interstates with their vibrant violet and yellow flowers; and Zebra plants, which are adorned with tiny, silvery pearls that form distinct stripes on the leaves.

Orchids may not grow naturally here, but they can flourish in this climate-and they succs, too.

Kinder Garden
As a rule of (green) thumb, Baldwin recommends planting succulents in a half-and-half mixture of potting soil and pumice, which allows for draining while keeping the soil as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

As for sunlight, succulents along the coast can tolerate full sun all year; inland succs need an afternoon shade break from sweltering summers.

For more planting tips, visit

Stay Thirsty, My Friend
Succs succeed in San Diego County, “where we can grow more varieties year-round than anywhere else in the country,” says Julian Duval, president and CEO of San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas.

Succulents can withstand long periods of drought by storing water in their stems and fleshy leaves, making them ideal for the yards of homeowners griping about high water bills.

“Since 70 percent of drinkable water goes to landscaping, lowwatering succulent gardens conserve precious water,” Duval says. More than just a pretty, prickly face, these low-maintenance plants also make economical alternatives to grass lawns. Plus they’re fire-retardant, so they’re great for San Diego landscapes vulnerable to wildfires.

What ‘s Bugging You?
Succulents are fairly insect resistant, except for mealy bugs and aphids. Baldwin’s favorite bug-zapping juice is full-strength rubbing alcohol dispensed from a misting bottle.

See Scapes
What Succs, And Where

A prime spot to view succs is the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, which has “a long history of displaying and promoting succulents,” says Julian Duval, the garden’s president and CEO. Duval likens the whimsical garden to a tropical, undersea world in which some succulents resemble coral reefs, anemones and starfish.

The San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society hosts annual shows featuring collectable plants grown by vendors throughout Southern California. The next such event, put on by the Society’s Escondido chapter, is scheduled for late October at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

Rancho Soledad Nurseries in Rancho Santa Fe has become the glitterati of succulent nurseries, thanks to celebrity grower, Kelly Griffin. A mix of Old MacDonald and Dr. Frankenstein, Griffin creates exotic succs by shrinking aloe and agave into dwarfs sure to jazz-up any container. They’re perfect for windowsill and condo gardeners short on space.