most aloes are tough perennials that do not need much water. Unfortunately, they do not have many fans. Maybe that is why fan aloe, Aloe plicatilis, makes it’s own. The plumply succulent leaves are distichously arranged, which is a fancy way of saying that they are either to the left or to the right, flaring out to form foliar fans.
Individual leaves are just as distinctive as their arrangement is. They are not tapered and pointed like those of other aloes. Instead, they are about an inch and a half wide from end to end, with weirdly blunt tips. They get almost a foot long. The soft gray color contrasts nicely with coral flower spikes that bloom at the end of winter.
It grows slowly, but fan aloe is one of the few aloes that eventually grows into a big shrub with several sculptural trunks on a flaring base. In their native habitat in South Africa, old specimens grow as small trees more than ten feet tall. Branches that need to be pruned away can be rooted as cuttings after the cut ends dry out a bit.
It may not be as useful as those marketing it say it is, but blue spruce stonecrop, Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’ is a nice grayish component to pots of mixed perennials. It contrasts nicely with golden foliage, and looks great with the chartreuse foliage of closely related ‘Angelina’ stonecrop. The limber stems cascade a few inches over the edges of tall urns and hanging pots.
The succulent leaves are quite small, and as the name implies, look like plump blue spruce needles. The succulent stems do not stand much higher than six inches before flopping over. They do not get much wider than high initially, but have a sneaky way of rooting where they touch the ground to cover more area. Yellow flowers bloom just above the foliage in summer.
What blue spruce stonecrop does not do well is uniformly cover large areas of hard or dry soil. It can spread nicely, but is patchy, with thin spots and thick spots. It is really only reliable as ground cover over small areas. It prefers to be watered occasionally, even though it does not need much water. It also likes relatively loose or friable soil, even though it does not need rich soil.
There are all sorts of succulent plants, ranging from finely textured small stonecrops to huge suguaro cactus. Because aloes and agaves are succulents, the closely related yuccas, such as Joshua tree and Spanish bayonet, are commonly considered to be succulents as well. Even begonias and impatiens could be considered to be succulents.
Succulent plants are some of the most distinctive plants available. Foliage can be various shades of green, as well as yellow, red, blue, orange, purplish, gray, bronze, nearly black or variegated. Leaves may be thick and fleshy like those of jade plants, or thin and neatly arranged in tight rosettes like those of aeoniums. Cacti have no real foliage, but some have flashy flowers.
Except for the larger sorts of cacti and some yucca, most succulents are very easy to propagate. Jade plants and iceplants grow very easily from stems simply stuck wherever new plants are desired. Aloes and hen-and-chicks grow just as easily from pups (sideshoots) separated from parent plants. Technically, even leaves can be rooted, and will eventually grow into new plants.
Because scraps from pruning can be used as cuttings, there is rarely any need to actually take cuttings from desirable growth. Where more Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) is needed on a freeway, it simply gets ‘plugged’ (as cuttings) from scraps of debris from where established growth needs to be cut back to an edge. There is much more debris than can be used!
Pots of mixed succulents are ridiculously easy to grow simply be filling pots with potting soil, and then plugging bits of various succulents. All sorts of contrasting colors and forms can be mixed. As plants grow, those that dominate can either be pruned back, or given more space by removing slower plants. The removed plants need not be wasted, but can be plugged somewhere else.
Small succulents are just as easy to plug into informal walls of stacked stone or broken concrete. Some small succulents actually stabilize loose stone. Their docile and finely textured roots are not likely to do any damage.
Dragon fruit became a fad on the West Coast of California several years ago. They were probably always around, but had previously been rare. When they inexplicably became more popular and common, they did so down south first. Their popularity migrated to the Santa Clara Valley a few years later. It probably will not go much farther though, since they are sensitive to frost.
It is not a bad fad, at least relative to most others. Dragon fruit, which is also known as pitaya, happens to be very easy to grow and propagate from cuttings. Locally, it needs protection from frost, but no more than other popular tropical plants. It recovers from minor frost damage quite efficiently. Pruning scraps can be rooted and grown as more plants for friends and neighbors.
Of course, I dislike fads. I am not impressed by the fruit, which might lack flavor here where the weather does not stay very warm for very long through summer. The coarsely textured and floppy plants get big and awkward. They are typically trained up onto posts from which their many long stems hang downward. An exemplary specimen looks like Sigmund the Sea Monster.
This is a fad that I dislike enough to try. I want to see what all the fuss is about. These are my first two cuttings. The upper cutting produces red fruit. The lower cutting that is marked with a line to show how deeply it should be stuck into rooting medium produces white fruit. I will know where to release them into the landscape by the time they develop roots and start to grow.
This is so shameful that I probably should not be writing about it. Oh well. Perhaps in a few months, I will write about how these cuttings will be progressing.
Good old fashioned jade plant has a few interesting cultivars (cultivated varieties) that exhibit variations of color, texture and form. Hobbit’s pipe, Crassula ovata ‘Hobbit’, is similar to classic jade plant in form and color. It is only slightly lighter green, and only a bit shorter. The succulent stems are just as plump and gray. The small and round-topped clusters of pale pink or white flowers that bloom sporadically are just as unimpressive. What is unique about hobbit’s pipe is the weirdly tubular foliage. Each leaf is rolled into a cylinder, with a hollow tip.
Mature plants do not often get much more than two feet tall and broad, although they have the potential to get twice as large. Because they are more sensitive to frost than other jade plants, hobbit’s pipe should be grown in sheltered spots, or pots that can be moved to sheltered spots through the coldest part of winter. Foliage that is too exposed during the warmest weather of summer can get roasted. Hobbit’s pipe can tolerate a slight bit of shade, so can be happy as a houseplant.
It is unfortunate that, like Easter lilies and poinsettias, most kalanches, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, are enjoyed while actively blooming, and then discarded as their blooms fade. It is so easy to simply snip out the deteriorating flowers, and grow the small perennials plants for their appealing succulent foliage until they bloom again. They do not get much more than half a foot tall, so can stay in small pots indefinitely. They seem to prefer the porosity of clay pots. Because they can rot, they should be watered when the surface of the soil seems to be getting dry, and their drainage saucers should not be allowed to hold water too long. Kalanchoes like bright but indirect sunlight. They can be acclimated to direct sun exposure, but might seem to be somewhat stunted. If brought in before frost, they can be happy out on a patio. The clustered small flowers can be white, pink, red or bright or pastel shades of orange or yellow.
Agaves are innately tough and undemanding. The main reason that they are not more popular in home gardens is that they are outfitted with nasty foliar spines. The worst of these spines are the distal tips of the large succulent leaves. Most agaves are also armed with shorter recurved spines on the margins of their leaves. Gardening with such well armed perennials can be dangerous.
A complete lack of foliar spines is what makes Agave attenuata such a deviant. The relatively pliable foliage forms big grayish rosettes that can get as broad and tall as four feet. Groups of these rosettes can slowly cover quite a bit of area. The plump stems below may eventually become exposed as they shed old foliage, but are they usually obscured as newer rosettes develop and grow.
The cultural preferences of Agave attenuata are also somewhat unusual. Unlike other agaves, it wants occasional watering and a slight bit of shade. If too exposed, it can get frosted in winter, or roasted in summer. Agave attenuata is also known as foxtail, lion’s tail or swan’s neck agave because its fluffy yellowish flower stalks curve downward, and maybe up again, to about six feet tall.
Bright pink bloom that can be profuse enough to obscure the succulent foliage below is nothing new for iceplant. Some bloom bright purplish pink. Others are reddish pink. A few are softer pink or white. What is unexpected is iceplant that blooms bright yellow, orange or gold, like Lampranthus aureus does. (Freeway or beach iceplant that blooms soft yellow or pink is not a true iceplant.)
Lampranthus arueus neither spreads as far nor cascades quite as well as other types of iceplant, but if planted a bit closer together, it can cover quite a bit of ground. It gets about a foot deep, or a bit deeper if crowded by other plants. It is very easy to grow from cuttings stuck wherever new plants are wanted. The inch and a half wide flowers are slightly wider than those of other iceplant.
All iceplant are quite undemanding. Although they bloom better and stay greener with occasional watering, they do not need much water. They should only be fertilized if they get wimpy. After the spectacular primary bloom phase early in spring, too much fertilizer might inhibit sporadic bloom later in summer. Unfortunately, the healthiest iceplant may not bloom again after spring bloom.
In this situation, the point is that all those pointed tips of the leaves of this awkwardly floppy century plant, Agave americana, are extremely sharp, extremely rigid and EXTREMELY dangerous. Those shorter teeth on the margins of the leaves are just as sharp and rigid, and are curved inward to maximize injury to anyone trying to get away from an initial jab. With tips that impale, and marginal teeth that slash, this is one very hateful perennial!
Another point is that this big and awkwardly obtrusive century plant is on a patio at a Mexican restaurant. Yes, it is in a public place where people get dangerously close to it. On Friday and Saturday nights, this restaurant can get quite crowded. Some within such crowds are inebriated, so are more likely to stumble about and bump into things that are best avoided. Those concrete slabs to the left are benches where people are often seated.
The third point is that the only remedy for this ridiculously bad situation is to remove the century plant. Chopping the leaves like those that were over the bench on the left only removes a few tips and teeth, but does not make the rest of the foliage significantly safer. Nor does folding the leaves inward, like those that are next to those that were chopped. Such abuse only makes the whole mess uglier. Now it is both dangerous AND ugly.
Now, who thought that putting the most dangerous of all perennials available into this public situation was a good idea?! (Cacti with inward curving spines and other plants that are more dangerous are not even available in nurseries.) Century plants are dangerously nasty even when small and young, so even someone who knows nothing about landscape design should have known better than this!
The dark bronze and variegated varieties of tree houseleek, Aeonium arboreum, are so much more popular than the simple species, that the simple species with plain green foliage is now rather rare. The succulent stems do not stand much more than three feet tall. They get about as broad, and can get even broader as lower stems develop roots and grow into new plants. The succulent rosettes of foliage of well watered plants can be fragile to handle. Mature plants can bloom in spring with unusual conical trusses of yellowish or chartreuse flowers.