5 Great Ways to Get Your Succulent On

Now that we’re five years into a drought, isn’t it time we gave up our ornamental plantings from other parts of the country (or the world) that are a little wetter than California is?

Aren’t you tired of fighting with local restrictions on when and how you can water your lawn?

You may think that “verdant” landscaping implies green grass and evergreen shrubs, but there’s another type of green plant that can actually survive a drought like this without much attention. In fact, succulents actually thrive in this climate!

Now, I’m not saying you have to plant a Saguaro cactus on your front lawn and call it a day. There are many types of succulents – hailing from Africa and the Americas – to consider bringing into your home (as many make good houseplants) or planting in your garden. Some are huge and make a bold statement, while smaller ones grow in clusters and make good ground cover. Some are flowering, and some bear fruit. Some are even edible, and many are known to have healing powers.

Pretty much all of them create great habitats for wildlife (like lizards) and attract both butterflies and birds (especially hummingbirds).

But since succulents are widely misunderstood – despite their many benefits and their uncommon beauty – here are five great ways to learn more about succulents and explore the world of desert gardens, in order of the level of commitment and expertise they require.

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Newbie: Visit a Desert Garden

Probably the best introduction to succulents for even the most casual plant enthusiast is to visit a botanic garden that has some. Most of the big ones in Southern California have a section devoted to native plants (or, as in the case of The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the whole thing) – although, just because it’s native doesn’t mean it’s a succulent. (Remember, LA is not a desert!) The Huntington Botanical Gardens has both – a “Desert Garden” and a “California Garden” – though they mix natives with other dry climate, water-wise plants from around the world. For a real lesson in cacti, visit the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium in Palm Springs. It’s got more than 3000 desert plants mostly from the American Southwest and Mexico; and in its greenhouse, you’ll find rare oddities like the “Old Woman Cactus” and “Old Man Cactus.”

Succulents: The Huntington Botanical Gardens (1)
The Huntington Botanical Gardens || Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein
Succulents: Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium (1)
Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium || Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Not Quite a Novice: Go Into the Wild

Now that you know a bit about the many beautiful cacti, agaves, aloes, and jade plants that are out there, it’s time to witness them in their natural, wild habitat. It’s nice to visit them within the safe confines of a botanic garden, but to really understand them, you’ve got to go where they grow without a lot of help from gardeners. Fortunately, our nearest desert, the Mojave, is known for its bristly Joshua trees, a type of yucca plant (which some have argued aren’t or shouldn’t be succulents, but for argument’s sake, let’s say they are). You can find plenty of Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, but the Mojave National Preserve actually has the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees in its Joshua Tree Forest. There’s also a small but incredibly dense grove of Joshua trees in the Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park in Lancaster in the Antelope Valley. And the most famous individual Joshua tree, from the U2 album cover, was actually located in Death Valley National Park – although it has since fallen over.

Succulents: Joshua Tree (2)
Joshua Tree National Park || Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein
Succulents: Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park
Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park || Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Intermediate: Take a Class or Attend a Festival

There are people out there who want to teach you about succulents. So help them help you by taking a class or attending a festival for experts and recent converts alike. The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants is a great educational resource even if you just pop by to browse, because whoever is working there at the time will surely jump at the opportunity to give you a quick lesson in native plants and show you around. For something more in-depth, Theodore Payne offers lots of classes and workshops in all aspects of horticulture – some of which are even free. Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley has also begun hosting classes and guest lecturers, and there are plenty of cactus and succulent shows and festivals that devote entire weekends to their offbeat passion, like the Inter-City Cactus and Succulent Show and Sale, which will be entering its 32nd year in 2017.

Succulents: Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants
Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants || Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein
Succulents (1)
Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Advanced: Join a Club

Many of the available workshops and festivals are offered by various local plant clubs – and if you like what you’ve experienced so far, why not join one yourself? The Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society has been creating a cactus-oriented community since 1935 – mostly in the Valley, where it produces its annual Drought Tolerant Plant Festival. On the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Sunset Succulent Society has been welcoming succulent enthusiasts since 1961 – but if you’re not in the Central LA area, similar clubs also serve the South Bay, Orange County, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Central Coast, Bakersfield, San Gabriel Valley, and Inland Empire communities. They not only meet regularly, but they also provide a wealth of resources for learning about – and visiting – plants of the prickly persuasion.

Succulents (2)
Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein
Succulents (3)
Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

Expert: Build Your Own

If you’ve renounced non-natives, and if your idea of “beauty” has evolved, you may be inclined to surround yourself with the plants you know so much more about now than you did before. Fortunately, you’re not alone in your endeavor. The California Native Plant Society is a tremendous resource, both online and via their local chapters, in making sure you don’t do more harm than good with whatever you decide to start growing in your yard. So is the non-profit California Invasive Plant Council. Many local botanic gardens can also advise you on what to plant, where to plant it, and how to do it right – and can even sell you some of the plants themselves. For a more specialized retail experience, you can visit the aforementioned Cactus Mart, California Cactus Center in Pasadena, California Nursery Specialties in Reseda, or Grigsby Cactus Gardens in North San Diego County.

Succulents (4)
Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein
Succulent (6)
Photo by: Sandi Hemmerlein

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