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Notes from a Plant Nut

Lisa Van CleefLisa Van Cleef's life mission is to spark a passion for plants in people. Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Lisa sows the seeds that inspire curiosity and a love for the plant world. A long-time SFBG Nursery volunteer, she wrote the Green Gardener column for the SFGate, has worked with the Conservatory of Flowers and The Nature Conservancy. Today, she supports the Society's marketing efforts.

How Dry I Am: The Succulent Garden

Aeonium arboreum 'Schwartzkopf' by Joanne Taylor
Aeonium arboreum 'Schwartzkopf' by Joanne Taylor

Succulent Garden by Anne Anderson
Succulent Garden by Anne Anderson

Aloe plicatilis by Joanne Taylor
Aloe plicatilis by Joanne Taylor

This month it's all about the succulent garden. Actually as one of my favorite gardens, every month is all about the succulent garden. But October, when the plants have endured our long summer drought, shows off their survival skills splendidly.

These plants look as plump and luscious now as they do in the midst of our winter rains. And, while we do provide some supplemental water during the summer, it's minimal compared to many other plants.

The succulents are the future thinkers of the plant world. Or maybe they're the worriers. In any case, the succulents are the ones planning for a not-so rainy day. They store water in their leaves and/or stems when it's available, to be used when the climate turns harsh and dry.


It's this kind of survival technique that makes plants, and this garden in particular, so fascinating and awe-inspiring. Like a tortoise with its shell or a camel with its hump, these plants are designed to live through the worst that nature can dish up.

The succulent garden displays dozens upon dozens of different succulent species native to Mexico, South America, South Africa and the southwest US. They grow as gorgeous rosettes, spiny stems or fierce blades. The leaves and flowers have a spectacular range of color and shape. There is so much visual activity and beauty in this garden.

In fact, there's something exquisitely painterly about this garden. Standing or sitting in front of it, it's a masterpiece. Allow yourself the time to stand there and take it all in. The handsome verticals of the yuccas, the dizzying spheres of the dasylirion, the lovely sprawl of the aeoniums-it's picture perfect.

For some it's the magnificent Puya chilensis that's the standout. These Chilean beauties produce one of the plant world's most gorgeous flowers blossoming on 12-foot long stems, high above the other succulents. But it's impossible to identify any one plant as the reason this garden is this glorious.

This is a garden not to be missed, and this is a great time to appreciate how tough it is.

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