Succulents and Succulent Garden Design | Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin has prepared her succulent blog with information on succulent design, news on succulent plants and designers working with succulents. Succulent book author, expert, "Queen of Succulents" Debra Lee Baldwin's FAQs, photo galleries, care tips, succulent design ideas, videos, news, more.
The 2019 Succulent Celebration was a giant, two-day party for succulent enthusiasts. Guests filled carts with perfectly grown plants, display gardens blazed with color, kids caught tadpoles, BBQ smoke scented the air, and the sounds of conversation and laughter were everywhere.
Tom Jesch and I welcomed an enthusiastic audience to our presentation.
On Saturday I shared the stage with nursery general manager and wannabe comedian Tom Jesch. Enjoy the best bits in my new video: Succulents and Sass at Waterwise Botanicals (14:13) Topics include creating drifts of color, therapy cacti, mangaves, powder-coating on leaves, jumping cholla, spineless edible opuntia, and succulents that suggest soap bubbles.
Thanks to an improved sound system, everyone on the grounds could hear what was going on in the speaker’s tent—a bonus for shoppers, vendors, photographers and wanderers.
Annuals like pansies and marigolds “last about ten minutes in Southern California,” Tom told the audience. On the other hand, succulents with colorful foliage “look good for years.” Above, left to right: Orange Sedum nussbaumerianum, blue Senecio serpens, dark red graptosedum, and lavender graptoveria.
Many of you in my newsletter community made a point of saying hello—thank you! I wasn’t able to take many photos, so if you have some to share, do send ’em!
Spring is tadpole season! Kids enjoyed feeding Tom’s catfish, too.
Celebrity designer Laura Eubanks planted a bus-sized mound of soil with all sorts of succulents, explained her process to a large crowd, supervised a youthful crew, held her grandbaby, and welcomed guests to her cozy, Goodwill-furnished pop-up.
Laura Eubanks of Design for Serenity with The Succulent Baby (soon to be The Succulent Toddler), in front of the mounded garden she created for the event.
DFS design tip: Use driftwood to add height and interest to a newly installed garden.
Many attendees, including Brandy Williams, came from Los Angeles.
The lane leading to Laura’s installation was lined with vendors offering one-of-a-kind pots, decorative garden items, artistic T’s (including those by Becca of Botanical Bright), and more. Anything printed, embossed or emblazoned with succulents was a hit.
Now for the nitty-gritty: In my other newly released video, Soil for Succulents (3:14), Tom shares his soil formulas for nursery pots and garden beds. I included before-and-after shots of nursery gardens to show that his easy, ingenious mix works. Either that, or succulents simply like sass.
Waterwise Botanical‘s display gardens combine perennials (foreground) with succulents (along the pathway, notably red-blooming Euphorbia milii and yellow-leaved Sedum nussbaumerianum).
The largest succulent ever to grace my half-acre garden was an Agave americana we called “Big Blue.” With six-foot leaves lined with sharp teeth, it looked capable of eating guests who shot selfies with it. Agave americana is commonly called “century plant” because it seems to take forever to flower and die, but Big Blue’s lifespan was only 20 years.
Big Blue at maturity, 2017
Big Blue and I didn’t always get along. It was armed and dangerous, and on occasion snagged my skin and drew blood. This was usually my fault. I liked to lean in and take photos of its bud imprints—scalloped lines caused by leaves that had pressed against each other before they unfurled.
It also tried to take over the garden, producing pups (clones) from its roots. These popped up in all directions, including uphill. This tendency for century plants to reproduce like feral dogs was probably why my neighbors put it out in the trash in the first place. But when I noticed the 2-foot pup, I knew it would look good in a pot, its leaves contrasting with terra-cotta orange.
Big Blue in a terra-cotta pot, 2003
That was seven years before the publication of my first book about succulents, and I had much to learn much about agaves. I didn’t think the pup would live because it had been severed at ground level. But after a few months, it plumped and thrived. I kept it in the pot—where it stayed small—and a few years later planted it in the garden.
Big Blue grew ever larger as other ornamentals came and went. A Bailey’s acacia planted near it in 2007 became a 20-foot tree. Every spring, while hosing fallen acacia flowers from the agave’s center, I admired how its guttered leaves funneled water to the roots.
Big Blue commands the garden, April 2007
Agave americana loves irrigation but doesn’t need it, so early-on I capped nearby risers. Peevishly, Big Blue broke a pipe that, located beneath barbed leaves, was impossible to repair. (I should have seen that coming.) After shutting down the line, I spent countless summer afternoons hose-watering.
Big Blue in 2010. It’s about half its eventual size.
A landscape designer friend said, “You know, Debra, that americana is going to grow into the pathway.” That seemed unlikely—it was five feet away. I replied, “Then I’ll just move the pathway.” And six years later, I did.
We wore protective glasses when digging-up pups. I gave small century plants to whomever would take them. But because they came with cautions, most went without adoption and languished in 1-gallon nursery pots. Leaves shriveled, then swelled during winter rains. Some of the little rascals rooted through holes in their pots.
In 2011, Big Blue’s pups had become large and tricky to remove.
In 2016, its lovely fan of azure leaves framed a new flagstone patio.
Midsummer 2018: Big Blue’s bloom stalk added a temporary tree to the garden.
In February, 2018, Big Blue at last attained the sugar content needed for flowering—a grand achievement that produced masses of flowers followed by seed pods. That summer, the agave’s 30-foot flower spike hummed with pollinators.
By autumn 2018, seed pods replaced flowers.
Keeping what remained of Big Blue wasn’t optional; its sailboat-mast spike was leaning at a 45-degree angle toward the street. I videoed the agave’s removal that October.
A few years earlier, knowing Big Blue’s demise was inevitable, I decided to keep a well-positioned offset. That pick-of-the-litter is maybe a fourth of its eventual size. I don’t get sentimental about succulents, but I am glad to have Big Blue Two…although (sigh) it’s started pupping.
Spring, 2019: A stump is all that’s left of Big Blue. Its clonal replacement is at left.
They seem everywhere this spring: mite-damaged aloes ranging from dwarf cultivars to tree ‘Hercules’. The microscopic pests (Eriophyes aloines) are not insects but spider relatives. They cause deformed flowers, a bubbly fringe on leaf edges, and orange-and-green growths where leaves meet stems.
Aloe mite on Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’
Google “aloe mite treatment,” “aloe mite prevention,” “aloe gall” or “aloe cancer” and you’ll discover that distinguished experts, landscape designers, succulent societies and growers, and even federal agencies are aware of the problem. Yet they don’t agree on what to do about it. Environmentally-unfriendly chemicals supposedly help to some extent, but are expensive, come with cautions, and aren’t allowed in certain states (like California).
Mites, protected within galls, are impervious to topical pesticides. To protect rare and valuable specimens, aloe growers and collectors may apply a preventive systemic—a miticide that’s taken up into the tissues of the plant via the roots—but it has to be applied before there’s evidence that it’s needed.
Aloe mite on dwarf aloe
Here’s what to do: At first sign, excise affected tissues and bag them for the trash (do not put them in green waste). If an infestation is severe, dispose of the entire plant. After all, it’s a breeding ground. Even if you don’t mind the galls, do get rid of them before the pests inside them find your neighbors’ aloes…or mine.
Mites inject a chemical that causes cancerous growth. They produce as many as eight generations a year, and each female lays 80 eggs a month. Mites travel via water, wind, garden tools, and people who find bizarre formations fascinating.
It’s not the end of the world. These photos, taken in my own garden, show two different aloes six weeks after gall-removal surgery. I simply used a sharp knife to slice the plants well below any signs of infestation.
Aloe nobilis, new growth
Aloe rupestris, new growth after gall removal
Other Pests and Problems
These tips and ideas will show you how to design and redo your overgrown succulent garden. Every few years, I tackle the one I see from my office window. I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about how rosette succulents like aeoniums, echeverias and graptopetalums get trunks over time. This is because new growth comes from the center of the rosette and old leaves wither and fall off. Fortunately it’s an easy fix.
March, 2019. The last time I replanted this area was two years ago, when I installed the fountain. I’m pleased at how plants have filled in and how little maintenance the area needs. Well, maybe I should get after that ivy. Note how the planted clam shell at left repeats the fountain’s basins, and how a pot at upper right echoes the red of the aeoniums.
Begin by picking a vantage point: This is the window, pathway or sitting area from which you view the space. It’s also where you’ll “stand back” as you redesign it.
Know your microclimates and plant accordingly. I delve into this in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.) In fact, the entire book is about creating beautiful succulent gardens. It’s my proudest achievement. <blush>
Check or install irrigation: It’s a pain to add pipes and risers after a garden is planted. Don’t skip this not-fun step—unless of course you want to hose-water on midsummer days.
Prepare the planting area by sifting out roots and rocks, then adding fresh soil.
Rework the soil: Spade and turn it, remove rocks and clumps of roots, and mix in compost and pumice. If the ground is hard to dig, just top it with planting mix.
Mound the soil: Use more than you think because mounds settle over time. Pack firmly and arrange rocks around the rim to retain the soil.
Add a dry creek bed or path (optional): This meanders between mounds and gives you access into the planting area. Set rounded stones, pebbles and cobbles below grade, in a swale…unless you just want a pathway, in which case use gravel or pavers. See the section on dry creek beds in Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.).
Plant cuttings: Cluster and combine cuttings in ribbons and vignettes. Set larger ones in back, smaller in front. Place low-water succulents like cacti atop mounds; finer-leaved, thirstier ones farther down. Use green in the background. Position aloes and jades in sunny spots so they’ll redden.
Apply topdressing: Use crushed rock or decomposed granite to give the garden a finished look. Topdressing also inhibits weed growth, moderates soil temperatures, and conserves moisture.
Recently a writer with The New Yorker asked me what people need to know about dudleyas and the plants’ likelihood of survival out of the wild. She was researching the recurring thefts of Dudleya farinosa, a succulent native to the Northern CA coast.
Dudleya farinosa poachers. Photo courtesy of CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
It seems that in Korea, China and Japan, succulents are hugely popular among housewives, students, and other residents of small spaces. Dudleyas, related to echeverias (rosette succulents from Mexico) are collectible novelties that sell for up to $100 apiece. Some say their appeal is their resemblance to lotus flowers.
No plant—succulent or otherwise—is free for the taking, even from public land. Yet poachers fly into San Francisco, rent cars, and stop by Home Depot for cardboard boxes on their way to California’s rocky ocean cliffs. They slither through mud, dislodge boulders, rip silvery succulents from near-vertical perches, then scurry off to a post office.
Dudleya farinosa in habitat
Dudleya farinosa grows on near-vertical rock faces.
The CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has increased its vigilance, and with the help of the CA Native Plant Society, has been keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior—like people emerging from hiking trails carrying ropes and bulging backpacks from which telltale stems and roots protrude. But by the time the poachers are caught, the damage has been done.
“It’s senseless,” I told the The New Yorker‘s “California Chronicles” columnist. “It harms our coastal ecology, makes it easier for weeds to become established, and kills beautiful plants.” Instead of flourishing where people can see them for years to come, “those stolen dudleyas will just turn squishy and rot.”
It’s not easy to replant a dudleya, even in its own habitat. Photo courtesy of CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
How to Keep Dudleyas Alive
The common name for dudleya is “liveforever” because some can live 50 to 100 years—in the right spot. Wild plants, like wild animals, do best in their native habitat.
Dudleya farinosa, like many Dudleya species, requires near-vertical rocky hillsides, plenty of sun but not too much, and no summer water. It also likes moist ocean air. Most noticeable in larger species such as D. brittonii (native to Mexico)and D. pulverulenta (Southern CA), flowers that form on the tips of long bloom spikes produce seeds that fall far enough away from the mother ship that her offspring don’t compete with her for nutrients.
By summer’s end, after months without rainfall, a dudleya’s oldest, lower leaves have dried. They still cling to the stem, protecting it from heat, sun and desiccation. The plant hunkers down, goes dormant, and folds its upper leaves over its vital core. A dudleya during the season of Santa Ana winds looks like a pile of withered foliage, maybe with a few dry flower stems sticking out. It’s tempting to try and revive a sleeping dudleya, yet if you water it, you risk it rotting.
A dudleya’s older leaves dry and cling to its stem.
Dudleyas grown by nurseries are domesticated compared to those on Cliffside’s and better suited to residential gardens. Plant them in a rock wall or at an angle in gritty, fast-draining soil like decomposed granite, so water drains away from their roots. It’s best not to grow dudleyas in pots because water can pool around their stems. Inland, protect them from hot afternoon sun in summer. The powdery coating (farina) that makes certain species silvery-white acts as a sunscreen by reflecting UV rays, so it’s best not to touch the leaves. Not to mention that doing so will leave fingerprints.
Kelly Griffin’s Dudleyas
I suggested that The New Yorker interview dudleya expert Kelly Griffin, succulent product development manager for Altman Plants, the largest grower of succulents and cacti in the US. Griffin, a renowned breeder of aloes and agaves, is also an avid dudleya hybridizer. In my recent YouTube video, he shows the Dudleya cultivars he’s testing in his own garden.
Dudleyas in Kelly Griffin’s garden
They’re indeed beautiful: Large, lush, floriferous and full of vigor. Should the unthinkable happen and native dudleyas become rare, Griffin’s hybrids are certain to live on in cultivated gardens. This isn’t unprecedented, in fact it’s the case with other widely grown succulents no longer in the wild, like Aloe vera and Echinocactus grusonii (golden barrel cactus). However, it’s uncertain whether Northern CA’s plundered dudleya population will ever be the same.
There are two distinct types of dudleyas: Those that form colonies of multiple rosettes with pencil-like leaves, and those with solitary, wide-leaved rosettes. This is Dudleya greenii, native to the Channel Islands off the CA coast.
In San Diego County where I live, dudleyas are fairly easy to spot. Steep, rocky escarpments within a few miles of the Pacific are potential habitats. After winter rains, the plants plump and produce new growth. They do best where they don’t have to compete with weeds, and they tend not to face south because it’s too hot in summer. When driving Highway 76 (the Del Dios Highway) between Escondido and Del Mar, look for silvery stars clinging to rocky outcroppings. It’s gratifying that dudleyas within sight of thousands of daily commuters are out of reach. There’s almost no place to park, and even if a poacher dared, drivers whizzing past would be witnesses.
Do you collect special succulents that you’d like to grow outdoors in your garden? If you’re in Southern CA, do visit the cactus and succulent garden at Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona Del Mar, CA. It showcases so many great tips and ideas!
Pat Roach and I pose in Sherman’s succulent garden.
Imagine…a dear friend who lives in LA had never been to Sherman Gardens! I’m in San Diego, so an Orange County botanical garden was the perfect place to meet to celebrate the fact that we’re finally the same age. (She’s a math teacher but kindly didn’t say that I’m six months older and always will be.) So on a bright early-spring day, Pat Roach and I became ladies-who-lunch at Sherman’s la-dee-dah garden cafe.
Initially a home that later became a nursery, Sherman’s 2.2 acres now are a venue for weddings and other events. It includes lathe houses, beds of annuals and roses, fountains, a koi pond and tropicals. It’s on busy Coast Highway, but once beyond the fence, you’re in a different world. Outdoor areas are themed and make smart use of every square foot.
Pat and I first met when she took my design class, so at Sherman we spent most of our time in the cactus and succulent garden, which beautifully blends specimen plants with rocks and boulders. Designer Matthew Maggio is a horticulturist knowledgeable about how the plants grow in habitat, which is always a boon to effective placement and cultivation. Matt redesigned and replanted the 1,200-square foot area 12 years ago, and continues to help it stay looking good.
One of its focal points would work in any size garden: a large, shallow terra-cotta pot set amid boulders. Burro-tail sedum and Senecio repens cascade out of it, and echeverias surround the lovely agave in its center. Photos I’ve taken of the pot over the years show a succession of agaves, each variegated to echo a Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ nearby.
2007: The wide, shallow terra-cotta pot showcases Agave ‘Joe Hoak’.
2011: Same terra-cotta pot, redone with variegated Agave vilmoriniana. Notice the furcraea in the background (the two plants visually blend together), and the addition of red bromeliads.
2019: Now large, the furcraea appears to explode behind the pot. In it, with wavy leaves, is variegated Agave gypsophila.
My photos from earlier visits also show a large Dasylirion wheeleri midway down the garden’s long, narrow bed. It has since been replaced with bromeliads, aloes and agaves, perhaps so visitors can better appreciate how blue Senecio serpens forms a meandering river and visually unifies the bed’s diverse plantings.
2005: Dasylirion wheeleri dominates the long, narrow bed, which doesn’t yet include colorful mosaics.
2011: Although the long bed now has colorful rocks, succulents and bromeliads, the dasylirion still shouts, “Look at me!”
2019: Bromeliads and agaves have replaced the dasylirion, and mature tree aloes lend balance, height and interest.
Sherman Library and Gardens is at 2647 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Corona del Mar, CA. Hours: 10 to 4 daily. Closed major holidays. Free parking. Adults $5.
If you’re planning to design, revamp or evaluate a succulent landscape, find out what I like and what dismays me about Newport Beach’s grand Civic Center succulent garden. It’s large-scale, but its plusses and minuses apply to waterwise gardens of any size.
Opened in 2013, the Newport Beach Civic Center graces a coastal community of homes with an average value of $2,000,000. The complex cost $140 million and is a masterpiece of modern architecture within sight of the Pacific. Overlapping, S-shaped awnings atop a series of sleek buildings suggest ocean waves. The multi-acre succulent garden along the complex’s north side is a public park.
It has a nice layout, with wide, serpentine paths that invite strolling and rolling (everything from baby carriages to wheelchairs). There are multiple plantings of large specimens—Dracaena draco, Aloe bainesii, Beaucarnea recurvata and columnar cacti. These likely were mature at installation in order to be in scale with their setting, and doubtless were craned-in at no small expense. Filler plants include agaves, dasylirions, aloes, puyas (a succulent bromeliad), golden barrels, aeoniums, Senecio mandraliscae, and silver-leaved Cotyledon orbiculata. Warm-toned gravel enhances the design, holds moisture in the soil, inhibits weed growth, and lends visual continuity. In light of the fact that structures across the street have water-thirsty lawns and tightly pruned shrubs (landscaping that doesn’t make sense on so many levels), what’s not to love?
Silver and blue succulents dominate the Newport Beach Civic Center garden
Highly toxic euphorbia
Well, Euphorbia resinifera for one thing. I like the mounding growth habit of this African succulent, which suggests a short-spined cactus consisting of squarish, columnar green stems. It grows slowly into ever-expanding colonies. However, this cool-looking plant is quite hot…and not in a good way.
Euphorbia resinifera has short, sharp spines and—typical of the genus—milky sap.
Its milky, resinous sap contains resiniferatoxin, which is similar to capsaicin in peppers but a thousand times hotter. On the Scoville scale, resiniferatoxin ranks at 16 billion units, 4.5 million times hotter than a jalapeno. So if the sap should enter an open wound or eye, the sensation would be like a blow torch. Of course that’s only possible when Euphorbia resinifera grows where someone could fall on it, break its stems, and get scratched by its thorns…like along the downward curve of a pathway in a public garden frequented by kids on scooters, skates and bikes.
Adding a curb would create a barrier that keeps kids from careening into Euphorbia resinifera.
A missed opportunity
Another succulent in the garden, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), is far from pathways…which is no surprise because it’s obviously unfriendly.
Prickly pear cactus (lower center) grows well away from foot traffic.
Yet Opuntia species that lack spines are nowhere to be found, and they would have been suitable anywhere. Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, shown below at a nursery, grows tall (upwards of 6 feet), offers a pleasing silhouette of ever-branching ovals, forms a sculptural green backdrop, starts readily from cuttings, gets by on rainfall alone, and is entirely harmless.
Spineless paddle cactus at a nursery
Silver swords and serrated leaves
Spare-no-expense plants such as Puya venusta (a succulent bromeliad) and Cleistocactus strausii (a fuzzy columnar cactus) blend together in a surreal, silvery harmony of starbursts and snowy poles. But IMHO they’re a bit too texturally inviting to be at toddler-level.
Yes, of course, parents should teach children not to touch unfamiliar plants, especially any that are spiny, thorny, toothed or bristly. But what about plants that touch kids? Over time, the puyas have become crowded and some, seeking light, have grown horizontally. Here’s one that had to be cut back from the pathway. Doing so has destroyed the plant’s symmetry and bloom potential.
A truncated Puya venusta at the Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden
I also wonder if the area that this silver grouping occupies—north-facing, close to the building and beneath its wavy eaves—is sunny enough for puyas to bloom. After all, that’s what they’re known for: eye-catching, truly-blue flowers.
Big silver puyas bloom blue.
On the plus side, the garden showcases how to mound and topdress soil, use planted islands, and how just a few sculptural succulents can create an intriguing, low-maintenance, low-water landscape. This is best illustrated by a grouping of Beaucarnea recurvata. (Its common names “ponytail palm,” “elephant’s foot palm” and “bottle palm” are misleading—these tree succulents aren’t palms.) Like many agaves and cacti also in the garden, beaucarneas are from Mexico. They’re easy to come by, inexpensive even in 5-gallon pots, grow fairly rapidly when in the ground (about a foot a year), tolerate mild frosts, and have intriguing Dr. Seuss-like forms. What makes each “succulent” is its bulbous, water-storing base (caudex). In summer, the trees’ topknots produce feathery sprays of cream and pink flowers.
Beaucarnea recurvata in bloom
But for me, the most perplexing aspects of the garden are its rows of century plants (Agave americana) that occupy large beds between walkways and street. I suspect that what must have seemed brilliantly economical six years ago has become a maintenance nightmare. Though quite common and often free for the asking, century plants eventually get as big as Volkswagens and produce numerous offsets (“pups”) from shallow roots.
Trimming a century plant like a pineapple removes problematic foliage, but it’ll pup regardless
These large agaves’ thick leaves are wickedly toothed along their margins and tipped in sharp spines. I suspect that after a few years, century plants began encroaching on walkways. The need to prune some of them likely led to the aesthetic decision to trim all of them so they look the same.
En masse these agaves resemble a pineapple plantation, but that doesn’t offend me. What does, is that agave leaf pruning and pup removal are labor-intensive. Moreover, many municipalities won’t accept agave green waste—the plants are too fibrous, spiny and slow to decompose. I’m curious how thousands of sliced-off century plant leaves, each nearly as large as its machete-wielding gardener, have been (and will continue to be) disposed of.
There do exist large, statuesque agaves that are not especially treacherous and don’t pup like feral dogs. Two that would have worked well here (if it were possible to source them in quantity) are Agave guiengola and Agave ovatifolia. But using better-behaved agaves is just one alternative. Also from the Southwest US and Mexico are low-maintenance, low-water succulents such as yuccas, dasylirions and hesperaloes. They’re dynamic planted in multiples and don’t bloom-then-die like agaves do.
If I were to give the Newport Beach Civic Center’s succulent garden a letter grade, it would be a C+. I’d like to give it higher, but online info indicates that numerous large and expensive specimens (like Aloe thraskii, a tree succulent) that had been planted early-on, died. Perhaps they couldn’t tolerate being transplanted or were sited incorrectly. Regardless, my sad conclusion is that inadequate horticultural research prior to the installation of this grand succulent garden wasted time, taxpayers’ money and potentially terrific plants.
According to plant expert Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC, “the world of mangaves is exploding. The colors and forms continue to break new barriers of previously inconceivable foliage.” Founded in 1988, Tony’s nursery is a premier source of rarities and natives, and offers more than 1,400 kinds of perennials via mail-order.
Plant Delights’ Spring ’19 catalog includes two dozen recently introduced Mangave cultivars. “The parade of amazing new mangaves hasn’t slowed,” Tony says. “Once people see and grow mangaves, they realize how fantastic they are.”
Here’s more from Tony Avent on these intriguing Manfreda–Agave crosses:
“It started back in the ’90s on a visit to Yucca-Do Nursery in Texas. They’d collected seeds from a manfreda in Mexico, and two of the seedlings were five times as big as they should be. They had spots like manfreda but were enormous, and their structure was agave-like. The blooms were just not right. Agave celsii had been growing in the next valley, and we realized, OMG, we have a Mangave!
“We started breeding them at Plant Delights, and after five years of crossing, we could see the potential. It’s like when Dan Heims got started with Heuchera.
We do a lot of trials, but taking on mangaves was just too much. We gave all our breeding stock to Hans Hansen, an incredible plantsman and hybridizer at Walters Gardens in Michigan. The mangaves sat unnoticed in the back of a greenhouse until the cover came off the building. When exposed to ultraviolet light, they turned all these incredible colors.
Hybridizer Hans Hansen is Director of Plant Development at Walters Gardens, Zeeland, MI.
“We send pollen off of every agave that flowers to Hans. What he’s done is create agaves with purple and red spots. They’re fast growers with hybrid vigor. A mangave plug grown from tissue culture takes 12 to 16 weeks to fill out a quart container, then another two weeks to fill a gallon. Agaves, in comparison, take 63 weeks. Hans grows a thousand seedlings, selects 100, then 50, then 25. Then he picks one or two to keep and sends us a few discards to trial. That way we have the advantage of knowing what the crosses will do.
“I’ve never felt the need to second-guess Hans. He’s very keen on what he’s created and understands what’s cool and how to use the plants—their garden value. It’s been challenging for him. He’s in Michigan breeding for the West Coast, but he realizes how good these plants are, and he’s persevered.
“So far we haven’t seen any mangaves that are monocarpic like their agave parents. ‘Bloodspot’ flowered and produced 50 offsets. We’ve never lost a mangave to flowering. Manfredas, if it’s too cold—upper 30s, low 40s—become deciduous. They also may go summer-dormant where temperatures are high.
“Mangave roots tend to conform to the pot size, like agaves. They may be screaming, but they’ll stay small in a small container. Leaf fragility…some are more brittle than others. Early ones were incredibly brittle. The way we solve the breakage problem when shipping them is to let them dry down. Leaves that become flaccid don’t break.
“Manfreda virginica is insanely hardy.” — Tony Avent
“Mangave cultivars are not necessarily winter hardy. It depends on their parentage. Manfredas are found in Zones 4 through 8, from the Midwest to southern Illinois, central North Carolina, Florida, central Texas and central Mexico. They’re dry-land plants, but are more tolerant of overwatering than agaves. Even in a hurricane, a mangave will keep on going. As for extreme drought, mangaves are probably not as tolerant as agaves, but again, it depends on the parent. You can’t say of any genus, ‘They’ll all do this.’
“Mangaves are fantastic in containers. They’re not great indoors—they lose their color without UV light. If need be, overwinter them inside, then take them outside in the spring.
Mangave ‘Blue Mammoth’ is among the most hardy.
“Mangave ‘Blue Mammoth’ has been the most hardy in our trials, to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s an Agave ovatifolia hybid that forms a 2-foot-tall by 4-feet-wide rosette of jagged blue leaves with olive spots. Other mangaves that go to Zone 7 are ‘Falling Waters’ and ‘Bad Hair Day’.
Another new genus: Hansara
“We offer Hansara ‘Jumping Jacks,’ the first tri-generic hybrid, which we named after Hans. Agave, Manfreda, Polyanthes and Hosta are all closely related. So Hans started making tri-generic crosses, aiming for highly fragrant flowers, Mexican color, and hardiness. Crosses of Hosta and Agave are the most difficult to make.
Hansara ‘Jumping Jacks’ combines the genes of Agave gypsophila ssp. pablocarrilloi, Agave macroacantha, Manfreda maculosa, Polyanthus tuberosa, and Polyanthus howardii.
“‘Jumping Jacks’ forms a 14-inch-tall by 27-inch wide clump of narrow, succulent, gray-green foliage, sparsely spotted purple. When mature in 2 to 3 years, it produces a 6 foot-tall, highly branched flower spike of lovely yellow flowers but with an insignificant fragrance.
Mangaves in the stratosphere
Mangave ‘Red Wing’
“Mangaves like ‘Red Wing’ have foliage colors that don’t look real. Variegated manfredas as parents will launch mangaves into the stratosphere. What’s been done so far is maybe 2 percent of what can and will be done. In California and Mediterranean climates this is an opportunity to rewrite what people do with their landscapes.
“Every day there’s something new and exciting with plant hybridization. It’s a great time to be alive.”
Come on a mangave treasure hunt with me as I track down a dozen cultivars that have been in the ground and in pots for two years. All have done well but some better than others. I evaluate their progress and consider how to help each attain its full beauty and potential.
Mangaves are succulents with agaves in their parentage. Many of these 21st-century hybrids are lilylike, with flexible leaves, and do well in gardens that get frost…even snow! Watch me unbox some freckled beauties never been seen before…including a rare Hansera.
With 18 exciting new Mangave cultivars to find a place for in my garden, I design and plant my new “Mangave Terrace” and perform “C-sections” on potbound cultivars rarin’ to go.
I’m testing more than 30 Mangave cultivars in my Zone 9b Southern CA garden. This is a report on the first batch of 14 that arrived two years ago from Hans Hansen of Walters Gardens, a wholesale perennial grower in Zeeland, MI. Hans is the world’s leading breeder of mangaves, and the first to reproduce them via tissue culture.
The hard part for breeders is selecting the true champions. Like a litter of puppies, plant crosses may look terrific, but how will they behave? It may take years to find out, and reports (like this) from gardeners far and wide provide important data.
Mangave is an intergeneric cross of Manfreda and Agave, and in the list below I’ve included each cultivar’s parentage (if available). All have speckled, dotted or blotchy leaves unless otherwise noted.
The first mangave arrived on the gardening scene 15 years ago: the cultivar ‘Macho Mocha’. According to San Marcos Growers: “…reported to be hardy to 9° F by Tony Avent in North Carolina. This 2004 Yucca Do Nursery introduction…was from seed collected by Carl Schoenfeld while on a plant exploration trip into Mexico.” It attains 2 to 3 feet in height by 4 to 6 feet in diameter.
The best guess is that Agave macroacantha x Manfreda maculata = Mangave ‘Bloodspot’
Next came Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ (2008; 1 foot high by 1 to 2 feet wide. Hardy to 20-25 degrees.) The origin is unclear; San Marcos Growers suspects Japan.
In my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed, 2015, pp. 224-225), I show both ‘Bloodspot’ and “Macho Mocha’ and say, “If plants can be fashionable, the latest stars are mangaves.” I still feel that way. Mangaves are new, beautiful, interesting, as easy to grow as any succulent—and as for hybridization, the sky’s the limit.
When the mangaves arrived, it was Christmas in January
I don’t grow many exotic succulents. I’m into creating a beautiful garden with those easy to come by. If common succulents don’t thrive, there’s no great loss. My few rarities are in pots where I can keep an eye on them. So when the box of mangaves arrived, into pots they went…for the most part. In hindsight, that probably protected a few of them but kept others from attaining their full potential. Regardless, two years later, I’m pleased to report all are alive and well.
I’ll never forget opening that shipment back in 2017. The plants had been greenhouse-grown, and boxing and shipping had caused broken leaves. That made me groan, but I quickly became caught up in identifying their agave parentage. I said aloud to a plant with wavy leaves that looked trimmed with pinking shears, “I’ll bet you’re from Agave gypsophila.” To the spitting image of a very common green agave that was a surprising lavender, I murmured, “Surely you’re not related to Agave attenuata?” All in all, those mangaves were the best gifts I’d ever received from someone I hadn’t met.
Manfreda ‘Mint Chocolate Chip’
I knew nothing about manfredas, the lily side of mangaves, so I was pleased that Hans had included two.
Manfreda ‘Cherry Chocolate Chip’ is a variegated sport of Manfreda undulata ‘Chocolate Chip’.
One manfreda went into a pot, the other, into the ground. The latter started out glorious and stayed that way. In fact, Manfreda ‘Cherry Chocolate Chip’ is now among my favorite plants.
I sheltered all 14 as best as I could from extremes of sun, heat and cold. As it turns out, that may not have been necessary.
Not taking any chances, I potted and shaded my new mangaves.
That first assortment from Walters Gardens included two manfredas and 12 mangaves.
The list below describes plants from the first shipment and coincides with my January, 2019 video: “Mangaves in My Garden.” Some need repotting or a better location, which I’ve done since or soon will do.
Manfreda ‘Mint Chocolate Chip’ (introduced 2017, photo above), has floppy, wavy, narrow leaves. It was beautiful in a pot for months, then seemed to suffer in the summer heat. A section (perhaps a separate plant) bloomed and died back. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery says the rest may have simply gone dormant after blooming and will come back. [See my mangave interview with Tony.] It also may have needed more water than I was giving it, or it wanted to be in the ground. In summer, leaves lost their sheen, and tips dried and shriveled. In fall, ants colonized the container. Above is how it looks now, revived by winter rains.
Manfreda ‘Cherry Chocolate Chip’ (photo above) looks delicate but isn’t. (Twelve inches tall by 4 feet wide at maturity. Zones 7b to 9b?) It has done well in a sheltered bed alongside a wall that bounces sunlight onto it, doubtless helping its color. Spider-shaped with tapering, rippled, ribbonlike leaves, it’s fascinating, as are its red blotches and creamy white margins. I’m thinking of removing any blooms to keep the plant strong.
Mangave ‘Carnival’ is a Mangave ‘Jaguar’ cross. Its variegation is the reverse of Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’.
Mangave ‘Carnival’ exhibits the best and worst characteristics of the new genus: Wonderful rosy-red dots blend with pink, green and cream (the best) and leaves that are too fragile for the plant to exist unscathed in the open garden. It also doesn’t like the summer heat of inland southern CA.
Mangave ‘Catch a Wave’ in my garden (top) and as shown on the Walters Gardens website. (Manfreda maculosa x Agave gypsophila) x Agave colorata
Mangave ‘Catch a Wave’ (2017) has languished in a too-shady spot in my garden, growing and even offsetting, but producing no color other than silvery-blue. Its leaves have elongated, and their pie-crust edges hearken to its A. gypsophila parentage. I may have to move it into greater light to get it to look more like the photo on the Walters site.
Mangave ‘Inkblot’ (Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ x Manfreda ‘Chocolate Chip’)
Mangave ‘Inkblot’ has long, narrow, flexible, dark green leaves thickly dotted with inky blotches that give it a reptilian look. It’s not be a thing of beauty, but it’s interesting.
Above: Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ given the right amount of sun.
The same plant after being transplanted into an garden bed that gets too little light.
Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ (2016; variegated sport of Mangave ‘Jaguar’. Sun to part shade, 18 inches tall by 2 feet wide at maturity.) ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a fast-growing, stunningly striped and mottled, large multicolored succulent that glows beautifully when backlit. I first planted it in a pot which it quickly outgrew, then transplanted it into the ground where it probably needs more sun. Rather than replanting it a third time, I’ll just trim the tree that’s shading it.
Agave attenuata x Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ = Mangave ‘Lavender Lady’
Mangave ‘Lavender Lady’ (2017. Sun to part shade. 12 inches tall by 20 inches wide at maturity. Frost tender.) Having grown both parents, I was truly delighted to meet their lavender-gray offspring. I’ve had it in a pink pot for two years, possibly stunting it. I’ll soon find it a place in the garden—one that’s frost-free, because this lovely cultivar lacks hardiness.
Agave stricta x Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ = Mangave ‘Man of Steel’
Mangave ‘Man of Steel’. I’m familiar with both parents, so unpacking this beauty was like a family reunion. Both ‘Bloodspot’ and A. stricta are stiff-leaved, so not surprisingly their offspring is, too. On the plus side, ‘Man of Steel’ is not as delicate as other mangaves. Its thin, silvery, downward-curving leaves offer an elegant and symmetrical—if pointy—silhouette.
Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ (Manfreda jaliscana x Agave lophantha) x Agave shawii.
Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ (2017. Anticipated to be 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide at maturity, Zones 9a to 11?). I’m unfamiliar with its manfreda parent but it must be red and soft, because its agave parents are green, gray and stiff-leaved. The hybrid’s many red blotches nearly cover any green, but in my garden some leaf tips have shriveled. What it lacks in symmetry and form it makes up for in color…pretty much. I should dig it up and see if it does better in a pot.
Mangave ‘Moonglow’ (Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ x Manfreda ‘Chocolate Chip’)
Mangave ‘Moonglow’. Showing the best of both parents with soft, wavy-edged and curling slender leaves, this suggests ‘Inkblot’ with more of a bluish cast. Dots are thick and maroon. I have it in a blue pot that suits it.
Wavy-leaved ‘Cornelius’ is Jeanne’s favorite agave. “It doesn’t get too big, can handle full sun and cold, and always looks good,” she says.
No one celebrates the joy of succulents quite like Jeanne Meadow. She’s gleeful about their shapes and colors, delights in adding them to garden beds, and collects art pots to hold choice specimens. Jeanne’s succulent garden in Fallbrook, CA, is featured in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.); I did an article about it for Better Homes & Gardens; and to date she and I have collaborated on ten YouTube videos.
I’m pleased to announce the release this week on my YouTube channel of two new videos: Jeanne Meadow’s Succulent Garden, Tips and Tour, Parts One and Two. Here are ten great takeaways.
Jeanne’s succulent-planted fountain has a “splash zone” of string of bananas (Senecio radicans). She’s allowed it to root in the gravel.
Plant an aloe outside your dining room window so you can enjoy its blooms and watch hummingbirds come to them.
Unlike many gardeners, Jeanne doesn’t consider “mother of thousands” kalanchoes weeds. “They pop up everywhere, but they’re easy to pull,” she says. “And the flowers are gorgeous.”
Assemble a palette of topdressings to choose among. Collecting and displaying them is part of the fun. At right, a stack of planted pots appears to be tipping over. They’re aligned on 3/4-inch rebar that goes into the ground four feet.
To successfully grow a succulent prone to rot like Echeveria agavoides ‘Black Knight’, plant it atop a mound of rocks so roots never sit in water.
If you have a magnificent specimen like Jeanne’s large Agave nickelsiae (formerly Agave ferdinandi-regis), give it stand-alone space so it can be seen and admired.
“If dead leaves don’t pull off easily, it means the plant wants to keep them,” Jeanne says of her Aloe marlothii. “The trunk is sensitive and they help protect it.”
If you’re lucky enough to have a colorful mangave with translucent leaves (like ‘Kaleidoscope’), put it in a tall pot so it can be seen from all directions and sunlight will make it glow.