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These fragrant and colorful drought-tolerant succulents require little water

These fragrant and colorful drought-tolerant succulents require little water

In a time of drought, it certainly sounds reasonable to select species for your garden that require little, if any, water. Many of these species fit into the succulent plant category, which includes cacti, of course, but many other groups of plants as well. Nearly all of them are suitable not only for installation in the garden, but for display in containers too, whether kept outdoors on the patio or balcony, or are maintained indoors as houseplants.

One notion that needs to be set aside is that succulents, although drought tolerant, are not to be recommended for fragrance or long-term flowering capacity. Plumeria, for one, possesses both of these qualities. Its highly fragrant flowers may be found expanding in any season, but show a solid bloom that starts in spring and may continue deep into the fall. Plumeria rubra, the species most commonly planted – whose varieties include flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors and bicolors – does go deciduous in winter but will often start putting out new flowers in early spring, even before leaves again appear. As for watering, in its early years, a good soaking once every week or two in summer will be needed, but as a plumeria puts on growth and begins to assume tree-like proportions, even less water is required.

  • Thai hybrid crown of thorns hedge looks the same every...

    Thai hybrid crown of thorns hedge looks the same every day of the year. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Orchid cactus. (Courtesy of Juliet de Souza)

    Orchid cactus. (Courtesy of Juliet de Souza)

  • Florists kalanchoe. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

    Florists kalanchoe. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Giant chalk dudleya Dudleya brittonii close up. (Photo by Joshua...

    Giant chalk dudleya Dudleya brittonii close up. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)



The limiting factor to plumeria growth is cold, to which small, immature plants are much more sensitive than mature and established specimens. Small plants must be wrapped in canvas or festooned with Christmas lights to increase ambient heat when a cold night is forecast, although the duration of cold is more significant than the actual temperature; if the temperature dips to 32 degrees but only stays there briefly, your plumeria may suffer minor frost burn and nothing more. If you live in a colder climate, keep your plumeria in a container and move it into your garage when winter weather comes. Stop watering it until warmer temperatures prevail and you can bring it back outside.

A number of cacti produce fragrant flowers and these invariably bloom at night. Each one is referred to, here or there, as a “night-blooming cactus.” One cactus of this description is Hylocereus, known as pitaya, a dragon fruit-bearing cactus. The other fragrant night bloomers include orchid cactus (Epiphyllum hybrids), appropriate for outdoor planters and containers kept out of direct sun, as well as indoors when exposed to bright light, whose floppy stems are thoroughly nondescript, and hedgehog or Easter lily cactus (Echinops hybrids) that have thorny, classic cactus stems and an upright growth habit. On young plants, hedgehog cactus flowers are so large and prolific that they completely cover the stems. Both orchid and hedgehog cactus may be found with huge flowers that bloom in every color except blue. Last but not least, there is apple cactus (Cereus peruviana), the best-known night bloomer with its tall bluish-green stems and round pink or red fruit which are quite edible. Night-blooming cacti of all types are famously pollinated by bats and moths.

As for long-blooming succulents, three immediately come to mind. Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) boasts perpetual red, pink, yellow, or white bracts every single day of the year without exception. Bracts are actually leaf-type structures – also clearly seen on the related poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) – that surround a yellow flower center known as a cyathium. While Euphorbia milii only grows 2-3 feet tall, Euphorbia splendens can reach six feet in height. The most stunning crown of thorns are the Thai hybrids, which also grow tall. Their bracts are much showier than what you find on the previously mentioned, more widely available types.

Two other long-blooming succulents are florist kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) and flower dust plant (Kalanchoe pumila). You can find florist Kalanchoe at your supermarket’s flower department throughout the year. Flower colors are yellow, orange, blush, pink, red, and violet. Often, the flowers have a shape of little interest but certain varieties’ flowers are doppelgangers for tiny roses. Given half a day’s sun or even less, florist Kalanchoe will flower outdoors for six months straight. As for flower dust plant, I saw a huge swath of it at the Getty Center Garden years ago. Whenever I visited, its pink flowers were showing off brilliantly against a background of soft grey foliage.

Anne Minder, who gardens on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, emailed as follows:

“At the start of pandemic lockdowns, I cleaned out my rose garden. It had developed so many weeds over the years that I pulled, and I literally sifted through the soil by hand to get rid of as much of the weed roots as humanly possible while retaining all of the rose bushes.

I then planted thyme from ground cover flats. It has done so well!  It filled in completely within about 4 months. It requires very low water, that’s why I chose it to begin with. I water it every one or two weeks for 10-15 minutes. The roses are also very low in their water requirement, something many people don’t understand. I’m a California native plant gardener but there aren’t many native ground cover choices that don’t need to be mowed, aren’t bunchgrasses, aren’t spikey, etc.

The thyme has taken some foot traffic much better than the dymondia (a prostrate, mat-like ground cover) I have elsewhere but I’m not sure how it would do with kids. This garden is south-facing, so not sure how it would do north-facing. I am within one mile of the coast. I hope this helps your readers.”

Although thyme, especially creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), is touted as a durable ground cover that can absorb moderate foot traffic, it seems to establish with difficulty. I therefore take my hat off to you for your successful effort. I think two factors may explain your success. First, you are near the coast. Plants that enjoy ocean proximity – where winter cold and summer heat are moderated – will be less stressed than in other locales. Second, weed pulling and soil sifting have created a well-aerated soil as well as excellent soil drainage, conditions most conducive to plant growth.

Giant chalk dudleya Dudleya brittonii close up. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Giant chalk dudleya Dudleya brittonii close up. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

California native of the week:

Dudleya, sometimes referred to as chalk liveforever, is the most outstanding native succulent genus of Southern California. It seems to pop up on the side of the road almost anywhere. As you drive up Angeles Crest Highway on the approach to Wrightwood, you will see dudleyas growing in nearly vertical limestone embankments. They appear as silvery starlike creatures that somehow draw sustenance from the gritty walls that they call home. Far from there, as you meander along the path that encircles the acreage at the rear of the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, you will see them there as well, winking up at you from the edges of the path. At the Natural History Museum garden in downtown Los Angeles, a dudleya has been planted in a tiny crack between two vertical wooden beams and is growing just fine.

There is a reason that the rosette-forming dudleyas grow the way they do. If water settles at the base of the rosette, the plant rots. Therefore, they must position themselves so that any water that touches their leaves drips off of them. For this reason, avoid getting their leaves wet when watering. Even so, dudleyas go dormant during the summer so water sparingly, if at all, during hot weather. And. in case you are wondering, the genus is named for William Dudley, an American botanist and conservationist.

Please send questions, comments, and photos to joshua@perfectplants.com.

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