Green Neighbors: Oh, Those Succulents!

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:30:00 PM
A succulent spreads thick leaves to catch sun amd minimize water loss at the Paul Leondis nursery in Berkeley.
Ron Sullivan
A succulent spreads thick leaves to catch sun amd minimize water loss at the Paul Leondis nursery in Berkeley.

Succulents—plants that store water in fat, fleshy stems and/or leaves—attract a coterie of fans who have in common little else, but usually can be relied upon to be just a little weird. Of course I count myself among them. 

All right, my fellows are not so much weird as original. So are succulents; the appeal is obvious. 

Unlike pines or roses, succulents are not so much a set of relatives as a way of life. The lifestyle has evolved in hundreds of species, in families from asphodels to zygophylls. It’s frequently an adaptation to drought, but there are succulents fringing the Bay with their figurative toes in the water—pickleweed, of course.  

Oh, those toes. Succulents, in their various adaptations, assume the oddest of shapes. “Baby toes” and “living rocks” and all manner of fans and propellers, whirligigs and whirlpools, stacks and sticks, teeth and tongues. Some look like lumpy potatoes; some, like translucent crowns; some, spiky and scary; some, furry and cuddly—with insidiously barbed fuzz.  

Aside from growing waxy or calloused hides to keep whatever water they get, most succulents have a few interesting strategies in common. One is minimizing and hardening leaf surfaces, as yuccas and dasylirions do. Another is dispensing with leaves, quickly or permanently. Some desert plants, like boojum trees and ocotillo, sprout leaves when it rains and drop them after only a few dry days.  

Others, like cacti and some euphorbias, just incorporate their chlorophyll into stem and branch surfaces and lose thirsty leaves entirely. This, I suppose, is part of the reason they take on such engagingly odd shapes: once they’ve done that and broadened themselves to store water inside, they might find it advantageous to increase the green surface for more photosynthesis. The opportunistic, contingent nature of this sequence—its crapshoot angle—gives us globular things like Euphorbia obesa and, simultaneously, the stick-sculpture Euphorbia tirucalli. Everybody reaching for the light. 

Many succulents (and some others) have a more intimate adaptation: crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). Part of this operation is fairly macro: such plants open their stomata—the pores that exhale water, oxygen, and other metabolic byproducts and inhale carbon dioxide—only at night. They store the CO2 by fixing it as a four-carbon-molecule acid, malate.  

Daytimes, when their chlorophyll can react with sunlight, they free up the stored carbon and use it. 

If you were to nibble such a plant—Careful! Some are toxic—early in the morning they’d taste sour; late in the day, bland or sweet. 

Most nurseries sell some succulents; Berkeley has at least three specialists: Cactus Jungle, the original funhouse Dry Garden, and a well-hidden one I stumbled upon recently: Paul Leondis’ place on 10th Street, where he displays orchids and ferns and other lush beauties as well as calochortus, succulents, and more. Call or email for open times. Don’t miss it! 

Don’t miss Mrs. Dalloway’s Feb. 1 event, either: phenomenal photographer Saxon Holt will sign copies of the handsome Hardy Succulents, his collaboration with Gwen Kalaidis. Richard Ward (himself a phenomenon not to be missed) will sell plants from The Dry Garden. Maybe you can get him to autograph one for you.  



Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts 

2904 College Ave., Berkeley 

(510) 704-8222 

Sunday, Feb. 1, 4 p.m. 

Saxon Holt and Richard Ward.  


The Dry Garden 

6556 Shattuck Ave.,  

Oakland/Berkeley border 

(510) 547-3564. 


Cactus Jungle 

1509 4th St., Berkeley 

(510) 558-8650 

Closed till January 12, 2009. 

Check it out: 


Paul Leondis 

2331 - 10th St., Berkeley