Tom Karwin, on gardening | The diversity of South African succulents – Santa Cruz Sentinel


Take care of your garden

With today’s column, after last week’s seasonal pruning preview, we return to our focus on selecting dry plants in the summer for seasonal additions to the garden. Recent columns featured plants native to California, Australia, the Mediterranean Basin, South Africa (perennials), Mexico (perennials), Chile and Mexico (succulents). To view these columns, go to and search for “Karwin”.

We are now focusing on succulents native to South Africa.

Succulents can be found on most continents except Antarctica (not yet!). While some of these plants survive in very harsh dry areas, they more generally thrive in more normal environments that experience seasonal or cyclical droughts. Succulents have adapted to such an environment by storing moisture in their leaves, stems or roots and easily surviving until the rains return.

California gardeners may be more familiar with succulents from neighboring Mexico, but many more succulents come from Africa, with more native succulents than any other continent. The nation of South Africa contains the smallest of the world’s six recognized flower kingdoms, home to 23,420 species of vascular plants, including a huge number of succulents.

In the following paragraphs, we describe several of the South African succulents in my garden, selected to suggest the diversity in shapes and sizes of their plants. This series begins with a sampling of various Aloes, a genus characterized by its rosette shape.

Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens). This familiar plant grows easily in the Monterey Bay area, reaching 9 feet by 9 feet. Its common name refers to its unbranched inflorescences of coral-red flowers, rising during the winter months to two feet above the foliage.

Short-leaved aloe (Aloe brevifolia). A much smaller plant, this aloe develops clumps of three-inch-wide rosettes, with spikes of tubular orange flowers in late spring. It serves as a “filler” plant in the garden.

Aloe Soap (Aloe maculata). This plant was known as A. saponaria, in reference to the soapy foam produced from its sap. Its current species name means “speckled”, in reference to the coloring of its leaves. This plant is easily spread by underground suckers.

Spotted Aloe (Aloe ‘Wrasse’). An example of a Fantasy Aloe, a colorful miniature plant in Larry Weisel’s Fish Hybrid series. Fantastic aloes, popular with succulent collectors, often have a complex parentage resulting from multiple crosses in search of attractive foliage.

Finger Aloe (Orbiculate Cotyledon). Despite its common name, this plant is not an aloe but a cotyledon, a member of another family of plants. It grows 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and in spring produces intriguing clusters of pale orange, bell-shaped flowers that hang from stems 12 to 18 inches tall.

Red carpet (Crassula pubescens ssp. Radicans). This member of the Crassula plant family is a carpet-forming plant only a few inches in height, with slender stems that start upright and spread sideways over time and form new shoots emerging from nodes. Its small white flowers look like wreaths. This plant serves as a ground cover.

Corn ear cactus (Euphorbia mammillaris). This plant is not part of the Cactus family, but like some other Euphorbias, it looks like a cactus. It grows about 1 foot tall and grows new columnar stems from its base.

Hottentot bread (Fockea edulis). An example of a caudiciform plant, it stores moisture in its root (caudex), which can grow to 2 feet wide and support thin branches up to 12 feet long. The plant can be kept small when containerized. The common name, which refers to the edible root, is considered derogatory when applied to people. The Afrikaans common name “Bergbaroe” might be preferred.

Cow Tongue Pactus (Gasteria ‘Little Warty’). This charming five inch tall and wide succulent plant is a hybrid of G. batesiana and G. ‘Old Man Silver’. Its cultivar name refers to the small bumps on the thick green leaves.

Paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora ‘Flapjacks’). This member of the Stonecrop plant family stands 18 inches tall, with a 30 inch spike of fragrant yellow flowers in spring. With sufficient exposure to the sun, the edges of the leaves turn bright red.

Pink ice plant (Oscularia deltoides). This plant spans a carpet 10 inches high and 3 feet wide, with numerous 1 inch lavender pink flowers resembling daisies. It works well as a ground cover and will cascade from a container or other raised location.

Food for elephants (Portulacaria afra). This plant can be pruned to keep it at a preferred size, but in the wild it can grow to twelve feet tall, deserving of its common name. It has pretty reddish-brown stems, half-inch-long emerald green leaves, and tiny pale lavender flowers in summer.

Advance your knowledge

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America resumes its bi-weekly webinar series with “Succulent Trees — Cultivation,” at 10 am Saturday. Presenter Dan Mahr will follow his previous succulent tree webinar. To register for this free event, go to

The University of California Botanical Garden has announced webinars for January. For more information and to register, visit, click on “Programs & Workshops”, then “Calendar”. It involves more clicks than it should, but you can do it.

“Opening reception – Plantes illustrated 2022 The beauty of leaves”, 6:00 pm. January 14. This virtual gathering celebrates the opening of the 13th annual botanical art exhibition 2022, “The Beauty of the Leaves”.

“Florilegia: From Historic Voyages to the Present-day Revival”, 10:00 am January 24th. This is a paid event.

“Inside the Artist’s Studio: Amber Turner and Maria Cecilia Freeman” at 10 am on January 28. This paid event features two botanical artists from the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists.

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is the past president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and the Monterey Bay Iris Society, and UC Lifetime Master Gardener (Certified 1999- 2009). He is now a board member and garden trainer for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view photos of his garden daily, For gardening coaching information and an archive of previous gardening columns, visit Contact him with comments or questions at


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