Bizarre succulents
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Bizarre Succulents

Bizarre Succulents for Your Collection, Bwa-ha-ha

To me, a bizarre succulent is one that suggests something it’s not in an eerie way—i.e. a cancerous growth, reptile or body part. When I take a second look and ponder what the heck it is, I experience a deliciously unsettling ah-ha (or bwa-ha-ha) moment. Of course, what’s bizarre is in the eye of the beholder. You might go to a Cactus & Succulent Society show and hear members exclaim how “beautiful” a lumpy plant is and wonder if their eyes need checking. With that in mind, here are five of my top choices. View the entire gallery.

Incidentally, the bizarre succulents shown here inspired one of my few forays into fiction: Professor Mordant’s Sea-Sand Succulents. Do enjoy “moonlit” photos and a “pleasantly unsettling” reinterpretation of collectible-yet-creepy succulents. An excerpt: Only I accepted the professor’s invitation. I calmed my trepidation by anticipating a big story…or at least a small adventure. It turned out to be both. But except for these photos, I’m unable to prove it. I fear that now, after the tsunami, this is the only record that remains…[Continue reading]

Debra’s Gallery of Bizarre Succulents

Bizarre succulents

Mammillaria elongata, crested

This is the crested, or monstrose, form of a fairly ordinary cactus that consists of fuzzy cylinders, commonly called “ladyfingers” (after the golden pastry often served with afternoon tea). When ladyfingers turn monstrose, they enter an entirely different world…that of horror movies. Anyone need a spare brain?

Bizarre succulents

Lithops sp.

Lithops, or living stones, is always plural (no such thing as a “lithop,” please). These grow glacially and can be difficult to keep alive because their tap roots are prone to rot if overwatered. In their native habitat of South Africa, lithops go without rain for months, sometimes years. To avoid being eaten by thirsty animals, they’re buried in sand to their tops, which have translucent fissures that enable sunlight to enter the plant.

Bizarre succulents

Crassula ‘Baby’s Necklace’

These remind me of eels emerging from an undersea crevice. They look as though they’re swaying in a current, hoping to ingest passing plankton or tiny fish. This is one of the “stacked crassulas” which are a subsection of a genus best known for jade plants. What makes them similar are the flowers, which to botanists are THE defining characteristic.

Bizarre succulents

Gasteria hybrid

Doesn’t this look like it’s crawling toward you? I don’t know much about this specimen, which I shot at a nursery, other than it’s a gasteria (related to Haworthia). The color and texture alone makes it bizarre, but its shape takes it over the top.

Bizarre succulents

Medusa euphorbia in flower.

Medusa euphorbias are bizarre even when not in bloom. Their stems radiate from a central point in a Fibonacci spiral, forming what looks like scaly snakes. From Wikipedia: “In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone.”

Bizarre succulents

Euphorbia grandicornis

This is a euphorbia that sure looks like a cactus, but its thorns don’t radiate from central points (aureoles), and the flesh has a milky sap. The Latin means “large horn;” the common name is “cow’s horn.” Plants can form thickets 6 feet tall.

Bizarre succulents

Tillandsia sp.

Air plants (Tillandsia species) are not succulents, but often are paired with them. They have a wonderful tentacled look, and some suggest spiders or sea urchins.

Bizarre succulents

Echeveria ‘Mauna Loa’

This is one of many carruncled echeverias hybridized by Dick Wright. The lava-flow leaves doubtless inspired him to name it after a volcano. Such bumpy echeverias polarize collectors, who tend to love or hate them. I think they’re cool in a weird way, and I like how each cancerous-like mass is slightly different. Definitely a plant that makes you look twice!

Bizarre succulents

Pilosocereus sp.

I turned this photo sideways in my fictional story about sea-sand succulents, so the flowers would appear to grow upright. This cactus is truly blue, and its blooms—especially when they turn black—truly bizarre.

Bizarre succulents

Fenestraria aurantiaca ‘Baby Toes’

I bought my first Baby Toes at the county fair when I was around 20. I put it on the kitchen counter and overwatered it, thereby causing it to rot and die. During the decades since then, I’ve come to realize it wants a few hours of sun daily (lest it elongate), and can tolerate more water than most plants in the “living stones” category (like lithops). The name comes from the Latin for “window,” referring to translucent tissue at the tip.

Bizarre succulents

Euphorbia obesa

When the succulent craze took off, these little fatties became so popular that they’re now scarce…typical of highly desirable succulents that are extremely slow growing. I hope sometime soon we’ll see marvelous nursery inventories of obesas again, like this one I shot in ’07.

Bizarre succulents

Myrtillocactus geometrizans, crested

This is a plant I associate with Jeff Moore of Solana Succulents nursery and the undersea garden he designed at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Jeff, a lifelong resident of Solana Beach, CA, is fond of snorkeling. As a nurseryman specializing in succulents, plants like these reminded him of what he saw underwater, and voila: a trend was born.

Bizarre succulents

Boweia volubis (pregnant onion)

Here’s another succulent that polarizes collectors: Do you love pregnant onions or hate them? The bulbs, which sit atop the soil, have peeling skin and a hole at the top from which frizzy stems emerge. These twine around whatever they can find, then die back. Interesting? Definitely. Beautiful? Uh…maybe not.

Bizarre succulents

Astrophytum ornatum, crested

You may have noticed that many bizarre plants are crested. As I explain on page 199 of Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), “cresting happens when new growth emerges from a line rather than a point…Odd lumpy forms, sometimes but not always caused by cresting, are monstrose.” I love the fang-like spines on this crested astrophytum (so named because it’s star-shaped).

Bizarre succulents

Aloe vanbalenii (Van Balen’s aloe)

Aloe vanbalenii is a fairly common landscape succulent, but it’s seldom this red and compact. As with most succulents that stress to colors of red and orange, this colony has tightened up, forming what looks like a multiheaded squid.


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Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

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Super Succulent Celebration Highlights

Welcome to my booth at the Super Succulent Celebration! The succulents were superb and vendors offered stunning pots and garden decor, but what made the March 23-24 event at Waterwise Botanicals Nursery truly special for me were the people.

Top right: Mom and son model crowns decorated with Sculpey succulents. Center left: The king of succulents, Robin Stockwell. Center: Shirley Kost-Haskell shows her cactus T-shirt to Laura Balaoro, founder of the Succulent Fanatics Facebook groupCenter right: A barrel cactus knitted by Susan Morse blooms with crochet flowers. Lower left: Succulent Fanatic Deana Rae McMillion of Carpenteria, CA. Bottom center: Hannah Eubanks of Design for SerenityLower right: Potter Susan Aach and me.


Upper left: Emily, the Succulent Bride, brought her BFFs. Upper right: Queen Kay decorates her Succulent Coloring Bag. Center: Jason and Sean drove from Arizona (Jason has a tree growing out of his head…my bad). Center right: Succulent celeb Patrick Anderson brought his mom (no, that’s not her). Center: The speaker’s tent and display gardens. Lower left: Sculpey agave. Bottom middle: Succulent princess. Lower right: Talavera pot with succulents, Susan Morse design.


Upper right: Pat, my Saturday helper from Orange County. Center: Coronation of future succuteers. Lower left: Dylan and Kaitlyn of CSG Succulents. Bottom center and right: Oh, the cuteness!


Now on my YouTube Channel: Debra Lee Baldwin Up Close and Personal

I share my past and passions in a fun and candid interview with Tom Jesch, manager and founder of Waterwise Botanicals, during the 2018 Super Succulent Celebration. 

Related info:

Super Succulent Celebration at Waterwise Botanicals (event description) ~ Join me at a super celebration of all things succulent! I’ll be at Waterwise Botanicals nursery both days…[Continue reading]

The Designing with Succulents Resource List ~ These designers and nurseries are in the completely revised and updated second edition of Designing with Succulents...[Continue reading]

San Diego Succulent Sources and Destinations ~ Due to a perfect climate for succulents and a surging demand, San Diego county has a wealth of succulent specialty nurseries…[Continue reading]

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The Easy Way to Paint Watercolors

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When you dilute watercolor paint with liquid light (clear water), you can create an image that’s translucent. Because the white of the paper shines through, the result suggests a sunlit moment in the garden.

I learned this cool technique from San Diego watercolor artist Diane Palley McDonald.

  1. Select a photo that inspires you.
  2. Print the photo on 8-1/2 by 11 paper.
  3. Put the photo on a light table or against a sunny window, and tape a piece of watercolor paper over it.
  4. Using a pencil, lightly trace the photo’s main lines onto the watercolor paper.
  5. Tape the edges of the watercolor paper to a thick rectangle of cardboard.
  6. Mask any bright white lines. (optional)
  7. Have fun painting!

It’s a lot like painting a coloring book page. The worst that can happen is you’ll have to start over, but the hard part of any painting is the drawing, so you can skip that part. I often do two or three paintings of a subject before I’m satisfied.

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See more of my paintings in my succulent watercolor calendar…or paint your own! Most of them also are on my Pinterest page, Succulent Watercolors. I also have a YouTube video showing how I paint a watercolor. Enjoy!


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Got a Pot? Elevate it!

“Everything looks better elevated,” says San Diego succulent designer Diana Clark, who has wood stands custom-made to enhance her potted compositions. Diana, who calls her business “The Perfect Plant” because she pairs vessels found at antique stores or estate sales with a “perfect” succulent, created the plant-pot pairings shown here. As you look at them, ask yourself: Does the stand matter? Would the composition look just as good without it? And if you agree that the stand makes a difference, do you think you might you might try it?

It’s surprising how easy it is to find stands that will work for pots, at thrift stores. Learn more about Diana’s Asian-inspired design aesthetic in this YouTube video I created. And if you’re in the San Diego area, do come to a show-and-sale she’s having in Point Loma November 7-9. I’ll be there Saturday morning, Nov. 8, signing books, and would love to meet you!









For more great succulent plant-pot design ideas, see my bestselling book, Succulent Container Gardens. 

Related info on this site:

DIY Succulent Centerpiece, Step-by-Step
A raised pedestal container garden with a lush collection of succulents looks complicated, but it’s simple once you… [Continue reading]

Where and How to Order Succulents Online

The succulents in my YouTube videos and design projects mostly come from the largest grower of cacti and succulents in the US: Altman Plants—specifically [Continue reading]

Succulent Basics, Must-Do’s and FAQs

Here are the essentials for growing succulents successfully. If all this is new to you, you’ll want to refer to this page often. And even if you’re experienced…[Continue reading] 



Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

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