Bizarre succulents

Professor Mordant’s Sea-Sand Succulents

Every year as Halloween approaches, I recall my visit to Professor Mordant’s remote island to tour his collection of sea-sand succulents. The island was rumored to be an eerie, inhospitable place—a volcanic outcropping devoid of vegetation, nothing like the mainland resort where I and other garden photojournalists had been sunning ourselves in style.

I alone 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.

The moon had risen on All-Hallow’s Eve by the time the boatman set me ashore on the island’s rocky beach. Serpentine foam rustled black pebbles, and a chill wind brought the scent of seaweed and something seductive. Vanilla? Surely not.

The professor, his black cape billowing, was silhouetted by the full moon. Beyond jagged rocks, a greenhouse glinted. If he were disappointed that I came alone, Mordant gave no indication. Gesturing grandly, in a voice silken and slightly accented, he explained that his greenhouse was semi-submerged by the tides. “It contains the largest collection of sea-sand flora anywhere in the world,” he said proudly. “It’s low tide, the perfect time to see it.”

Bizarre succulents

His bony fingers steadied my elbow as I stepped over tide pools that mirrored the moon, and what appeared to be brain coral. “Furred eel cactus,” Mordant murmured, but the surf blurred his words. “Fur seals?” I asked. One, near my ankle, uncoiled. OK, not a seal.

Bizarre succulents

“Numerous sea-sand succulents appear furry,” the professor continued. “The adaptation enables them to trap and ingest plankton.” His lips pursed as though he, too, might enjoy plankton now and then.

Mordant explained that many of the plants in his collection—like these fanged clams—were nocturnal and beginning to awaken.

Bizarre succulents

Rusty hinges groaned as he opened the greenhouse door. Inside the air was dank and vanilla-scented. What at first I thought was frost on window panes were salt encrustations. It was a relief to be out of the cold wind. And when I saw sea-sand specimens on rock ledges and waist-high teak benches…oh! I felt as gleeful as an archeologist in King Tut’s tomb.

Bizarre succulents

Onion-like orbs bobbed in a tank of water. “When dormant, they rise to the surface,” the professor told me. “In the open ocean, they might float for years before washing ashore.”

Bizarre succulents

I gasped. “Surely those aren’t green sea spheres? I thought they were extinct! That is, if they ever existed.”

“Yes. They’re rarer than ambergris, and more valuable—to collectors.”

Did this explain the bulging burlap sack that he had handed to the boatman? I glanced at the professor’s angular profile. Was it possible this hermit was wealthier than any pharaoh?

He squinted at a sea-sand succulent that had bubbly, cancerous-like growths. “Careful. That’s a Pele plant.”

I drew back. “Pay-lay?”

“Named for the mythical volcano goddess of Hawaii. The plant is bioluminescent when submerged. Out of water, it exudes a substance that can burn skin.”

Bizarre succulents

I felt droplets on my arm and looked nervously for the source. Perhaps that azure plant with figlike fruit? The vanilla smell was cloying and I felt oddly hungry and weak. Mordant grasped my arm. “For heaven’s sake, don’t inhale! Mermaids give this to victims to subdue them. Salt-water taffy was named for it, but of course is very different.”

Bizarre succulents

So many wondrous things! Floral jellyfish with delicate tentacles…

Bizarre plants

…a sea euphorbia in full bloom

Euphorbia caput-medusae

…a coal-black gaster-lobster

Bizarre succulents
…a crested reef ariocarpus

Bizarre succulents


…windowpane coral (Fenestraria aquaticus)

Bizarre succulents

Myrtillocactus ‘Whale Spout’, crested

Bizarre succulents


Aloe ‘Atlantis’

Bizarre succulents

Crassula ‘Sea Snakes’

Bizarre succulents

…and an impressive colony of tartan sand urchins (“sea floor euphorbia”).

What Mordant called “blister plants” were everywhere. I might not have noticed them, so closely did they resemble pebbles. “They’re the largest single-celled flora,” he said of plump buttons each about an inch in diameter. “This group is undergoing mitosis.”  When I pressed one with my fingertip, I expected the plump cell to yield like a water balloon, but it was firm.

Bizarre succulents

“What genus do blister plants belong to?”

He sighed. “Mordant,” my dear, “Mordant.”

I hope you enjoyed my Halloween spoof. For the true names of the plants, which are primarily cacti and succulents from very dry climates, go to my Bizarre Succulents page. — Debra


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It’s the Succulent Extravaganza!

It’s the Succulent Extravaganza! Every year, this fun and enriching event is the last Friday and Saturday of September, from 8 to 4, at Succulent Gardens Nursery. Location: 2133 Elkhorn Rd., Castroville, CA 95012 (in northern CA near San Francisco, between Carmel and Santa Cruz). Free.

The annual Succulent Extravaganza, started in 2010, is one of the largest succulent-themed events in the world. Attending it is a wonderful opportunity to enlarge your knowledge of succulents, view and acquire gorgeous specimen plants, tour a premier specialty nursery, learn from expert growers and top designers, and mingle with fellow enthusiasts.

Succulent Extravaganza

The Succulent Fanatics, a Facebook group founded by San Jose master gardener Laura Balaoro, host a display table with succulent-themed compositions made by members. It’s a fun gathering spot, and everyone’s welcome whether you’re in the group or not. Because it’s international and has thousands of members, you never know whom you might meet.

Succulent Extravaganza

This dish garden seen on the Succulent Fanatics table, by Danielle Romero, has a sansevieria that emphasizes a lovely red-edged aeonium. Danielle and husband Michael Romero professionally design succulent gardens in the Los Angeles area.

Every year there are new things to see and numerous photo ops…

Succulent extravaganza

For example, who could resist having their photo taken within a special succulent frame?

Succulent Extravaganza

Laura Balaoro is known for decorating her hat or visor with succulents. Discover out how she does it, and get design inspiration to make your own. 

Succulent Extravaganza

This giant succulent heart was the hit of a past Succulent Extravaganza. The event originated when succulent expert Robin Stockwell owned the nursery. He has since retired, and new owners Megan and John Rodkin have continued the Extravaganza tradition with quality plants, displays and photogenic, inspirational ideas.

Succulent Extravaganza

Horticulturist-nurseryman Aaron Ryan’s propagation demonstrations typically have standing room only. Impressed by Aaron’s knowledge, I did a post about it and show his methods in several YouTube videos.

Succulent Extravaganza

Another year, the succulent globe that Robin Stockwell made for the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show was on display. Nothing like it had been done before, and I think you’ll agree it takes vertical gardens to a whole new level! In the foreground, with Robin and wife Sanne looking on, San Diego floral designer Marialuisa Kaprielian demonstrates how to wire succulent rosettes.

Succulent Extravaganza
This may be my favorite Extravaganza photo. A young member of the Rodkin family greets visitors in front of a big succulent spiral made of sedums and sempervivums.

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LA’s Kids Day Features Succulents

One of the most popular areas of the annual Los Angeles Drought Tolerant Plant Festival is the “Kid’s Day” section, with fun educational exhibits and activities for children. Volunteers are members of the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society (LACSS), a community-oriented organization that’s been around 80+ years.


The event is held the second weekend of June. Here’s how the exhibit tables looked one year before the kids poured in.

This little girl is the granddaughter of LACSS member Kathleen Misko. When I asked Veronica what she liked best about Kid’s Day, she replied, “The videos, because I’m in them!”

I sure wish I could have gone to an event like this when I was a child. Or, for that matter, when I began learning about succulents as an adult! Below, volunteers double-check everything.IMG_7967_A_R




IMG_7994_A_RUpon arrival, each child received a bag of items: mini wooden saguaros to paint, a pot to fill with small rooted plants, and a wine cork with a magnet on the back to hold tiny cuttings.


IMG_7974_A_RIt was delightful to watch the volunteers—many of them grandparents—assist kids pot-up the succulents they’d selected as parents proudly looked on. See what it’s all about ~ enjoy my 2.5-min. video.


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Highlights of the Los Angeles Drought Tolerant Plant Festival
At the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society Festival, I managed to smile despite sitting on a cactus cOUCH. [Continue reading]
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The Colors of Rancho La Puerta

Rancho La Puerta health and fitness spa in Tecate, Baja California, across the border east of San Diego, offers the best of Mexico’s food, climate and ambience. It’s also famous for mature gardens that offer a wonderfully immersive experience. The Ranch is a great getaway within half a day’s drive from nearly anywhere in SoCa. Amid the lush landscaping are guest casitas (bungalows), gyms, library, gift shop, dining hall, and much more. Ornamental plants include Mediterraneans such as rosemary, Australian trees (melaleucas), native oaks and palms, and succulents large and small. The majority are minimally watered (or not at all) and are well suited to the region’s arid climate. Below are a few favorite photos from a recent visit. Bienvenidos al Rancho!

In the lobby, stained glass windows by famed Julian artist/sculptor James Hubbell overlook a cactus-and-agave boulder garden.

Agave shawii (Shaw’s agave) is native to the Baja peninsula. When backlit, teeth along leaf margins glow shades of yellow, orange and red.

One reason I went in April was to see the Aloe striata (coral aloes) in bloom. They’re beautifully juxtaposed with a similarly red-orange ice plant.

Incorporated into the door of the art studio is a stained-glass-and-brass butterfly.

A mosaic by artists Linda Weill and Tilly Nylin near the concierge office depicts a garden of cacti and succulents. That’s a scrub jay at lower right.

Another mosaic holds a blackboard with inspirational sayings that change daily. Its top echoes the outline of mountains nearby.

At La Cocina Que Canta (the Kitchen that Sings), dining tables are decorated with Mexican textiles and folk art.

Want to see more? Be sure to watch my YouTube video, “The Succulents of Rancho La Puerta.”

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Even if you live in drought-parched Southern CA, garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as hard to come by as you might think…[Continue reading]
Agaves are rosette-shaped succulents native to the Americas. There are dozens of species of Agave… [Continue reading]
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Succulent Extravaganza Highlights, 2017

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Members of the Succulent Fanatics 2 Facebook Group take advantage of a hanging frame planted with sempervivums and echeverias. A perfect photo-op!

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights ~ The 7th annual Succulent Extravaganza (Fri-Sat, Sept. 29-30) at Succulent Gardens Nursery in Castroville, CA drew about 1,000 visitors a day. Not bad for a relatively small wholesale/retail nursery out in the boonies 100 miles south of San Francisco. There’s an energy there, some might say a vortex, that whirls visitors into a state of enchantment.

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Debra Lee Baldwin and Hannah Eubanks

Hannah Eubanks, designer Laura Eubanks‘ daughter, was my assistant and took lots of footage of event highlights and my presentations. During the Extravaganza, Hannah posted short videos on my Instagram and Facebook pages. I’ll soon release longer, edited versions on YouTube. To be notified of new releases, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Although the greenhouses themselves, viewed from outside, are about as pretty as quonset huts (which they resemble) there’s true magic inside—rows and rows of perfectly grown echeverias, aloes, kalanchoes, haworthias, sedums, sempervivums and more.

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Much of the fun of returning year after year is seeing old friends and making new ones. The staff is friendly and welcoming, plant enthusiasts come from near and far, stellar speakers like Brian Kemble of the Ruth Bancroft Garden share their knowledge. Nursery founder and fellow book author Robin Stockwell was there, as were many delightful members of the Facebook group “Succulent Fanatics 2” founded by San Jose designer Laura Balaoro.

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Laura Balaoro of the Succulent Fanatics 2 Facebook group, with her snorkeling-themed succulent display

Laura’s also known for her stunning succulent decorated hats. (See my article about her in Country Gardens.) I think she outdid herself on this one, don’t you?

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Laura Balaoro’s sea-themed, succulent decorated hat


Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

A barn door’s peeling paint makes a great backdrop for this sempervivum-planted square

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

All sizes and shapes of containers suitable for planting are available at the nursery. They seem to have the best selection of wooden ones anywhere.


Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

IMHO, the nursery’s potted succulent gardens were better than ever this year

Also at the 2017 Extravaganza, I launched my new book, the completely revised and updated second edition of Designing with Succulents. We sold out the first day.

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

Audiences for my presentations were enthusiastic and engaged.

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

A speaker’s dream! SRO!

When it seemed the Extravaganza couldn’t get any better, my book’s publisher Timber Press provided a succulent-decorated cake!

Succulent Extravaganza Highlights

The cake, by Sweet Reba’s of Carmel, CA, combines succulents with books

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