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 some of my own choices. (More to come!)
Btw, 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: I was the only one who 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
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 served with afternoon tea). When ladyfingers turn monstrose, they enter an entirely different world…that of horror movies. Anyone need a couple of brains?
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.
Recently at his nursery in Fallbrook, CA, succulent expert Don Newcomer showed me a rare columnar, spineless cactus from Mexico: Lophocereus schottii (totem pole cactus)…[Continue reading]
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” subsection of a genus best known for jade plants. What makes such different-shaped plants similar are the flowers, which to botanists are THE defining characteristic.
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.
Medusa euphorbia in flower.
Medusa euphorbias are oddities even when not in bloom. Their stems radiate from a central point in a Fibonacci spiral, forming what looks like scaly snakes. “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.” (From Wikipedia.)
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.
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.
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 different. Definitely a plant that makes you look twice!
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.
Comparisons to confections come to mind with this marvelously swirly succulent. Not all members of this species of Kalanchoe have loopy leaves, so perhaps this specimen is a cultivar (I shot it at Roger’s Gardens nursery in Corona del Mar, CA). Regardless, to keep Kalanchoe luciae compact, don’t let it bloom.
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 stretch, rot and die. During the decades since, I’ve come to realize it wants a few hours of sun daily, and although sensitive, 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 each tip.
When the succulent craze took off, these little fatties became so popular that they’ve since become 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 shot in ’07.
Myrtillocactus geometrizans, crested
I associate this 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.
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…perhaps not.
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.” The fang-like spines on this crested astrophytum are icing on the cake.
Aloe vanbalenii (Van Balen’s aloe)
Aloe vanbalenii is a fairly common landscape succulent, but it’s seldom this red and compact. As with many succulents that stress to colors of red and orange, this colony has tightened up, creating what looks like a multiheaded squid.
Wooly filaments provide this high-elevation cactus with warmth in winter and sun-protection in summer. And if that weren’t off-putting enough, it’s armed with spines too. Those odd scaly protrusions are flower buds.