If you’re planning to design, revamp or evaluate a succulent landscape, here’s what I like and what dismays me about Newport Beach’s grand Civic Center succulent garden. It’s large-scale, but its plusses and minuses apply to waterwise gardens of any size.
The above photo is from my YouTube video, “Expensive Mistakes in a Grand Succulent Garden”
Opened in 2013, the Newport Beach Civic Center graces a coastal community of homes with an average value of $2,000,000. The complex cost $140 million and is a masterpiece of modern architecture within sight of the Pacific. Overlapping, S-shaped awnings atop a series of sleek buildings suggest ocean waves. The multi-acre succulent garden along the complex’s north side is a public park.
It has a nice layout, with wide, serpentine paths that invite strolling and rolling (everything from baby carriages to wheelchairs). There are multiple plantings of large specimens—Dracaena draco, Aloe bainesii, Beaucarnea recurvata and columnar cacti. These likely were mature at installation in order to be in scale with their setting, and doubtless were craned-in at no small expense. Filler plants include agaves, dasylirions, aloes, puyas (a succulent bromeliad), golden barrels, aeoniums, Senecio mandraliscae, and silver-leaved Cotyledon orbiculata. Warm-toned gravel enhances the design, holds moisture in the soil, inhibits weed growth, and lends visual continuity. In light of the fact that structures across the street have water-thirsty lawns and tightly pruned shrubs (landscaping that doesn’t make sense on so many levels), what’s not to love?
Highly toxic euphorbia
Well, Euphorbia resinifera for one thing. I like the mounding growth habit of this African succulent, which suggests a short-spined cactus consisting of squarish, columnar green stems. It grows slowly into ever-expanding colonies. However, this cool-looking plant is quite hot…and not in a good way.
Its milky, resinous sap contains resiniferatoxin, which is similar to capsaicin in peppers but a thousand times hotter. On the Scoville scale, resiniferatoxin ranks at 16 billion units, 4.5 million times hotter than a jalapeno. So if the sap should enter an open wound or eye, the sensation would be like a blow torch. Of course that’s only possible when Euphorbia resinifera grows where someone could fall on it, break its stems, and get scratched by its thorns…like along the downward curve of a pathway in a public garden frequented by kids on scooters, skates and bikes.
A missed opportunity
Another succulent in the garden, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), is far from pathways…no surprise, because it’s obviously unfriendly.
Yet Opuntia species that lack spines are nowhere to be found, and they would have been suitable anywhere. Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, shown below at a nursery, grows tall (upwards of 6 feet), offers a pleasing silhouette of ever-branching ovals, forms a sculptural green backdrop, starts readily from cuttings, gets by on rainfall alone, and is entirely harmless.
Silver swords and serrated leaves
Spare-no-expense plants such as Puya venusta (a succulent bromeliad) and Cleistocactus strausii (a fuzzy columnar cactus) blend together in a surreal, silvery harmony of starbursts and snowy poles. But IMHO they’re a bit too texturally inviting to be at toddler-level.
Yes, of course, parents should teach children not to touch unfamiliar plants, especially any that are spiny, thorny, toothed or bristly. But what about plants that touch kids? Over time, the puyas have become crowded and some, seeking light, have grown horizontally. One had to be cut back from the pathway. Doing so destroyed the plant’s symmetry and bloom potential.
I also wonder if the area that this silver grouping occupies—north-facing, close to the building and beneath its wavy eaves—is sunny enough for puyas to bloom. After all, that’s what they’re known for: eye-catching, truly-blue flowers.
On the plus side, the garden showcases how to mound and topdress soil, use planted islands, and how just a few sculptural succulents can create an intriguing, low-maintenance, low-water landscape.
This is best illustrated by a grouping of Beaucarnea recurvata. (Its common names “ponytail palm,” “elephant’s foot palm” and “bottle palm” are misleading—these tree succulents aren’t palms.) Like many agaves and cacti also in the garden, beaucarneas are from Mexico. They’re easy to come by, inexpensive even in 5-gallon pots, grow fairly rapidly when in the ground (about a foot a year), tolerate mild frosts, and have intriguing Dr. Seuss-like forms. What makes each “succulent” is its bulbous, water-storing base (caudex). In summer, the trees’ topknots produce feathery sprays of cream and pink flowers.
But the most perplexing aspects of the garden are its rows of century plants (Agave americana) that occupy large beds between walkways and street. I suspect that what must have seemed brilliantly economical six years ago has become a maintenance problem. Though quite common and often free for the asking, century plants eventually get as big as Volkswagens and produce numerous offsets (“pups”) from shallow roots.
These large agaves’ thick leaves are wickedly toothed along their margins and tipped in sharp spines. I suspect that after a few years, century plants began encroaching on walkways. The need to prune some of them likely led to the aesthetic decision to trim all of them so they’d look the same.
En masse these chopped agaves resemble a pineapple plantation, but that doesn’t offend me. What does, is that agave leaf pruning and pup removal are labor-intensive. Moreover, many municipalities won’t accept agave green waste—the plants are too fibrous, spiny and slow to decompose. I’m curious how thousands of sliced-off century plant leaves, each nearly as large as its machete-wielding gardener, have been (and will continue to be) disposed of.
There do exist large, statuesque agaves that are not especially treacherous and don’t pup like feral dogs. Two that would have worked well here (had it been possible to source them in quantity) are Agave guiengola and Agave ovatifolia. But using better-behaved agaves is only one alternative. Also from the Southwest US and Mexico are low-maintenance, low-water succulents such as yuccas, dasylirions and hesperaloes. They’re dynamic planted in multiples and don’t bloom-then-die like agaves do.
If I were to give the Newport Beach Civic Center’s succulent garden a letter grade, it would be a C+. I’d like to give it higher, but online info indicates that numerous large and expensive specimens (like Aloe thraskii, a tree succulent) that had been planted early-on, died. Perhaps they couldn’t tolerate being transplanted or were sited incorrectly. Regardless, my sad conclusion is that inadequate horticultural research prior to the installation of this grand succulent garden wasted time, taxpayers’ money and potentially terrific plants.
On this site…
Succulents for Coastal Southern CA Gardens (plant list)
No-Water Succulents for Southern CA (garden of Mark and Cindy Evans, Laguna Beach)
Watch my video about the pros and cons of a large succulent that’s often free:Agave americana