Fire, Succulents and South Africa

Like the American West, Australia and elsewhere, Africa is having an increase in devastating wildfires. Numerous succulents are native to the continent, and in the south the climate is similar to that of coastal and southern California.

Recently I heard from Talfryn Harris, a fire manager in Johannesburg who was working on a presentation for their succulent society on the role of the plants in fire protection. “Last year we had very destructive fires on our south coast where many homes were lost,” he wrote. He asked permission to show my YouTube video, Do Succulents Catch Fire?
Of course I said yes, but added, “I don’t want to give the impression that succulents can serve as a wildfire barrier that guarantees a home won’t burn. Plants that store water in their leaves and are slow to catch fire serve merely as a way to lessen the threat. Succulents really do need to surround a house, as shown in my other wildfire video: Succulents as Firebreak. There are so many factors that come into play, wind especially. I compare myself to a meerkat, the way I watch the wind during fire season here in Southern CA.”
Later Mr. Harris sent me his PowerPoint presentation (below). It describes the impact that global climate change has on wildfire, gives practical tips for protecting homes, and explains why succulents are a good landscaping choice for at-risk areas.
He also suggested that “a useful fire-wise succulent that I would add for South Africa is Carpobrotus edulis (aka Mesembryanthemum edule) which is great as a fire-wise and medicinal succulent lawn.  However I believe it is invasive in Australia and California. The African people in the townships around Jo’burg call it ‘chips’ because of the resemblance to what you call french fries. One medicinal use is to infuse a flower in a jar of honey and then after 4 months use that for colds and sore throats. It is also a very useful remedy for the oral thrush that accompanies HIV/AIDS.”
I felt I had to inform him that when I was researching my article for the Los Angeles Times about how succulents helped protect the Schaefer house back in ’07, a fire fighter told me that dry plant material beneath carprobrotus leaves can smolder for days, causing flare-ups and endangering anyone who walks through it.
Have you wondered why wildfires are burning hotter than ever and causing unprecedented devastation? In his book, “Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West” (Timber Press), acclaimed nature writer Gary Ferguson explains why fire suppression and chronic drought have created a dire situation, and the ways nature responds in the aftermath of wildfire.

Related info on my site:

Dr. Camille Newton of Bonsall, CA, texted me immediately after the Lilac Fire to say that eight homes on her street had been destroyed, yet hers was unharmed. “Succulents saved the day,” she said.  Such reports aren’t unprecedented. Suzy Schaefer’s succulent garden in Rancho Santa Fe “saved our home,” she told me (and national media)… [Continue reading]


My top six firewise succulents are quite common and start easily from cuttings. If you live in a fire-prone, backcountry area, consider them one more weapon in your arsenal against wildfire by planting them around your property’s perimeter. View my 6-minute video: Do Succulents Burn? Compare the combustibility of jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and… [Continue reading]


Firewise Landscaping with Succulents Succulents have become in-demand landscape plants in California because of their beauty, ease of care, and ability to withstand drought by storing moisture in their leaves. Not surprisingly, the plants are the fastest growing segment of the nursery marketplace. And now there’s another, little-known reason for homeowners to grow these fleshy-leaved plants…[Continue reading]


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  1. Donna on June 9, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    Hello Debra:
    I live in Marin County, Nor Cal. I am kinda fuming right now. Just received our “wildfire hazard evaluation notice” from and our local fire department – accessible online. During the last few years I’ve made a huge investment of time and resources to cultivate a fire resistant garden in our front yard. The garden design was mostly motivated by the drought, but more recently, motivated by fire safety. I have tons of fire retardant succulents such as aeoniums, euphorbias, etc. and fire resistant plants that get high fire resistance ratings in Australia including kangaroo paw, phormium and leucadendron. The ONE defensible space issue we must address “immediately” is to “add spacing between ground cover plants”. According to the explanation, space between each plant should be “2 x” the width of the plant. As a gardener, you see why I am PO’d. I’d have to get rid of MOST of my garden! A garden that was designed as a fire resistant area because it is located in Zone 1 in relation to our house. Obviously, education is needed here. Succulents should be encouraged not discouraged when these professionals inspect! Any suggestions on how to approach this? I’m so fired up (forgive the pun) about this I’m ready to make succulent firebreaks my new mission for dedicating my time. I’m recently retired……
    Have you had any success with this type of education? Have other gardeners run into similar issues? Sorry this is so wordy. Thought this issue should be on your radar.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on June 12, 2022 at 4:53 pm

      Hi Donna — I don’t blame you. The good news is you know you’re in the right, and being right is powerful. Although agencies can seem impersonal, there are human beings on the receiving end. I suggest you write a polite response, take photos, and give a reasonable, well-researched explanation. Offer a sensible, practical game plan. Quote authorities with credibility—perhaps other, more experienced fire-prevention organizations. Respectfully advise the source of the notice that education is obviously of the utmost importance, and you’re happy to volunteer to help them get the word out. Surely they can see it would benefit all concerned, including themselves, because they’re underfunded and woefully understaffed. The reality is people are not going to turn their costly, (finally!) mature landscapes into wastelands, and there do exist low-water plants that don’t transmit flames. Saving homes is extremely commendable, but it’ll be an uphill battle if they’re perceived as panicked and unreasonable. They may find that such notices are impossible to enforce if the public isn’t on board—hundreds of thousands of households with owners who are merely annoyed by the notice and have a “Yeah? Make me” attitude. The irony is that fire season is already upon us, and compliance takes time…as do inspections, formal warnings, fines, and trying to collect fines. A do-or-die approach is more of a turnoff than what might actually be effective in the long run. All of this, come to think of it, smacks of mis-management. One wonders who’s funding it, and if they’re aware of the ineptitude.

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