Recently a writer with The New Yorker asked me what people need to know about dudleyas and the plants’ likelihood of survival out of the wild. She was researching the recurring thefts of Dudleya farinosa, a succulent native to the Northern CA coast.
It seems that in Korea, China and Japan, succulents are hugely popular among housewives, students, and other residents of small spaces. Dudleyas, related to echeverias (rosette succulents from Mexico) are collectible novelties that sell for up to $100 apiece. Some say their appeal is their resemblance to lotus flowers.
No plant—succulent or otherwise—is free for the taking, even from public land. Yet poachers fly into San Francisco, rent cars, and stop by Home Depot for cardboard boxes on their way to California’s rocky seaside cliffs. They slither through mud, dislodge boulders, rip silvery succulents from near-vertical perches, then scurry off to a post office.
The CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has increased its vigilance, and with the help of the CA Native Plant Society, has been keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior—like people emerging from hiking trails carrying ropes and bulging backpacks from which telltale stems and roots protrude. But by the time the poachers are caught, the damage has been done.
“It’s senseless,” I told the The New Yorker‘s “California Chronicles” columnist. “It harms our coastal ecology, makes it easier for weeds to become established, and kills beautiful plants.” Instead of flourishing where people can see them for years to come, “those stolen dudleyas will just turn squishy and rot.”
How to Keep Dudleyas Alive
The common name for dudleya is “liveforever” because some can live 50 to 100 years—in the right spot. Wild plants, like wild animals, do best in their native habitats.
Dudleya farinosa, like many Dudleya species, requires near-vertical rocky hillsides, plenty of sun but not too much, and no summer water. It also likes moist ocean air. Most noticeable in larger species such as D. brittonii (native to Mexico)and D. pulverulenta (Southern CA), flowers that form on the tips of long bloom spikes produce seeds that fall far enough away from the mother ship that her offspring don’t compete with her for nutrients.
By summer’s end, after months without rainfall, a dudleya’s oldest, lower leaves have dried. They still cling to the stem, protecting it from heat, sun and desiccation. The plant hunkers down, goes dormant, and folds its upper leaves over its vital core. A dudleya during the season of Santa Ana winds looks like a pile of withered foliage, maybe with a few dry flower stems sticking out. It’s tempting to try and revive a sleeping dudleya, yet if you water it, you risk it rotting.
Dudleyas grown by nurseries are domesticated compared to those on Cliffside’s and better suited to residential gardens. Plant them in a rock wall or at an angle in gritty, fast-draining soil like decomposed granite, so water drains away from their roots. It’s best not to grow dudleyas in pots because water can pool around their stems. Inland, protect them from hot afternoon sun in summer. The powdery coating (farina) that makes certain species silvery-white acts as a sunscreen by reflecting UV rays, so it’s best not to touch the leaves. Not to mention that doing so will leave fingerprints.
Kelly Griffin’s Dudleyas
I suggested that The New Yorker interview dudleya expert Kelly Griffin, succulent product development manager for Altman Plants, the largest grower of succulents and cacti in the US. Griffin, a renowned breeder of aloes and agaves, is also an avid dudleya hybridizer. In my recent YouTube video, he shows the Dudleya cultivars he’s testing in his own garden.
They’re indeed beautiful: Large, lush, floriferous and full of vigor. Should the unthinkable happen and native dudleyas become rare, Griffin’s hybrids are certain to live on in cultivated gardens. This isn’t unprecedented, in fact it’s the case with other widely grown succulents no longer in the wild, like Aloe vera and Echinocactus grusonii (golden barrel cactus). However, it’s uncertain whether Northern CA’s plundered dudleya population will ever be the same.
In San Diego County where I live, dudleyas are fairly easy to spot. Steep, rocky escarpments within a few miles of the Pacific are potential habitats. After winter rains, the plants plump and produce new growth. They do best where they don’t have to compete with weeds, and they tend not to face south because it’s too hot in summer. When driving the Del Dios Highway between Escondido and Del Mar, look for silvery stars clinging to rocky outcroppings. It’s gratifying that dudleyas within sight of thousands of daily commuters are out of reach. There’s almost no place to park, and even if a poacher dared, drivers whizzing past would be witnesses.
Read the New Yorker article: Succulent Smugglers Descend on California.
See my latest YouTube video: How to Keep Dudleyas Alive.
Listen to my interview on Radio New Zealand—a result of The New Yorker article.