Garden store horrors (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Silly Succulents and Garden Store Horrors

Succulents that make me want to scream are proliferating at my local garden center...which I'm now calling The Big Box of Horrors. I suspect these appeal to kids and newbies who are unaware that fake-and-flashy succulents are doomed to fail, and also to anyone who assumes if a plant's for sale, it must be OK.

Clown-Nose Cacti

No surprise, succulent lovers sneer at cacti sold with phony flowers attached. Yet these were the least of the offenders I found. What's not dreadful about them are their prices: $4 for a small (2-inch-pot) cactus and $7 for a larger (3.5-inch). For a starter assortment, one could do worse. Besides, fake flowers peel off easily (they're glued on). Even so, the concept---which has been around forever---smacks of bait-and-switch and implies that some shoppers are truly stupid.

Cacti with fake flowers (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cacti with fake flowers

Kvetch-Worthy "Kakti"

I know you'd never buy a succulent painted purple, blue, pink, silver or red. They remind me of shore birds that need oil cleaned from their feathers. But what if a sweet grandchild gives you one? Signage says the "artificial coloring" does no harm, and plants outgrow it. Indeed, some were already greening at their centers. Btw, despite a label that too-cutely calls them Kosmic Kactus, they're not cacti but rather haworthias, which---by no fault of their own---are among the few succulents that'll survive minimal sun exposure.

Painted haworthias (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Painted haworthias

Lollipop Cactus

Next among the eye-rollers are moon cacti, cheery little gymnocalyciums in candy colors. A generic label advises they're "High light plants." Well yes, they're grafted onto a cactus rootstock that absolutely requires light---the more the better. However, their spherical tops contain no chlorophyll, so they can't handle sun without burning. To be fair, moon cacti can look cool in some design applications and wouldn't offend me as party favors---which at $6 apiece is a possibility. Savvy shoppers realize that these itty-bitties are short-lived and consider them annuals.

Gymnocalycium mihanovichii (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Gymnocalycium mihanovichii (moon cactus, hotheads)

Sneaky Meanies

Eve's needle amid aloes (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Eve's Needle amid aloes

Seeing an invasive cholla tucked amid a nice assortment of small aloes (Aloe brevifolia) made me gasp. 'Eve's Needle' (Austrocylindropuntia subulata) hides vicious spines within green sheathes disguised as slender leaves. Unlike the sillies mentioned previously, this one is all business. Plant it in your garden and it becomes a dense thicket that's difficult and dangerous to remove. Native to western South America, it especially likes Southern CA, where it spreads rapidly.

Opuntia microdasys bunny ears (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Opuntia microdasys (bunny ears)

A succulent that should be banned (indeed, is illegal in Queensland) is cute Opuntia microdasys "bunny ears." This polka-dot paddle cacti can has tufts of glochids---tiny spines with hooked tips that detach easily. Touch a fuzzy pad and OW! (To remove glochids, try coating them with rubber cement; let dry, peel, and hopefully they'll come off along with it.) Don't let small children, clueless friends, pets or livestock near it. Better yet: Don't buy it. 


Don't Blame Yourself

Initially I was pleasantly surprised to see portulaca, a floriferous trailing succulent good for hanging baskets and flower beds. Then I remembered it's one of the few annual succulents. It dies in winter, a mere two months away.

Portulaca (c) Debra Lee Baldwin


An Evil Weed

When I noticed a non-succulent weed---one I've battled for decades---I exclaimed, "Oh, no!" It's a type of asparagus fern with spiny stems, frowsy leaves, and round red berries. In a bad-hair way, it's not terrible in terraces. But don't let its berries fall off. Whatever cranny they roll into, they'll produce offspring that, below the surface, plump into marble-sized corms. These send forth new plants that are impossible to get rid of short of Round-Up.

An asparagus fern that's an invasive weed

Pretty but Pricey

On the plus side, I saw a colorful selection of Kalanchoe blossfeldiana---a bullet-proof succulent with shiny, dark green leaves and masses of hot-hued blooms. It's also sold in supermarkets. I briefly considered getting a few orange ones to contrast with my garden's blue senecio, but at $15 apiece...meh.

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana

Speaking of blue senecio, I saw the plant's giant version: Skyscraper Senecio from Sunset and Southern Living Plants (Curio ficoides 'Mount Everest'). This upright beauty is a rarity, so it was a happy find. Although pricey at $19 for an 8-inch pot, its five, 2-foot stems potentially offer a dozen cuttings. Plus, including it here lets me end my woeful song on a positive note.

Large upright senecio (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Skyscraper Senecio

Kindly Let Us Know

Do you have succulents or nursery plants in your garden that you absolutely would NOT plant again? Do tell us in the comments!

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Debra Lee Baldwin (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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As a succulent garden consultant, I often see these dozen common landscaping mistakes made by well-intended homeowners. Correcting them makes a big difference aesthetically. Do any apply to you? If not, applause!

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Barrel cactus fell over (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

25 Succulent Mistakes and Solutions

My what-not-to-do’s are simple to avoid, but not necessarily easy to remedy. A smart succulent owner learns what can be expensive to fix, might cause prized plants to look dreadful, and could even kill them.

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Enjoyed this article? Please share it!


  1. Audrey Lorden on September 9, 2023 at 9:52 am

    I have a decent sized Opuntia Santa Rita in a tall pot. When we play stick ball with tennis balls and a ball lands in one, we exclaim “Oh, purple cactus!”. Plus there is a newish little dog around, who so far seems impervious .The lavender to hot purple color is so beautiful. What to do with this poor plant?

    • Debra on September 9, 2023 at 1:52 pm

      Hi Audrey — Sounds like a terrific specimen, but maybe it could use a better location? I had to get rid of my ‘Baby Rita’ which was forever in the way. I hope I didn’t come across as not liking cacti…most are beautiful in their own way, especially backlit, and are highly collectible. It’s just that ‘Eve’s Needle’ has started to encroach on my neighborhood, including a bike trail, where it falls over after a rain storm. I think it positioned itself on a blind corner on purpose. Plus it put my hairdresser out of business after she tried to prune it and got a needle under her thumbnail. She reopened after multiple painful surgeries.

  2. Matt on September 9, 2023 at 10:11 am

    Wonderfully presented and thoughtfully written, this article provides useful perspective on a variety of succulent (and other) ‘sabotagers’. Living in the desert southwest, I am pleased with your specific warnings on ‘bunny ears’ cacti (I’ve dealt with their masses of stinging tiny spines); and especially the nasty chollas (personally, I don’t think anyone should consider aiding and abetting any variety of those evil plants)! THANK YOU for all you do to inform, educate, and entertain.

  3. Mariel Dennis, Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society on September 9, 2023 at 11:29 am

    I share your horror of all glochids and I have purged opuntias from my garden. I only keep two “Sant Rita” purple prickly pears in honor of my dad who lived near Tucson where they are native and I love purple! However I planted them in large pots inserted in the middle of raised beds where they can be admired from a distance! I no longer buy Kalanchoe blossfeldiana. Despite their seductive fun colors, they turn into mealie bug magnets and don’t even last a season. Sigh!

  4. Teri on September 9, 2023 at 11:34 am

    I was just at a nursery yesterday where I saw some poor painted succulents on the clearance rack. Apparently there are plenty of plant lovers like me who don’t buy them–when will somebody figure that out!.

  5. TARI Colbry, Little Succulent Shop on September 9, 2023 at 3:23 pm

    I’m relieved I’m not alone in thinking negatively about these Box Store Horrors. Terrible!

    Thank you for always bringing us great info, education and fun. You’re a blessing to our community!

    • Debra on September 9, 2023 at 8:16 pm

      Aw Tari, I totally feel the same about you! I’m so glad you have the energy to shop, show and send succulents to people too far away to go to succulent specialty nurseries here in San Diego County. Ha-ha, I just imagined for a moment you doing one of your Live Sales from a big-box garden center. LOL!

      • Jean Sadler on September 10, 2023 at 1:23 pm

        I have an Eve’s Needle planted in the ground along with other succulents and have had it in the ground for 3 years. It is a favorite of mine because it is such an unusual looking plant with lots of fans on it. I respect the plant and its thorns and take great care when removing unwanted debris on the plant. I had no idea that it can get so big and am wondering if I should trim it back and if so, how to trim it. Do you really think I should remove it from my succulent garden?
        I would have loved to have sent a photo with this comment but did not see a way to do so.
        I loved this article and totally agree about the ugly painted cactI! Thanks for all your informative videos!

        • Debra on September 10, 2023 at 2:36 pm

          Hi Jean — It has “lots of fans on it”? So it’s crested? Gosh you should keep it then. It sounds unusual, beautiful and probably harmless (crested plants tend to grow slowly, so it’s not likely to take over). Just goes to show, there’s an exception to everything!

  6. Timothy Wheeler on September 9, 2023 at 9:19 pm

    Thank you, Debra, for alerting us to some pretty but problematic additions to our succulent gardens. I’ve learned mostly the hard way, through experience. I think you’ve previously mentioned Euphorbia tirucalli as a true hazard, but I’ll reiterate that warning here. The milky sap of this wide-ranging genus is toxic to skin and eyes and can even cause permanent visual impairment on contact. This beautiful succulent, including the spectacular ‘Sticks on Fire’ variety, is dangerous to have anywhere near foot traffic, pets, and kids. After I became aware of its danger, I had my experienced succulent gardener carefully remove mine before it got too big.

    • Debra on September 10, 2023 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Timothy — Thanks for the reminder. All plants in the genus Euphorbia (which is huge, and includes poinsettias) have milky sap that can cause an allergic reaction, the worst being Euphorbia resinifera, which happens to be an excellent ornamental landscape plant. Basically it all comes down to awareness, which is why there’s extensive information on succulent euphorbias here on this site. The Euphorbia page includes a comprehensive gallery of species and two YouTube videos—one that shows how to prune the one you refer to (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’).

  7. Denise Dewire on September 10, 2023 at 6:58 am

    Great article… I HATE those painted plants, but have purchased a few of the cacti with the flowers because they do pop off easily and were a good price. Ha ha.. Tari do a live sale from Big Box… that was a good one!!

  8. Pat Roach on September 17, 2023 at 2:49 pm

    Great article! Always informative, well-written and an enjoyable read!
    Um, I do admit that I failed to heed to your warnings about those cute bunny ears cacti. However, I DID listen to you when I had glochids embedded in my hands and you came to my rescue with the rubber cement recommendation. And yes, it!

    • Debra on October 4, 2023 at 8:16 am

      LOL dear Pat, you get enthralled by how a plant looks and then it bites you. Yes, back away from Bunny Ears!

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