Sunset’s Midcentury Succulent Cover Story

“Once in the ’90s and again in the late ’20s, gardeners have turned to succulents with an intensity amounting to a craze. Now they are coming back into favor again, and this time it looks like something more than a temporary infatuation.” — Sunset magazine, June, 1954*

Fifty years ago, each hefty, half-inch-thick issue of Sunset magazine cost 20 cents and brought days of useful, entertaining reading about gardening, food and travel. My parents subscribed, so they no doubt read the June, 1954 cover story about succulents.

I’ve always assumed they surrounded their Southern CA ranch home with succulents because cuttings were free for the asking, and my father didn’t want to water the garden more than absolutely necessary.

An ad for Fiberglas awnings shows an idealized midcentury patio

But was it possible that my parents were onto…a trend? Well, no. The six-page cover story is mostly about container gardens for “the outdoor living areas of the Western house: its patios, lanais, decks, and paved areas…And if ever a plant was made for a pot, it’s the succulent.” Containers didn’t appear on my folks’ patio until the ’70s. With geraniums.

The succulent article’s 25 photos are B&W except for those shown on the cover. In 4,000 words, Sunset editors give an overview of succulents and their care, design ideas, and a “beginner’s collection” of about 50 varieties. Most are still fairly common, but Euphorbia valida is now E. meloformisGasteria maculata is now G. bicolor; and Cotyledon hemisphaerica is Adromischus hemisphaericus.

Mentioned but nearly unknown today are Echeveria rosea grandis and Sedum amecamecanum. “Do you mean Sedum americanum?” asked Google. Uh, not unless Sunset made one whopping typo. I found out that this stutter-named sedum has “fragile leaves”—doubtless why it’s not much in demand.

Kalanchoe flammea” in the illustrations sure looks like Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, shown here. Don’t you wish it had kept its earlier, more descriptive name?

Aloe arborescens (left), Aeonium haworthii (right)

The jades, aeoniums, aloes, ice plants and cacti in my parents’ garden were not necessarily those in the article—they grew Aloe arborescens and  Aeonium haworthii, for example. Perhaps even back then these were so common, the few succulent specialty nurseries that existed didn’t bother to offer them. (Hence a reason not to mention them, lest readers write in and say they’d tried to find them but couldn’t.)

Although it’s shown in the article, perhaps Sunset shouldn’t have bothered. The defining characteristic of Drosanthemum floribundum is lost in black and white.

As a little girl, I was proud to pronounce the name of this searing pink ice plant: “mesembryanthemum.” And I would be still, except it’s since become drosanthemum.

Now about that astonishing statement, “Once in the ’90s and again in the late ’20s, gardeners have turned to succulents with an intensity amounting to a craze…” Aren’t you curious what happened in the 1890s and 1920s? I am. Hm. I’ll see what I can find out…

*Special thanks to friend, colleague, and retired Sunset Senior Garden Editor Kathy Brenzel for presenting me with the 54-year-old issue. In case you’re wondering, all its content is copyrighted, so apart from short excerpts, I’d need permission to share it.  There’s no link to it because it’s not online.

Related info on this site:

Certain low-water annuals and perennials are my “nostalgia plants” because they remind me of…[Continue reading]
As for ice plant, don’t plant just one variety. Combine several—not curbside, though, lest they cause an accident… [Read more]

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  1. Scott on June 2, 2018 at 7:01 am

    Question: recipe for succulent growing medium that won’t stain flagstone deck when watered.

    • Debra on June 2, 2018 at 1:39 pm

      That’s a tough one. The combination of minerals in the soil, water and the porosity of flagstone tends to make everything stain it. Elevating the pots will help disburse the water when it flows out. If the pots are small, move them when you water them, then replace. If large, fill the lower half with pumice, which will help absorb much of the moisture.

  2. Brian Mollan on June 6, 2019 at 11:59 am

    This year the world wide interweb seems awash with “proof” that a drainage layer in the bottom of your plants is counterproductive even worsens drainage. Soil top to bottom is the “new” science? I see your response above included filling the lower half of a container with pumice to absorb and hold moisture to slow down run-off. So do you recommend a drainage layer in a container or not? Have I got it wrong all these years?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on June 6, 2019 at 12:44 pm

      Hi Brian — Pumice as a soil amendment helps to absorb excess moisture. It’s no substitute for a drain hole, but it’s better in the bottom of a pot than nonabsorbent rocks. There seems to be no way to explain this that doesn’t confuse people, but I’ll give it another try: It’s best to have a drain hole, but succulents are fine in pots with none because (unlike fine-leaved plants) succulents can survive being under-watered. They’re uniquely able to live on moisture in their leaves. Regardless, don’t saturate the soil in a nondraining container because no matter what the soil composition, you’ll drown the roots (or create a microbial soup that rots them). Water succulents in nondraining containers infrequently, only enough to moisten the roots.

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