“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.
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. meloformis; Gasteria 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?
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.)
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.
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