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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]

DEBRA’S TOP SIX FIREWISE SUCCULENTS

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

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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Debra’s Top Six Firewise Succulents

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 paddle cactus to branches cut from bamboo and oak trees.

In combination, these readily available succulents make a beautiful, low-water landscape. This garden, for example, originated entirely from cuttings:

  • Opuntia (paddle cactus), the thicker the better. If you wince at the thought of having cactus in your garden, look for spineless or near-spineless varieties. They do exist, and they don’t draw blood. Those rounded, upright pads make a nice counterpoint to more finely textured plants, succulent and otherwise.
  • Aloes. Mound-forming Aloe arborescens is the heroic succulent that “saved” the home of Rob and Suzy Schaefer during the devastating wildfires of 2007. It sends up orange-red, torchlike flower spikes in midwinter.
  • Aeoniums. There are numerous varieties of these rosette succulents. The best ones for fire resistance are multi-branching.
  • Crassulas. Plain old green jade didn’t burn during the wildfire that threatened the Schaefer home, but rather it cooked, and like the aloes, its leaves turned putty-colored and collapsed. If you think jade is boring, you may not be aware of its many cultivars. Some are striped cream-and-green; turn yellow-orange-red when grown in full sun; have silvery-gray leaves rimmed with red; or have intriguing tubular or wavy leaves.
  • Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ — Highly ornamental with bright orange, upright stems, this makes an excellent fire barrier, to 7 feet in height. Downsides are it’s frost tender and its milky sap is caustic.

    Above: Photo by homeowner Camille Newton of her firebreak garden immediately after the 2017 Lilac Fire. Orange ‘Sticks on Fire’ are prominent. Burgundy rosettes at middle right are aeoniums. Watch my “Succulents as Firebreak” video of Camille’s garden.

     

  • Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) is shrub-like, and yes, elephants really do eat it in South Africa. In fact, the plant benefits from being stomped on because pieces root readily. The variegated variety is less vigorous and more ornamental than the common green species.


Go to my Firewise Landscaping page 

In Designing with Succulents (2nd edition, p. 107), I tell how my husband and I were evacuated, and how the succulent garden on the cover of the book’s first edition “saved” a home in Rancho Santa Fe. Ten years later, during the 2017 Lilac Fire, Camille Newton (whose garden in Bonsall, CA is on page 51 of the 2nd edition) had a similar experience [read more].  See Camille and me on TV. 

From my Los Angeles Times article, “Did Succulents Save Her Home?” ~ “SUCCULENTS have soared in popularity recently because they’re drought-tolerant, easy-care and just plain cool to look at, and now there’s another compelling reason to grow them: They’re fire-retardant. During last month’s wildfires, succulents — which by definition store water in plump leaves and stems — apparently stopped a blaze in its tracks…” [Read more]