Debra's Top Firewise Succulents

Succulent varieties that stand up to the flames

My top 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.

In my video, Do Succulents Burn? (6 min), see what common succulents look like after exposure to flames for 5 to 12 minutes. Unlike the oak and green bamboo branches we test for comparison, which burn immediately, the succulents we placed on the fire pit charred but didn't catch fire. They include jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and paddle cactus, all of which store water in fleshy leaves and are good landscape plants for fire-prone regions of California. Btw, according to Cal Fire, "a wildfire-front passes within 10 to 15 minutes."

In combination, these readily available succulents make beautiful, low-water landscape plants. 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 bush)

Portulacaria afra in ground

Portulacaria afra in ground

This plant 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.

 

Related Info

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire Immediately after the Lilac Fire, Dr. Camille Newton of Bonsall, CA, texted me 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…

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…

Portulacaria afra Minima and Variegata

Portulacaria afra: Uses, Photos and Varieties

Portulacaria afra: Uses, Photos and Varieties Native to South Africa, elephant’s food thrives outdoors in warm, sunny climates such as CA, Arizona, Florida and Hawaii About Portulacaria afra Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food, elephant bush, spekboom) thrives in warm, sunny climates. Unlike many other South African succulents, Portulacaria afra is fine with high humidity and rainfall (it…

Resources

On this website

Firewise Landscaping - Find out how to use succulents in the landscape to protect your property from wildfire.

 

Books

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]. 

Videos

Do Succulents Burn? (6 min.) We try to catch a variety of succulents on fire with surprising results. A must-see for residents of fire-prone areas of California.

Succulents as Firebreak (4:31) See the TV interview of Dr. Camille Newton of Bonsall, CA and myself after her succulent garden protected her home during a wildfire.

Articles

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]