Plant phenomena are rare, but the world of succulents and cacti is genuinely of the moment. A casual browse through Instagram (five million posts and counting) confirms how the unique physiology of succulent plants and cacti is future-proofing contemporary landscape design. The luscious “juicy” leaves and stems are suited to our changing climate, and the striking forms provide a naturalistic foil to the lean lines of 21st-century architecture.
As a plant family, one that is vast and diverse, it is also truly democratic: these self-sufficient plants are at home anywhere in the world, adapting aesthetically and horticulturally. Succulents and cacti gardens now thrive across Europe and Australasia, as well as on the West Coast of the United States and in South America, bringing a relaxed vibe. Low-maintenance, drought-resilient, and fire-resistant (due to the enormous amounts of water stored in the stems and modified leaves), these plants can withstand the wildfires that have decimated areas of Australia and California, and require little more than occasional irrigation and a regular sprinkle of water to remove dust.
Succulents and cacti are also generous neighbors, happy to cohabit with other plant families, and able to embrace native rocks and grit with ease. Grasses, euphorbias, and South African bulbs are obvious planting partners, plus palms, eucalyptuses, yuccas, and Joshua trees.
“The gardening public is weary of trying to replicate English flower gardens so has turned to form and foliage,” says author Debra Lee Baldwin, whose 2007 book Designing with Succulents has been credited with starting and fueling the trend. Its second edition is out now, just in time for those discovering succulents for the first time. “Time-stressed gardeners want plants that won’t die if neglected, and that will provide months of interest,” she says. “Rosette succulents, such as echeverias, captivate anyone who loves flowers, and brides and florists have propelled interest in more colorful succulents—the blues and greens, mauves, and silvers.”
Caitlin Atkinson is a California-based photographer and stylist who often features succulents in her images. “The best landscapes use them, like any other design element, for their color, form, and texture,” she says. “I love a garden that utilizes big, bold plants, like agaves and aloes, as architectural elements or mass plantings. They often appear in a savannah-like setting, popping out of the grass to provide structure, while directing your view upward towards the next level of planting.”
The gardening public is weary of trying to replicate English flower gardens so has turned to form and foliage
But what is perhaps even more wonderful about succulents is their inherent adaptability: they sit easily within a minimalist design yet, when mass-planted, can bring a dreamy, almost lunar quality to the landscape. For designers Gino Dreese and Troy Williams, who created Mojave Rock Ranch and its iconic desert garden, succulents remind them of an underwater world. “The desert landscape often looks and feels very much like a coral reef,” muses Dreese.
And despite the dangers of a pricked finger, succulents and cacti are irresistibly tactile. “The textures are so important because they encourage interaction,” says Williams. “There’s furry and velvety, fleshy, sandpapery, and spiny: you have the whole gamut of textures within one single landscape.”
A cactus for all seasons
The golden barrel cactus is a signature plant in Dreese and Williams’s work—“We love it because it gives good color all year round”—plus flowering aloes, yuccas, saguaros, ocotillos, opuntias (prickly pears), and cardons from Baja, California. Meanwhile, designer Roxanne Kim-Perez at San Diego-based Singing Gardens favors agave “Blue Glow.” “Plant it, water it a little, and that’s it,” she says.
For inspiration, prepare to travel the globe, starting with California. “The Huntington Desert Garden near Pasadena is without a doubt the finest example of a successful succulent landscape, with numerous impressive and venerable specimens,” says Lee Baldwin. Troy Williams agrees: “Huntington is spectacular; it blows your mind.” He also recommends the gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the exquisite Jardin Majorelle, once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, in Marrakech, Morocco.
Meanwhile, Atkinson suggests Sunnylands in Palm Springs, a stylish contemporary landscape designed by OJB Landscape Architecture and once home to former philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. “Mass plantings of succulents create breathtaking waves of color and form,” she observes. “The whole effect is particularly stunning when the palo verde trees are in bloom.” Lotusland in California is another favorite, with its beautiful blue agave garden.
In Mexico, the Ethnobotanical Garden in Oaxaca is a pilgrimage for succulent-lovers. The brainchild of artist Francisco Toledo, the park has evolved into a highly stylized public garden that tells the story of the region’s ecological and cultural history. And in Europe and North Africa, succulent gardens are reflecting changes in climate there, too. Inspiring destinations include the Musée de Palmeraie and Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech; the Exotic Garden of Eze in France; the Exotic Garden of Monaco; and the Giardino Roccioso at La Cutura Giardino Botanico in Giuggianello, southern Italy.
Private succulent gardens are no less striking. Artists Roy Dowell and Lari Pittman created Parque Oaxaca in LA at the turn of this century, pooling their independent cacti and succulent collections and creating an explosion of color and texture around an open-air pavilion. At Yallingup, in Western Australia, surfer Bill Mitchell and his wife Diane developed a Mexican-style succulent garden as part of a bush-fire management plan; it later won a garden of the year award. And in the harsh climate of Extremadura in Spain, landscape architects Miguel Urquijo and Renate Kastner have created a private garden that combines drought-tolerant succulents with hardy Spanish native plants. Proof, if ever it was needed, that the global march of cacti and succulents will prevail.