In the Garden
Alan Titchmarsh considers collecting cacti and other succulents
HERE was a time when I was indifferent to succulents. They fell into the same bracket as cacti and, although I can admire collections of such prickly beasts, their painfully slow rate of growth suggests that dusting could be the most vital cultivation technique and any form of tactility is inadvisable. That does, I suppose, give them a certain machismo—‘ cacti: the plants you can’t cuddle’—but it hardly encourages the gardener to warm to them.
Nevertheless, the first plant name I ever learnt, at the age of eight, was Bryophyllum pinnatum— the liver-spotted plant that bears ‘living young’ on the edges of its leaves. I bought it for sixpence from my cactus-mad junior-school teacher at a church bazaar and grew many of its progeny on into adulthood. The success in such easy propagation made me think that gardening might be a rewarding profession. I wasn’t wrong.
That early affection for a simple succulent was superseded by a love of more sophisticated plants, but, lurking somewhere in my heart, was a fondness that would eventually be rekindled. My renewed admiration for them came as a result of discovering that succulents are wonderful decorations for garden steps in the summer months, grown in shallow terracotta pots and mulched with grit. They can cope with drying out during our weekends away and need very little in the way of care and attention.
On the steps of our terrace, and on a small flight leading
Tto a summer house, I have pots and pans of tough-as-old-boots houseleeks ( Sempervivum spp.) in purple and green as well as frost-tender echeverias with their rosettes of glaucous blue-grey. I planted a few of these out in our Isle of Wight garden—mulching them with grit—and was surprised to discover that almost all of them came through the winter, although it was, admittedly, a mild one. In Hampshire, I haul them into the greenhouse come October.
Along with the echeverias, whose pink flower stems push up in summer to open flagon-shaped blooms of red and yellow, I grow aeoniums— succulents that are wonderfully easy to propagate from shoot-tip cuttings of single rosettes cut off with a couple of inches of stem. These youngsters are a stalwart of summer plant stalls countrywide and aeoniums deserve admiration not just for the fact that their name contains every vowel, but also because they are handsome plants.
The most frequently cultivated is the deep maroon-purple variety Zwartkop. Granted, when translated into English, ‘Blackhead’ has a rather more sordid connotation, but the plant is wonderfully statuesque if the centre of its one rosettes is cut out with scissors, leaving a ring of leaves behind, when it’s reached a height of 4in– 6in, for then it will produce a cluster of rosettes at the shoot tip and turn into a handsome branched beauty.
Left to grow without such intervention, the single stem will reach at least 3ft and it begins to look weird. I also have a green form with a red edge and covet Aeonium tabuliforme, which makes a flattened rosette of wonderfully symmetrical leaves.
It does give them a certain machismo— “cacti: the plants you can’t cuddle”
Flowers have been produced on my taller, green variety since the end of winter and are still decorative—bright yellow and carried in a vast, branching firework above multiple rosettes. On the island, it’s been outdoors in a pot all winter, pulled in against a warm south-facing wall and repositioned on the terrace in May when the cold weather was over.
The RHS Plant Finder lists some 35 different species and varieties of aeonium and, as the president of Plant Heritage, I was saddened to discover at the Chelsea Flower Show this year that there is no National Collection of them. I suppose really I should take that as a sign and, in gratitude to the whole family of succulents, which fanned the flame of enthusiasm for plants in my childhood, I should do my bit and give them all a home. After all, 35 plants can’t take up that much room, can they? We’ll see.
My Secret Garden by Alan Titchmarsh is published by BBC Books (£ 25) Next week: Trumpet bloom
A garden display of succulents, including dark-bronze Aeonium Zwartkop, underlines their great diversity and strangeness