A Winter Palette : Succulents Provide Brilliant Color During the Coldest Months, Usually the Dreariest Time in the Garden

Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

WHEN THE garden is most bleak--in December, January and February--many succulents burst into flower or turn shades of orange and red like the leaves of autumn (though their fleshy leaves don't fall off). Succulents blossom because winter is the rainy season, when these water-thrifty plants can afford the great energy expenditure needed for flowers; their leaves turn color as a defense against the cold.

Boyd Walker, a retired ichthyologist whose garden in Pacific Palisades is almost solely succulents, says that winter is his garden's finest season. "It really doesn't have a down time," Walker says. "But it looks its best from December through February."

One reason for the dramatic display in Walker's winter garden greets visitors at the front door: the genus Echeveria . In this remarkable group are a number of plants whose large, thick leaves turn a fiery red or orange in winter. Walker grows them unusually well--and they are large. Most of his plants are hybrids, and many of the biggest are only about 2 years old. He has found most of them at local nurseries (he is especially fond of a new hybrid, 'Topsy Turvy'). To ensure that all energy goes to producing the leaves, Walker pinches back the echeverias' flowers, and every year he cuts rosettes from the stems, lets them dry out in the air for a few days, then re-roots them in empty pots. Once roots appear, he transplants them into soil. He picks a pot that is as big in diameter as the rosette; when the leaves overhang the sides by 2 inches, he moves it into a larger pot. His soil mix is simplicity itself: 1 part garden soil, 1 part sand, 1 part perlite and 1 part compost from his own pile. He fertilizes the plants several times a year. Old stems, by the way, are saved. Little plantlets sprout along the lengths of the old stems, and these are eventually severed off and rooted.

Other, blue-green- and gray-green-leaved echeverias grow out in the garden's beds in mass plantings designed by Walker's wife, Mary Ev. That use of the succulents sets this garden apart from all others. Says Boyd Walker: "Most people plant succulents in natural settings, but Mary Ev found that the traditional English perennial border is a better model." The echeverias in the garden are allowed to flower, and they do so in profusion.

There are also mass plantings of the similarly shaped Aeoniums , most of which are native to the Canary Islands. They enjoy the moisture of the Pacific Palisades air, and they don't mind the long months of overcast in the spring. The echeverias and the aeoniums out in the garden would grow atop tall stems if allowed, but they are cut from their stems yearly, left to dry and replanted. This keeps the ones in the garden low, neat and healthy, because rot and nematodes that get started in the old stems and leaves are discarded.

The most spectacular flowers belong to the South African agave-like aloes, which bloom all winter long.

Huge blooming crown of thorns ( Euphorbia milii ) makes a bright red-and-green backdrop for the border, and the Walkers have mixed in jade plant, another shrubby succulent that blooms in winter, along with clumps or colonies of other smaller crassulas. One unusual succulent flowering now, Bulbine stenopala , has spires of bright-yellow flowers arising from grass-thin fleshy leaves.

The most spectacular flowers, however, belong to the large South African group of agave-like aloes, which reliably bloom all winter long. "They have a very long season," says Walker. "Our favorites are the bicolors with red-and-yellow flowers. Most are hybrids developed by Dave Verity at UCLA. We use them everywhere." Flowers can also be orange; sometimes the spiny leaves are tinged orange or red.

All of these succulent plants are tough enough to take some drought. "We water them fairly often--whenever they get completely dry--and some get watered weekly, right along with the lawn," Walker says. "But when we want to travel, we can go off and leave them for weeks and they'll still be there when we return. They have their advantages."

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