A bolt out of the blue

To some, the plant may look like a tray of blue French fries.

Dave Bernstein, owner of California Nursery Specialties in Reseda, describes the ground cover as "the velvet on which to set your garden's jewelry."

To the rest of us, it's the succulent we're seeing everywhere, and with good reason. Though exotic-looking, blue senecio (Senecio mandraliscae) is easy to grow. The juicy-leaved plant needs significantly less water than a lawn or a flower bed. It does well on slopes and is lovely planted in drifts.

Perhaps best of all, you don't even have to buy it. Obtain cuttings from a friend or neighbor, and you can start new plants in nursery flats. Roots will form in six to eight weeks.

For anyone who's familiar with blue senecio and is sold on its virtues, the question becomes: What to plant with it?

Bernstein suggests alternating blue senecio with green-leafed ice plants for waves of color.

"You also might combine it with other succulents that have blue in their leaves, like striped agaves," says Bernstein. Another approach is to contrast blue senecio with red-leafed aloes, lavender 'Afterglow' echeverias, orange pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'), a variegated plant commonly called elephant food or elephant bush (Portulacaria afra 'Variegata') or the burgundy-leafed aeonium called 'Zwartkop.'

Other types of plants besides succulents can look dramatic with blue senecio and can do well as long as they have similar requirements for sun, water and other cultivation requirements. Companion plantings include ivy geranium; parrot's beak, which has bright orange blooms; California poppy; and gazania.

More cultivation tips:

Sun: Provide full sun along the coast, partial shade inland, especially on hot summer days. Blue senecio will grow in shade but tends to elongate as it seeks light.

Soil: Plant in loose soil. If you have heavy clay, add 30% pumice or perlite to improve drainage. If you're planting a large area, rototill the soil.

Spacing: For best coverage, install small, rooted plants about 4 inches apart. Nurseries sell Senecio mandraliscae in flats (49 rooted cuttings) for about $25. Bernstein sells 4-inch pots containing three to five established plants, which can be pulled apart, for $4.

Cuttings: Cut stems 4 to 6 inches from the tip and set them aside for a few days until the raw tissue heals. Then insert cuttings into a nursery flat filled with potting soil and place in bright shade. Keep the soil moist. (It's possible to plant cuttings directly into garden soil, but you run a higher risk of sun scorch.)

Trim: Pinch back plants to encourage fullness. Because old leaves fall off and new ones grow at the ends of the stems, plants become lanky unless made to branch. Cut back a couple of inches of tender new growth and discard the pieces, or wait until the stems are longer and prune farther down (yielding cuttings). As the plant grows, keep pinching back so branches form more branches.

Water: Blue senecio needs regular watering until it's established, then you can cut back. In summer, water only during the cool part of the day because heat-stressed senecio may rot when wet. In winter, you can keep it on the dry side. If not plump with water, the plant is hardy to 15 degrees.

Flowers: They're small and daisy-like, appearing atop slender stalks in spring. When dry, the blooms resemble dandelions and can make the plant look untidy, so just snip them off. After all, the plant is grown for its foliage.


Baldwin is the author of "Designing With Succulents."


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