The desert, to many, is an ocean of sand, a desolate place whose scant plants do little more than scratch and bite. But look closer and one can see the softer side, evidence that the solitude and stark beauty of desert flora need not come with spines, stickers and other prickly problems.
In creative hands, these plants become a gentle desert garden of unarmed trees, shrubs, perennials and succulents. They can provide copious color, food for wildlife, shade for other plants and, for homeowners, the look and hardiness of a desert garden minus the thorns and barbs.
The plants are undemanding by nature. Deserts usually receive less than 10 inches of rain a year, and many plants do well by the coast as well as inland.
"I love the coloring in the desert," says architect Ron Goldman, whose Goldman-Firth office in Malibu sits within sight of the shore. The building's reflective glass mirrors the sky, the ocean and a mix of dry-climate plants with silver, blue and sea-green foliage.
Aluminum and stainless steel railings and containers provide contrast, as do shadows from plants on the stucco walls. Everything is tactile, he says.
"The plants and architecture are simpatico," says Goldman, whose clients often request help with their gardens. "Their textures speak to each other.
"It's like theater. The protagonists are sunlight and clouds. The plants add drama with colors that change from season to season."
Most of the trees and shrubs here — a blue palm from Mexico (Brahea armata), acacia and senna from Australia, brittlebush from California — bear flowers that run from cream to bright yellow. In lieu of pots full of spiny cactus, Goldman used smooth-bodied succulents: Dudleya virens from Santa Catalina Island, Kalanchoe pumila from Madagascar and Euphorbia misera from Baja California, all mulched with desert-like scree. Their flowers add intermittent sparks of gold, pink and red.
Goldman added two inviting oases, seating areas enclosed by shrubby Acacia redolens and shaded silver-dollar gum trees (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), the latter with arching new growth — "like crazy hair," he says. A floor of blue-leafed Senecio and white granite cobbles play off the eucalyptus' hues.
This desert-by-the-sea bustles with life. A clump of Hesperaloe parviflora, a soft-leafed yucca relative with flaring red flowers, beckons hummingbirds.
As in the desert, these plants are asked to survive. Goldman waters them sparsely, and the eldest plants — nearly 20 years old — show no signs of decline. This should come as no surprise. A single colony of creosote bush, a waxy-leafed desert shrub, ranks among the oldest living organisms on Earth.
According to Molly Thongthiraj, one of six sisters who operate California Cactus Center in Pasadena, their collection of succulent desert plants includes specimens from Africa and Mexico that may be pushing 100.
One of their oldest is a gnarled Fockea edulis, a rare milkweed with soft gray stems that comes from the driest parts of South Africa. Its warty water-storing caudex, or root, is nearly twice the size of a football. The secret to its longevity: absolutely no watering when the plant is dormant and leafless.
That means Fockea is probably safest in a pot. (Also key: The plants bear only male or female flowers, and one plant of each is required for pollination.) Other succulents are less fussy and take to the garden well.
Many members of the Crassulaceae plant family are especially easy to grow — and are among the most colorful, in and out of flower. All of them — Aeonium, Crassula, Dudleya, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedum and Sempervivum — lack thorns and range in size, texture and hue. At Thongthiraj's nursery, more than 20 varieties of Echeveria grow in 4-inch pots, sporting evocative common names such as 'Black Prince,' 'Red Velvet' and 'Afterglow.'
Some succulents need more sun than others. Although location matters, smart irrigation and "really, really good drainage" are more important, says Susanne Jett of Jettscapes Landscape Design in Santa Monica.
One client with a sloping garden 11 blocks from the beach adores odd and unusual plants. Jett ripped out the grass in the front yard, added plenty of pumice and lesser amounts of organic matter, and replicated a desert in miniature on top of the fast-draining mounds. Because this space is small and exposed to street traffic, she relied largely on plants without sharp protrusions.
On one side of stone steps leading to a door, she created a dry wash with smooth pebbles and jewel-like succulents, grasses and bulbs. She included a pincushion shrub from South Africa (Leucospermum cordifolium) whose orange blossoms came early this year.
"They usually run from spring through fall," Jett says.
Near the house and a trickling fountain, she used a bird of paradise tree (Caesalpinia gilliesii). During summer, it bears yellow flowers with curving, brilliant red stamens. She is pleased that it's thriving so close to the beach.
On the opposite side of the steps, between rust-streaked boulders, Jett planted fragrant California sages, soft-tipped agaves and leafy shrubs that one would normally find in the wild bordering a wash.
It's an unexpected, ever-changing landscape watered by a drip system no more than twice a month and never fed.
"Alligator lizards just love this garden, as it's sandwiched between two lawns," Jett says. "Here, they find water and bugs. They sun themselves on the rocks and dine on snails that would otherwise chew on the plants."
It's a gentle desert garden, picturesque and safe — and a lovely spot in which to get lost.
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Where to learn more
To research desert plants and how to use them, visit local gardens or seek advice from professionals.
The Huntington: The desert garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is hard to beat for its collections and displays. 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; (626) 405-2100.
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden: See desert plants of California and Baja California in natural and cultivated settings. 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont; (909) 625-8767.
Lotusland: This Montecito estate and botanic garden has fanciful plantings of succulents and much more. Reservations only. (805) 969-9990.
"Succulents for the Contemporary Garden" by Yvonne Cave (Timber Press, $29.95). Plentiful photos.
"Pachyforms: A Guide to Growing Pachycaul and Caudiciform Plants" by Philippe de Vosjoli (Advanced Visions, $39.95). A new book on succulents with large water-storing bases — called "natural bonsai" by some.
Plant Sales: Events at the Huntington, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden and other public gardens offer great selections and expert advice, as do events sponsored by local chapters of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, http://www.cssainc.org .
California Cactus Center: 216 S. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 795-2788.
Theodore Payne Foundation: 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley; (818) 768-1802. California
native plants and seeds.
Tree of Life Nursery: 33201 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano; (949) 728-0685. California native plants.
Worldwide Exotics: 11157 Orcas Ave., Lakeview Terrace; (818) 890-1915. An eclectic mix of native and nonnative dry-climate plants.
— Lili Singer