Books by Debra
devastating wildfire that impacted much of San Diego County, the
succulent garden on the cover of Designing with Succulents protected a Rancho Santa Fe home. Neighboring homes burned to
Did Succulents Save Her Home?
By Debra Lee
have soared in popularity recently because they're drought-tolerant,
easy-care and just plain cool to look at, and now there's another
compelling reason to grow them: They're fire-retardant. During last
month's wildfires, succulents -- which by definition store water in
plump leaves and stems -- apparently stopped a blaze in its tracks.
"Succulents saved our home!" Suzy and Rob Schaefer wrote in a jubilant
e-mail to friends and family after they returned to their fire-ravaged
neighborhood in Rancho Santa Fe. The tabloidian statement is out of
character for the low-key couple---he's retired and she's an artist---but it seems justified.
Their garden of aloes, agaves, euphorbias and more---created by Suzy
with the help of San Diego landscape architect Robert Dean---encircles
the Southwest-style home, which is adjacent to a palm- and
eucalyptus-filled canyon. The garden is intact, but many of the canyon's
trees are blackened skeletons.
A tentacle of the Witch Creek fire, driven by high winds, roared down
the canyon, which runs along the edge of the Schaefers' back yard.
"Flames came within 6 feet of the house, then stopped," Suzy says.
the most vulnerable corner of their home is an unassuming succulent that
is common yet has no common name: Aloe arborescens. As it held
off the flames, its fleshy leaves cooked and turned the color of putty.
Aloe arborescens, native to South Africa, grows throughout
Southern California; dense plantings of it rim the cliffs of coastal
communities. Its tapered green leaves are serrated on the edges, but not
sharp, and radiate from a central stem, forming starfish-like rosettes.
These overlap into mounding plants that grow 5 or 6 feet high, and as
wide. In midwinter, the plants send up brilliant orange flower spikes
that, ironically, often are described as torchlike.
Wildfires are opportunistic; they focus on easy fodder, in this case the
canyon's dry leaves and wispy fronds. Flames from the canyon lapped at
the Schaefer garden, which sits just beyond the bank.
Seeking fuel, the fire climbed part way up a eucalyptus; scorched the
slope; probed aloes, jade plants and a succulent ground cover; and then
retreated. Instead it engulfed and rapidly devoured an older home across
"Succulents may broil or bake, but they don't burst into flames or
spread them," says Don Newcomer, owner of Serra Gardens, a succulent
specialty nursery that operated in Malibu for 25 years and will soon
relocate south to Fallbrook for business reasons. When a wildfire
threatened the nursery a decade ago, succulents halted the flames,
Newcomer says, saving both his business and his home.
Eddie Villavicencio, deputy fire marshal for the San Diego Fire-Rescue
Department, affirms that succulents are fire-retardant, especially jade
and cactus. An exception are "certain ice plants, which if not
well-maintained can be flammable underneath."
His department, which also monitors erosion control, cautions against
planting trailing ground covers such as Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus
edulis) atop steep slopes; its moisture-filled leaves are heavy and
roots too shallow to hold the soil.
Gary Lyons, curator of the desert collection at the Huntington Botanical
Gardens in San Marino, is outspoken about his desire to see succulents
used as perimeter plantings for homes in areas.
"After the Altadena fire in 1993, I could see that agaves, aloes and
opuntia had not burned, but rather had cooked," Lyons recalls. "They
can't carry a fire. I wondered why there was no code requirement or law
that requires developers and residents to use succulents in high fire
areas. Why should taxpayers shoulder the firefighting costs of a
hillside development's incendiary landscape?"
Why, indeed. Homeowners adjacent to wild lands may not realize it, but
the plants with which they routinely surround their dwellings are
infamously flammable (among them, pines, junipers, bougainvillea, flax
and grasses). Basically, anything woody and twiggy is a potential
haystack, ready to be ignited by the tiniest ember -- especially in
autumn, especially during a record-setting drought.
California native plants are wonderfully resilient when it comes to
wildfires, but it's not because they don't burn; some of the most common
natives such as the aptly named greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum)
are highly flammable. Fire is part of the chaparral's natural cycle,
enabling seeds to burst open and fresh green growth to take the place of
old. This makes natives admirable---ingenious, even---but not, unless
they're fleshy, fire-retardant.
"There is some confusion about the terms 'drought-tolerant,' 'native
plants,' and 'fire-retardant plants,'" Lyons explains. "Fire-retardant
plants vis-à-vis cactus and succulents stand apart from drought
tolerant and natives. A native plant garden in the chaparral is like
growing Roman candles. Drought tolerant may not be much better."
"After any brush fire, you'll see succulents that were not burned,"
agrees Newcomer, who, like Lyons, would like to see homeowner
associations and similar groups provide cuttings of Aloe arborescens
to residents as a community service. "Aloes may not be native to
Southern California, but they're not invasive, either," Newcomer says.
"It's not like they escape and invade creek beds." He adds that Aloe
arborescens offers the same health benefits of Aloe vera --
these and other "medicinal aloes" contain a viscous gel that purportedly
aids the healing of minor burns.
If it seems absurd to legislate the use of succulents as landscape
plants, it likely won't be necessary. They're already catching on.
According to Ron Vanderhoff, nursery manager
in Corona del Mar -- which does the largest volume of sales of any
independently owned garden center in the western U.S., "our business in
succulents has risen from $40,000 in retail sales four or five years ago
to $400,000 a year, and it continues to grow. No other category of
plants in our store has shown anything close to this increase. We now do
7% or 8% of our volume in succulents."
The reason has to do with the plants' "simplicity of maintenance,"
Vanderhoff says. "People are spending less time in their gardens, and
succulents are less fussy than annuals and perennials. They also have a
lesser need for water and fertilizer, so they're more 'green.' And
they're very sculptural and artistic. Succulents provide drama with
their structure, leaves, colors . . . they're very expressive plants."
They're also easy to start from cuttings, which is how Suzy Schaefer
filled her garden.
"I whack them back and replant them," she says, adding that her garden
"is not just a way to cover dirt. It's a living thing, and half the fun
is to enjoy it aesthetically. I love the shapes of succulents, and the
way they look ordinary and then send up a bloom that knocks your socks
off. Growing succulents is like collecting art or sculpture -- better,
because when you have too many, you just give them away."
And as for those aloes, it appears their melted leaves protected the
plants themselves; the centers of the rosettes are still a vibrant
More photos taken at the Schaefers' after the fire:
Suzy surveying the damage
Corner of the house nearest the canyon
A partially-burned jade plant
Additional firewise landscaping tips:
flammable vegetation and debris. Reduce potential kindling by
getting rid of weeds, dead or dying plants, and anything dry and twiggy.
Avoid planting trees and shrubs that drop quantities of
leaves, contain volatile oils or resins, and/or copiously shed bark.
Notoriously flammable (and unfortunately quite common) trees include
blue gum, eucalyptus, acacias, junipers and pines.
Be aware that some California native plants are pyrophytic.
Literally "fire loving," these highly flammable plants depend on
seasonal wildfires for regeneration or seed germination. Common ones
include greasewood (chamise), sumac (sugar bush), creosote bush and
California sagebrush. (Note: Many California natives, including
manzanita, coffeeberry, ceanothus and oaks, are not pyrophytic and actually are slow to burn.)
Make sure trees and shrubs within 100 feet of
your home are well trimmed and full of moisture. If your house is on
a hillside, the recommended distance is 200 feet.
The ideal firewise landscape consists of low-growing shrubs,
ground covers and fleshy succulents. To help retain soil moisture and
minimize erosion and weeds, cover bare ground with redwood mulch or
gravel. Keep plants well watered, especially during fall's desiccating
Santa Ana winds. Avoid a fire ladder: fuel-rich plantings that enable
fire to climb up to your home.
Surround your house with a 30-foot fire break. In addition to plants
that have a high moisture content, include one or more of these
landscape enhancements: hardscape, a rock garden, a dry streambed and/or
a swimming pool. All make excellent fire breaks.
For more information, plus a list of low-fuel,
firewise plants, download the California Department of Forestry and Fire
"Fire Safe Landscaping.
Note: Some CA fire districts
mistakenly recommend growing native plants to the
exclusion of all others. Natives do
regenerate beautifully after a wildfire but are no help slowing one
down, in fact, many natives---such as creosote plant---are highly
combustible. Another misconception is that it is more "green" to plant
natives exclusively. This is based on the assumption that if a plant is
not native, it must be invasive. Except for Carpobrotus edulis
(an ice plant known as pickleweed or Hottentot fig, common to coastal
areas), succulents are not invasive, and therefore pose no threat
to the local ecology.