“Can I just break off a piece to make more plants?” I frequently field this question at Solana Succulents, my nursery in Southern California, and quite often the answer is yes, you can. That honesty may cut into sales, but facts are facts. Anyone who has owned a jade plant (various forms of Crassula arborescens or C. ovata) has probably already figured out how easy it is to propagate when a small growing tip, just a few leaves and an inch of stem, falls to the base of the mother plant and begins growing alongside it. Other succulents are even easier and will generate a whole new plant from a single fallen leaf. And then there are those that cross into weed status such as the various Mother-of-Millions kalanchoes, which form multiple small plantlets along their leaf edges that drop and grow where they land. I usually offer a warning when selling (or sometimes giving away) these prolific reproducers—“you’ll never need to buy another one.”
If all succulents were this easy to propagate, there wouldn’t be a need for commercial growers. However, many succulent plants are easy to grow, but more difficult to make more of. Most cacti and many collectible euphorbias, aloes, and unusual succulents must either be grown from seed or by more delicate and difficult vegetative propagation. Fortunately, there are a growing number of both large growers and backyard enthusiasts that do the legwork to get some of these wonderful plants to the market.
Compared to availability when I began collecting 30 years ago, today there are so many new introductions, hybrids, and sports available in the succulent realm. Through the nursery I’ve gotten to know customers that have graduated from the trading-cuttings-between-friends phase of their obsession to collector-of-the-unusual status. And all these new plants have taken a variety of paths to our patios. Botanic gardens are still discovering new species or legally collecting plants in their native habitats, which are then propagated by professional growers until a sufficient number can be introduced into the nursery trade. In other instances, growers specialize in cross-pollinating plants that might have never met in nature to create new hybrids that have become wonderful curiosities for our enjoyment. A new category of miniature aloes is undergoing a rapid and wondrous evolution due to the tinkering of a few enthusiasts. Other growers have a keen eye for sports—deviations from typical forms, including all manner of variegates, crests, and aberrant leaf patterns —that remain true when propagated. Unusual haworthias and small agaves are currently booming on eBay, with collectors around the world spending exorbitant amounts for tiny treasures.
It used to be that a succulent landscape was an exception, a one-of-a-kind garden gracing the home of a succulent enthusiast. Today, landscape designers and gardeners are taking full advantage of these drought-tolerant, colorful, and often-sculptural plants. In Southern California, succulents have become a signature landscape palette for many malls and retail establishments. As a result, large growers are devoting more time and effort to bringing these plants to market. As a “succulent guy,” for the most part, I’m happy to see these plants becoming popular. But a part of me is sorry to see our cool little secret get out.
The first commercial succulent nurseries were established in the Los Angeles area in the early part of the 20th century. Johnson’s Cactus Gardens in Paramount, California, was one of the first retail and mail-order sources for cacti and succulents. Their colorful, hand-painted catalog was a treasure for enthusiasts all over the country. Four-inch cacti mailed out by the Johnsons populated windowsills from Montana to Maine, bringing a little bit of the desert Southwest or Africa to a usually inhospitable locale. (Gardeners find a way.) Other nurseries followed suit, many establishing 100 miles south in the even more benign climate of northern San Diego County. Some old-timers remain to this day. A few large growers have multiple greenhouse campuses that send semi-trucks full of colorfully potted cacti and succulents to warehouses and grocery stores all over the country. Other wholesalers cater more to large garden centers and the landscape trade. A select few, like myself, are retail specialists, sacrificing large numbers and profits for passion, selling the common and the beautiful, as well as the rare and the unusual. I know from experience the joy of uncovering rare and exciting plant material and offering it to those who appreciate its value. Sometimes a plant goes home with me.
One of my favorite parts of my job is the hunt, the “safari” to growers both big and small. Large growers are often the source for many of the bread-and-butter varieties in the trade, including colorful standards like aloes, agaves, aeoniums, echeverias, and euphorbias. Big growers have to keep turning their stock, and can’t invest the time or effort that small, slow-growing, difficult-to-propagate plants require, some of which don’t show a lot of commercial “zing.” But that is exactly what many of us treasure. As a small retailer, I’m always happiest spending my limited funds with my fellow plant geeks, the small and mostly backyard growers that propagate rare and remarkable succulents. Caudiciforms, crests, bonsai-style plants, “living stones,” rare variegates—all these treasures are slowly and lovingly multiplied by those who know what they have and can use their limited progeny to sell or barter for something they don’t have. There’s always something new on the want list.
Large growers grow from seed when they have to, but it’s easier to trade in stock that can be divided or chopped into multiples. Most backyard growers have a small greenhouse or windowsill filled with small cups of newly sprouted seedlings. They, too, will divide offsets from plants that offer them, or take a knife to a large crest. That last one is especially hard—hacking a beautiful crest apart to make more. But a mad propagator just looks at the big plant and sees lots more small plants. And we’re glad he or she is willing to do it. The only way to get more crests is to cut up a larger one.
The next time you spot a succulent calling your name at your local nursery, consider for a moment how it got there. Like most of us, its lineage hails from far away, perhaps Mexico or Africa, or the Canary Islands. A far-removed ancestor was imported to this country where maybe it lived on a kitchen windowsill until a few pieces were shared with friends, then ultimately with a grower, who perhaps crossed that plant with another long-ago displaced relative. Many generations and greenhouses later, it rode in a truck and ended up on the nursery rack you’re looking at. When you make your purchase, think about paying it forward. Make the effort to multiply your little domestic chlorophyll creature and become a succulent propagator yourself.