Succulent Paradise

dinner plate (Aeonium urbicum) inflorescence

dinner plate (Aeonium urbicum) inflorescence

Every so often, you really should visit David Bernstein’s nursery in Reseda, if only to get away from it all. Bernstein is one of the few remaining plant growers in the Valley open to the public, if only on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For 30 years, his California Nursery Specialties Cactus Ranch, located at 19420 Saticoy St., just west of Tampa Avenue, has been the principal Los Angeles address for these sorts of plants, which fill several acres to the brim and offer hundreds of varieties of succulents and cactuses from which to choose.
Bernstein – he would like you to call him Dave – is also a most welcoming host. You can browse for hours without feeling the least pressure to buy. I have even seen people come with lawn chairs and sit out back, finding a unique kind of respite among the aloes and agaves.
Bernstein is a soft-spoken man who has never advertised and whose business has an unlisted phone number. He regards his nursery grounds as a kind of sanctuary and said visitors often comment on the spiritual experience of being there.
“People may come in because of the dinosaurs outside. But once inside, they discover a world, an atmosphere and a perspective that had been sorely lacking in their lives. They just never knew what they were missing. In the midst of a city, the nursery provides a quiet, contemplative retreat,” he said.
Business, it turns out, is booming. “With people buying larger homes on smaller lots, a garden of succulents makes a lot of sense,” he explained. “When you have only a few hundred square feet for a garden, you can either plant a dozen ordinary shrubs or a large assortment of exotic-looking, perennial succulents and cacti.”
“On patios and balconies,” he continued, “succulents allow you to create a diverse, colorful and low-maintenance container garden.”
Every time I visit Bernstein’s nursery, I discover a new plant. This time it was a dainty ground cover, recently introduced, that is selling like crazy. The name of it is Aeonium platyphyllum. Its color is emerald green and its elegant, jewel-like rosettes make the perfect ground cover for bright shade. “It is most unusual for an Aeonium to have such tiny leaves,” Bernstein said. “The most familiar species are Aeonium arboreum, which has a vertical growth habit and green or burgundy-black leaves, and Aeonium urbicum, called ‘Dinner Plate,’ on account of its considerable size.” Aeoniums are closely related to Sempervivums, otherwise known as hens-and-chicks (because they proliferate like barnyard chickens) or houseleeks (since the edible varieties were grown on the roofs of Roman houses).
At first glance, you could almost mistake Aeonium platyphyllum for baby tears, that well-known ground cover for minimal sun locations. Baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) will either spread like wildfire or not grow at all, depending on the soil, which should be kept moist. Baby tears, like many aeoniums, sempervivums and other succulents, do best in filtered sunlight, but should not be planted in too much shade. It is important to keep in mind that no plant can grow without light, and good ambient – or surrounding – light should always be available.
Because of their drought tolerance, succulents make excellent houseplants. Some of them trail and spill over and want to be placed in hanging baskets. String of beads (Senecio rowleyanus) is the most fascinating of these, consisting of strands of pale green globes hanging down like jade or pearl necklaces. Perhaps the most famous hanging succulent is burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum). Burro’s tails are classic heirloom plants, growing only inches each year, requiring barely any water, and easily passed down from one generation to the next. A burro’s tail consists of dense chains of small, cylindrical, watertight leaves that may be broken off individually and used to start new plants. Crassula lycopodioides, commonly known as rattail or watch chain crassula, takes the form of braided, lanyard-like foliar chains.

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