Blue-Ribbon Succulents

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

The annual cactus and succulent show at the Los Angeles Arboretum is the largest in the world.  It’s a 2-hour drive for me, but I wouldn’t miss it. When I see a plant I’ve never seen before or a perfect specimen of something I’m familiar with, I go slack-jawed and stare. And this year there were dozens.

…Like this soccer-ball-sized ruffled echeveria owned by Tom Vermilion.  Cactus and Succulent Society of America president Laurel Woodley explained that each judge is given two big green-and-yellow ribbons for plants that they deem outstanding, yet did not get on the trophy table.  “Judges are asked to make written comments on the back of the ribbon explaining why they feel the plant is exceptional,” Woodley said. “The awardees get to keep this ribbon of merit.”


This tephrocactus was on the trophy table. Isn’t nature amazing? If someone handed you 40 green clay balls, could you construct such an appealing, eye-catching arrangement?

The size and geometry of this cluster of Mammillaria canalensis wowed me. Check out the pot, too. Collectors often invest in one-of-a-kind, artist-designed pots in which to showcase their prize-winning plants.

Leaves of Echeveria ‘Cante’ are coated with a white powder that lends a silvery sheen. But such pulverulence rubs off easily, and there’s no replacing it—making it that much more difficult to keep the plant pristine. This plant is owned by Larry Grammer, an artist on staff at California Cactus Center in Pasadena. Larry beautifully staged the plant—meaning that pot, plant, rocks and topdressing combine to create a work of art.

Some trophy-winning plants were bonsais with elevated, sausagelike roots that resemble human limbs—a blog topic in itself.  What do you think, should I do a GGW post on “Nude Roots”?

This stacked crassula also is owned by Larry Grammer, who told me he entered 70 plants in the show. Not surprisingly, Larry (though shy and unassuming) is a renowned celebrity among cactus and succulent enthusiasts.

Doubtless you’re familiar with jade plant (Crassula ovata). There are subspecies of it on the far right and upper left—plants that each won second-place (red) ribbons. The crassula in bloom is Crassula perfoliata var. falcata, commonly known as propeller plant. And the wavy-stemmed crassula in the foreground is Crassula muscosa, or watch-chain crassula. It’s a good one to use in undersea-themed succulent-scapes. But notice what earned a blue ribbon: a red-leaved crassula in a turquoise bonsai pot—a premier example of Crassula elegans.


The agave table alone is worth the price of admission. (The show is free, btw, but you have to pay to get into the Arboretum.) Diminutive Agave ‘Silver Princess’ is closely related to more common Agave ‘Victoria-Reginae’.

This is Agave multifilifera, owned by Hannah Nguyen. I met Hannah at the show, and she happily introduced me to a dozen or so of her prize-winning plants.

Hannah’s Puna clavarioides is a high-altitude cactus from Argentina. It’s native habitat is harsh—arid and consisting of barren rocks and sand. Consequently, the plant is highly sensitive to overwatering yet also tolerates temperatures well below freezing.

Hannah and I were enthralled by this crested cactus—an epithelantha native to the Mexico state of Chihuahua. It’s just coming into bloom.


You never know what will impress the judges. I wouldn’t have looked twice at this Cintia knizei if  it hadn’t been surrounded with ribbons. I later found out it’s a very rare alpine cactus native to the high Bolivian Andes. The owner is another revered collector: Peter Walkowiak of San Diego. I show two of his prize-winning plants in my book, Succulent Container Gardens.

Here’s one of them, a bonsai’d adenium with elevated roots that I photographed at last year’s show. As you might tell by the flowers, adeniums are in the same family as plumerias and oleanders.

Of all the plants that captivated me, the tephrocactus was my favorite. I love its globular leaves, pale green color, patterned skin and sculptural form.

How about you? Did any of the plants I showed here make you swoon?

More info: The two-day event draws collectors and enthusiasts from all over the world and is held in mid-August. This was the 25th year. If you’re planning on going in 2011, it would be fun to meet in person (best way is to “friend” me on Facebook). Also, I’ll give my Designing with Succulents presentation to one of the main host clubs, the San Gabriel Valley Cactus & Succulent Society, on November 11, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles Arboretum. Please join us if you can!

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Not-So-Angry Redhead August 21, 2010, 6:11 pm

Gorgeous! I love cacti and succulents because they’re living sculptures.

Yep, in that respect, cacti are like cats. ;+) Debra

Les August 21, 2010, 9:41 pm

Definately worth the price of admission, possible even the price of a plane ticket from the East Coast.

Hi, Les — You wouldn’t be the only one. There were people there from all over the U.S. Debra

Meredith August 21, 2010, 11:33 pm

You have highlighted some of the most interesting succulents I have ever seen. I’m eager for our next cactus and succulent show here in Austin!

Hi, Meredith — You have great collectors in Austin and San Antonio — I enjoyed touring a few Lone Star gardens last year. Debra

Drought Smart Plants August 21, 2010, 11:57 pm

I have to say I really like the Puna – it looks like coral – the Tephrocactus is very appealing too… What great pictures.

Thank you! And who knew there WAS such a plant as a puna? Debra

Darla August 22, 2010, 5:57 am

So many eye catching specimens here. Very interesting.

Thanks, Darla. It really is a “show” in every sense of the word. Debra

ProfessorRoush August 22, 2010, 9:20 am

Great pictures! wish I could have seen the show.

It’s the largest, but not the only show. Is there a Cactus & Succulent Society chapter in your area? One of the largest shows in the country is held every other year at the Missouri Botanical Garden, so clearly they’re not solely a West Coast phenomenon. Debra

Lisa at Greenbow August 22, 2010, 4:26 pm

This type of plant doesn’t do well here. I love to look at them though. They are like natural sculptures.

Hi, Lisa — Just takes more effort. People grow them in greenhouses worldwide. Germany has quite a few collectors who grow the plants precisely because they are so exotic. Debra

Missy August 23, 2010, 4:44 pm

They are simply amazing. Works of art crafted by nature.

I agree. I love the way the beauty of these plants is primarily in their foliage. Flowers are for sissies! Debra

Daffodil Planter August 23, 2010, 5:33 pm

I learned a new word! Pulverulence! I think I’ll go powder my nose and see if that gives me some pulverulence 😉

Hi, DP! I use Cover Girl’s Pretty and Pulverulent. Debra

M&J Buckner August 23, 2010, 6:34 pm

Year after year this is the very best show!

Hi, Joyce — And you and Michael deserve a lot of the credit! Debra

Yvonne @ Country Garden August 23, 2010, 8:10 pm

Oh, dear, I would love some of those plants. They are too cool!

Me, too. But I shy away from tetchy plants, preferring cuttings of common succulents that I can experiment with in the garden. If they die, it’s no biggie. Debra

Marlene August 24, 2010, 3:21 pm

I developed a bad case of succulent fever while touring gardens in the Philadelphia area a couple of years ago. This summer, it turned into a raging case of Agave lust after a visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Your post has convinced me that the only treatment for this disease is to buy more succulents!

Thanks for the great photos.

Ah, agave lust! I know the feeling, Marlene. Isn’t it marvelous that so many new and diminutive cultivars are becoming widely available? I wrote about them for the Los Angeles Times. You’ve inspired me: Perhaps I’ll blog about them, too. Debra

Francisco September 2, 2010, 12:44 pm

Beautiful pics, the plants are rally stunning!

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