Firewise Plants

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Agave flame

Wildfires making national news are a wake-up call for us Southern Californians who live near canyons and wilderness areas. Hot Santa Ana winds blow from the desert, desiccating already stressed plants and threatening to push backcountry brush fires all the way to the sea. We’ve had no rain for months and everything is tinder-dry.

My husband and I were evacuated from our home near San Diego during the wildfires of 2007. It was just a precaution; the fire never came closer than 11 miles. But for several days, while at our son’s house, we watched the news and wondered about the wind. Had it died down? Which direction was it coming from?

After we returned and unpacked two cars loaded with irreplaceables, I read an email from Suzy Schaefer, with the subject line “Succulents saved our home!” Suzy is the owner of the garden on the cover of my book, Designing with Succulents.  The next day, I visited the Schaefer garden in Rancho Santa Fe and took photos. The story was picked up by the Associated Press, I wrote an article about it for the Los Angeles Times (which is on my website) and Suzy and I were on local television, discussing why succulents are so remarkably fire-retardant.

Burned garden

The wildfire came down a canyon near Suzy’s art studio (left). A succulent groundcover stopped the flames and a stand of Aloe arborescens (center) shielded the structure. The collapsed leaves protected the plant’s vital inner core, which remained green despite the fire’s intense heat.

Burned palms, house_JFR copy

This is what the canyon looked like the day after the fire.  A home across the street burned to the ground.

Semiburned jade_JFR copy

This jade plant (Crassula ovata) was in the Schaefer garden. Ironically, the scorched branches look like frost damage. Succulents by definition are plants that withstand drought by storing water in fleshy leaves and stems. This makes them slow to catch on fire. Consequently, they’re good perimeter plants for gardens in fireprone areas.

Burned opuntia

I took this photo the same day in the nearby community of Del Dios, which also was severely impacted by the fire. The plant is common prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica). It’s pads are as thick as potholders. A less common, thornless variety is a better choice for gardens. It handles frost, extreme summer heat, and needs no water once established.

Firesafe gdn copy

This Firesafe Demonstration Garden is in my book. The lush and colorful garden is adjacent to a fire station in a community that was devastated by a wildfire several years earlier. The garden is maintained by volunteers dedicated to educating homeowners how to reduce risk and save water. One is Peggy Petitmermet, whose firewise/waterwise garden I wrote a feature article about for Organic Gardening (the current issue).


Here’s one firewise garden vignette for frost-free areas: Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’ surrounded by Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ (background), blue Senecio mandraliscae (groundcover, foreground right) and creeping elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’).

Aloe arborescens cluster_JFR copy

Aloe arborescens blooms in January; it’s the plant that protected Suzy’s art studio. The mounding succulent  is common throughout Southern California, is easy to grow, and like most succulents, can be propagated readily from cuttings.

If you live in SoCA and are concerned about wildfire, I’m teaching a Firewise/Waterwise Landscaping class at Quail Botanical Gardens, September 20.  Please join us!

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
15 Comments… add one

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jo September 7, 2009, 12:27 pm

Dear Debra,

Can’t imagine anything worse than having the threat of fire hanging over one. How brave of you to write this post and put a positive spin on it.

We in the UK are advised by the police to plant spiky thorny shrubs that deter burglars, but that is laughable compared to the threats you are facing.

My own workshop was destroyed by water in January, but again, water is not as devastating a threat as fire. I feel for you and especially reading that as a gardener you have to deal with this long-lasting severe water shortage as well.

It makes me feel guilty grouching over a few snails and slugs 🙂

Hi, Jo, Anywhere you live, there’s some threat of natural disaster, plus a Pandora’s box full of creepy crawlies that want to decimate the paradise you’re trying to create. As my gardener says, “Asi es la vida.” (Such is life.) Debra

Susie September 7, 2009, 12:57 pm

I was intrigued by your LA Times article, clipped it & saved it in my files. I then had a client whose yard was primarily succulents. So interested in succulents after that, I bought your book & am slowly introducing them into my yard.

Hi, Susie, I’m continually amazed at how many people clipped and saved the article. It even was on display at the San Diego County Fair after it came out, accompanying an exhibit of firewise plants. I’m glad you found it helpful! Debra

Loree/danger garden September 7, 2009, 1:21 pm

That first photo with the flame to the agave looks like plant abuse! But good information.

Hi, Loree. A nurseryman whose growing grounds were threatened by the fire is holding the lighter. He’s a huge proponent of using succulents as firewise plants, and was enthusiastic about helping me get the word out. It’s a dramatic photo, isn’t it? The agave was unfazed. Debra

donna September 7, 2009, 3:32 pm

Great article , Debra — I gave you a shoutout on Facebook for your talk…

Hi, Donna, Thanks so much for passing the word! I’m a huge fan of Facebook, and enjoy reading the posts and sharing what’s going on in my little universe. Let’s become Facebook friends (and that goes for the rest of you, too)! Debra

ryan September 7, 2009, 3:35 pm

Great story. We designed and installed a firewise demo garden for a fire department once, but it never got tested like that. We didn’t even test the agaves with a lighter. The photo of the jade plant is great.

Hi, Ryan, I wish more fire departments in SoCA would install firewise gardens. Most don’t have the budget to do so. This one is maintained by dedicated volunteers. I also wish that brochures and online info given out by fire agencies were more savvy when it comes to plant material. They often recommend native plants, I suppose because they’re afraid to recommend anything that might be invasive. But most CA natives (though low-water) burn readily and are difficult to establish. Succulents are both firewise and waterwise, and no threat to the local ecology. Debra

Joanne September 7, 2009, 4:04 pm

What an amazing story.

Pam/Digging September 7, 2009, 11:41 pm

Brilliant solution for a fire-prone area—and parts of Austin certainly qualify. I only wish we could plant more of your beautiful succulents, but we are not frost-free, at least not yet.

Hi, Pam — Thank you for your comment! Btw, I absolutely love your website and your photography. Those recent shots of bees are amazing ;+) Debra

Gail September 8, 2009, 8:59 am

An excellent read! Thank you~~gail

Betty-Ann Heggie September 8, 2009, 10:32 am

I live in Canada where our extreme winters make annuals out of plants that are perennials in most other locations- sigh! I love what you have done here – in harmony with the earth and its many faces.

Hi, Betty-Ann, Our climate is why the population of SoCA has surged, thereby making property in the backcountry more desirable. Factor drought, water rationing and Santa Ana winds into the equation…and, well, just be glad you live where you do! Debra

rebecca sweet September 8, 2009, 1:33 pm

Wow – what an amazing story, coupled with amazing photos! I, myself, had to evacuate my home in Laguna Beach many years ago when the fires destroyed that area (we were one of the lucky ones whose home remained untouched)…We’ll be retiring someday to a fire-prone area (Sonoma county) and will definitely be planting lots of succulents – not only because I adore them, but because of their drought tolerance and their resistance to fire. Thanks for such a great article!!

Hi, Rebecca — I’m glad your home in lovely Laguna Beach was spared. Btw, I enjoy you on Twitter (@sweetrebecca) and I see from your blog you’ve done some inspired plantings of succulents in your garden (those echeverias)! Debra

Germi September 8, 2009, 6:37 pm

Debra ! Your article from the Times was clipped, copied, and is in the packet I give all of my consult clients. These images are amazing, and I know that your work has opened many eyes not only to the beauty of succulents, but why they are a crucial part of the So Cal plant palette. Where there are fires (the fires last week were very close to me), there HAS to be thoughtful landscaping. Thank you so much for being a fearless leader!

Hey, Ivette, high praise indeed! I’m glad you’re OK. Now, if we can just get through the rest of the season…Debra

Michelle D. September 9, 2009, 12:23 am

Hello Debra,
Though I did not clip that wonderful article , I sure do remember it.
Many of my projects are on steep hillsides that meet the ‘fire ladder’ criteria.
I try to incorporate a large portion of the plantscape over to succulents to help deter and slow down a fire.
I sometimes face resistance from clients who are not open to the idea of succulents , but your article would be a wonderful positive reenforcement to those who balk at the notion of succulents.
Thankfully through books like yours and informative articles in Sunset Magazine, it is becoming easier to talk homeowners into planting succulents.
Thanks for this and other articles.
Michelle D.

Hi, Michelle — All too often people think of succulents as jade, cactus and century plants, because those are so common. But as you know, over the past few decades, many marvelous succulents have been introduced to the nursery trade and now are readily available. These are shown in my book, Designing with Succulents. Also, any time you need it, my LA Times article on firewise plants is on my website, Debra

sandra742 September 9, 2009, 9:58 am

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

Dear Sandra-
Welcome! We’re so glad you found us! Fran

Commonweeder September 9, 2009, 10:40 am

Fascinating information. I never thought about a garden being able to save the garden – and the house.

Smart landscaping in fireprone areas is important, but unfortunately in the intense heat of a wildfire, even plants with juicy, gel-filled leaves will burn. They’re not the only answer, but at least they don’t transmit flames, and can even extinguish them. Debra

healingmagichands September 9, 2009, 12:08 pm

A timely post, and well crafted. The firewise gardens you feature are amazingly beautiful. Sedums and hen and chicks and agaves and all those beautiful other succulents are water sippers too.

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