The Sea-Sand Plants of Desire

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Every year, as Halloween approaches, I recall my visit to Professor Mordant’s garden on the forbidden island of Desire. I call it forbidden because it was rumored to be an eerie, inhospitable place—a volcanic outcropping devoid of vegetation. Nothing like the mainland resort where I and other garden writers had been sunning ourselves in style.

I alone accepted Mordant’s invitation. I calmed my trepidation by anticipating a big story…or at least a small adventure. It turned out to be both. But except for these photos, I am unable to prove it.  I fear that now, after the tsunami, this is the only record that remains.

The moon had risen on All-Hallow’s Eve by the time the boatman set me ashore on the rocky beach of Desire. The professor was waiting, his black cape billowing. Behind him, within a hidden cove, the glass of a greenhouse glinted.

Were he disappointed that I came alone, the professor gave no indication.  Gesturing grandly, he explained that the greenhouse was semi-submerged, depending on the tides, and that it contained the largest collection of rare sea-sand creatures anywhere in the world. Many—like these fanged clams—were nocturnal, and beginning to awaken.

Rusty hinges groaned as Mordant pushed open the greenhouse door. Inside, the air was dank. What at first appeared to be frost on the window panes was actually sea salt. But when I saw the specimens arrayed on rocks, terraces and benches, I  murmured, “Wondrous things!”

“Quite a few sea-sand plants are furred,” the professor told me. “The adaptation enables them to trap and ingest plankton.”

Alongside a colony of bearded orbs, an eel-like plant bristled with yellow, bullet-shaped blooms.

In the back of the greenhouse was an aquarium open to the sky. Of the onion-like orbs inside the tank, the professor said, “When dormant, they rise to the surface. In the open ocean, they can float for years before washing ashore.”

“Are they green sea spheres?” I asked. “But I thought they were extinct. That is, if they ever existed.”

“Yes. These are rarer—and more valuable—than ambergris.”

Did this explain the bulging burlap sack that he had handed to the boatman? I regarded the professor’s angular profile. Was it possible this hermit was wealthier than any Egyptian pharaoh? Had he ever married? Clearly, his current passion was his collection.


“But who would buy them, and for what purpose?” I asked.

He squinted at a reptilian, multi-pointed specimen near me. “Be careful. That’s a Pele plant.”

I drew back. “Pay-lay?”

“Named for the mythical volcano goddess of Hawaii. The plant is bioluminescent when submerged. Out of water, it exudes a substance that burns the skin.”


Other sea-sand flora in Mordant’s collection were an astonishing azure blue with figlike fruit…

…had bladders that squirted a milt-like mix of water and seeds…

…or were as airy and delicate as jellyfish.

But by far the most abundant were what Mordant called blister plants. These resembled stones, but were turgid and water-filled.

Of a pinkish blister plant the professor said, “What appear to be blood vessels are the remains of the inflorescence. This variety also sheds a papery skin as it grows.”

“These are the most common.” He pointed to a handful of beach pebbles that on closer inspection seemed to be undergoing mitosis.

“What genus do blister plants belong to?”

He sighed. “Mordant,” my dear, “Mordant.”

I hope you enjoyed my Halloween spoof. For the names of the plants, which are primarily cacti and succulents from very dry climates, mouse over an image and the keyword will appear. — Debra

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
13 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Lisa at Greenbow October 20, 2010, 2:59 pm

This was indeed a fun read. I hoping that you weren’t going to be abducted by a spiny plant. I love those living rocks. I have tried to grow them several times. No luck. I won’t torture any more of them.
Nearly everyone I’ve met who has tried to grow lithops and other rock lookalikes says the same thing. But like any other plant—roses come to mind—once you understand its cultivation requirements, growing it seems easy. — Debra

Not-So-Angry Redhead October 20, 2010, 4:30 pm

How interesting! And a little scary! Cool!!!!
Exactly the reaction I was hoping for! — Debra

Elephant's Eye October 20, 2010, 5:57 pm

Lithops, two long deep leaves, with just a window on the top to let the light in. A protection from the desert heat. And I first saw them nurtured at the botanical garden in Zurich. Should have met them before, since they are South African plants.

What a treat to hear from South African bloggers Diana and Jurg. Welcome! I enjoyed your recent post on your succulent garden. Amazing what you grow there that also flourishes in Southern CA. I’d love a post on lithops in its native habitat. — Debra

Loree / danger garden October 20, 2010, 11:48 pm

I thought for a brief moment that you had lost our mind. And then I decided that you were just having fun with us. Great pictures.

Hi, Loree — Thank you! I made the photos more blue to make them look like they were in moonlight. ;+) Debra

Dawn October 21, 2010, 8:32 am

I loved it, even was believing it a bit until I found some of my favorite succulents. Thanks for the giggle! Now a have a few more plants to look for at the annual sales and plant trades.

Hi, Dawn — My fictional adventure does sound plausible until you see the “fanged clam,” ha. Guess you could tell I turned some of the photos sideways to make them more plausible for the story. — Debra

healingmagichands October 21, 2010, 9:21 am

Wonderfully eerie writing, made me desire to learn more about these fabulous plants. You really can imagine these denizens of the dry and sere living undersea. . .

Lots of succulents look like undersea plants, in fact there’s a large undersea-themed succulent display at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Hm. Maybe I should do a photo essay on it for a future post? — Debra

Bonnie October 21, 2010, 9:31 am

Loved this post!

Thanks, Bonnie! Happy Halloween. OMG, I first typed “Halloweed.” A freudian slip? ;+) — Debra

thistleandthorn October 21, 2010, 10:03 am

Good job, Debra! That was fun!

Thank you! It was fun writing it. Btw, if you liked this, you might also enjoy my post on fairies in the garden — Debra

Pam/Digging October 21, 2010, 6:27 pm

Eerily beautiful — and what a fun story to go with it! Your pictures are stunning, and close-up it IS amazing how much they resemble sea creatures.

There are many more that look like brain coral, seaweed, urchins, starfish and the like. –Debra

Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings October 27, 2010, 1:16 pm

Very creative. You had me for a moment, and then I thought “huh?” Good one. Interesting that Desire is so thorny in your Halloween story.~~Dee

Thanks, Dee. I don’t know where I go the name Desire—doubtless it’s Freudian. It does lend a certain air of poignant lunacy, doesn’t it? — Debra

ESP October 27, 2010, 11:45 pm

Fantastic post, great story telling, and inspiring images. You need to watch all five episodes of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner on my blog…(not really 🙂 …but a fitting post.
Great read Debra.

Thanks, ESP. Hm. You’ve given me a thought—maybe I should have written it as a ballad. ;+) Debra

Celadine Rogers October 29, 2010, 1:18 pm

Wow, these photos are beautiful!

Thank you, Celadine! — Debra

The Rainforest Gardener November 6, 2010, 10:19 am

This was great, Debra! The fantasy plants are almost as amazing and interesting as the real ones in the photos, and that “Pele plant” was a new one for me. It really looks like a cross between a lava flow and a sea anemone!

Thanks, Steve! It’s a crested ariocarpus, a succulent characterized by tufts of what look like white fur. I shot this one at the Los Angeles Arboretum, during the annual Cactus & Succulent Society show. Please drop by again! — Debra

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