In Search of the Surreal

No visit to Cornwall is complete without a spot of plant shopping. The nurseries in the county I consider home are among the best in the country, particularly for the kinds of plants I am interested in. As a rule, the further south west you go, the more gem-like the nurseries become: there’s Penberth Plants at St. Buryan, Kelnan Plants at Gulval and Hardy Exotics at Whitecross, all within a stone’s throw of Penzance. Relatively new to the area’s nursery scene is Surreal Succulents, a specialist in – you guessed it – succulents.

Botanists define succulents as plants possessing some parts that are more than normally thickened or fleshy, adapted for the purpose of retaining water in arid conditions. Although succulents technically include cacti, gardeners typically think of rosette-forming plants such as echeveria, sempervivum, aloe and agave, or plants with fleshy leaves and stems such as crassula, kalanchoe, euphorbia and mesembryanthemum when referring to succulents. Succulents arise in many plant families and inhabit every continent on earth. Their tolerance of adverse conditions, especially a lack of water, make them uniquely suitable as house plants. In recent years (and not before time) the popularity of indoor plants has exploded. No longer the preserve of specialists and little old ladies with sun rooms, succulents have burst onto the scene in every shape, form and colour imaginable. I for one can’t get enough of them.

Succulents come in all shapes and sizes

At the forefront of the surge in succulents’ popularity are enthusiasts like Dan Michael of Surreal Succulents. Last week I was lucky enough to grab an hour of Dan’s time at his retail nursery near Penzance. It was a bright autumn day and a pleasure to be outside, the sun on my back, surrounded by a handsome array of well-grown plants. Many had returned from medal-winning glory at this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

‘Succulents just get better and better as they mingle together. We’ve kept them in their RHS show displays to demonstrate to our customers how succulents can be used in their gardens’.

Dan Michael, Surreal Succulents
Many of the plants featured here travelled from Cornwall to London and back again.

Like me, Dan recognised his love of plants at an early age, growing up close to Morrab Gardens in Penzance, a park famous for its collection of Mediterranean and subtropical plants. After spending 12 years as part of the gardening team at St. Michael’s Mount, Dan decided it was time to move to the mainland and indulge his growing passion for succulent plants. By chance Dr. Neil Armstrong, the visionary G.P. behind Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, was looking for someone to take on a small retail nursery on the site. ‘It was a quite a big risk’ says Dan, who worked in the sculpture gardens until his fledgling business found its feet, ‘the first couple of years were really hard going’. Four years later the nursery is flourishing alongside an excellent shop, restaurant and, of course, the sculpture gardens themselves, just a short walk up the shady valley.

Surreal Succulent’s Mark Lea (middle) and Dan Michael (right)

For the last eighteen months Dan has been working in partnership with Mark Lea, an expert in product design. ‘Mark is the reason we have been able to branch out and participate in events such as the RHS shows’, explains Dan, ‘we have both worked so incredibly hard together. Mark’s role in the business and on the social media side of things means that we’ll be able to maximise the potential of Surreal Succulents’. Dan and Mark clearly make a great team, combining experience, passion, an eye for good design and, crucially, an understanding of what makes a business tick in the 21st Century.

Buy me! Buy me!

Surreal Succulents now have a transactional website, dispatching plants all through the year. ‘The nursery is particularly busy during the summer months’, says Dan, ‘visitors to Cornwall often want to take a plant home as a reminder of their stay’. Succulents travel well and take up very little space in a packed car, making the perfect souvenir. Aeoniums, in particular A. ‘Zwartkop’, have almost become a Cornish garden cliché. Rooted cuttings are frequently offered at roadside honesty boxes, farmers’ markets and car boot sales. However there’s a catch – aeoniums are not hardy outdoors except in the far south west. Even here you’re taking a risk and many didn’t survive The Beast from The East. Through a process of hybridisation and new introductions from other specialist nurseries, Surreal Succulents are now offering aeoniums that will tolerate a few degrees of frost: among them are Aeonium ‘Ice Warrior’ and Aeonium ‘Pomegranate’. I purchased the former, so will let you know how I get on with it this winter.

Aeonium ‘Pomegranate’

Being a huge fan of succulents I posed Dan a host of questions which he answered with grace and patience. Here’s what he had to say:

Why is Cornwall such a fantastic place to grow succulents?

‘The climate is mild and frosts are rare. When they do occur a few layers of fleece will protect them from the worst effects of the cold. Succulents generally don’t object to Cornwall’s fierce, salty winds owing to the waxy, protective coating on their leaves. In the gardens at St. Michael’s Mount they get a fair battering. Winter wet is the enemy, which is why growing succulents on their side in a wall, on a slope, or on a bed of gravel is important. Even if the roots rot away in a wet winter the top part may survive and re-root.’

Must all succulents bask in the sun all day long?

‘Not at all. Many succulents will tolerate some shade, although this may cause a slight change in the colour of the foliage. This isn’t necessarily a negative sign. It’s a trait in many succulents that the pigment colours alter depending on environmental conditions. No-one is really certain why this happens, but shade may mean stronger contrasts and colours become less apparent. For part shade I’d recommend Aeonium tabuliforme, which grows on cliffs in its natural environment so may never see the sun, and also A. ‘Emerald Flame’ and A. ‘Phoenix Flame’. Some crassulas, haworthias and aloes will also cope with a degree of shade. If you are growing succulents in shade, they should be given less food and water to prevent them becoming too ‘soft”

What’s the ideal growing medium for succulents?

‘Great drainage is essential. A multipurpose compost is fine, but add perlite, grit and even chunks of polystyrene to keep the medium light and open. A top dressing of a pale coloured gravel will reflect light and heat back onto the plant.’

Do you have a favourite succulent?

‘Not really ….. although I do have soft spot for Aloe polyphylla (spiral aloe) from the Kingdom of Lesotho in Southern Africa. It’s an unusual succulent that enjoys copious water and food. Compared to other succulents it grows relatively fast. Aloe polyphylla is most recognised for creating a large rosette of leaves, forming a perfect clockwise or anticlockwise spiral.’

If I were completely new to growing succulents, which ones would you recommend?

Echeveria elegans (Mexican snowball) which is hardy to -4ºC and Echeveria glauca (Mexican hens and chicks – don’t ask me why!). They are tough, undemanding and will make a nice clump quickly. Echeveria cante is another beauty, but it’s not hardy.’

And for a plantaholic like me?

Watch this space. We’re preparing hundreds of new species and hybrids for introduction next year, many of which have been raised from seed. This is the part of the job I love the most. In the meantime, how about Echeveria ‘Nasa’ with its orange-edged leaves, or rose-flushed Echeveria ‘Moonshadow’?

Which non-succulent plants do succulents associate well with?

‘There are so many succulent plants that it’s perfectly possible to plant up a container solely with succulents, and yet still create texture and drama. Grasses are great companion plants, provided they are also drought tolerant – Stipa tenuissima is a favourite.’

Any other tips?

‘Succulents may become dormant, that is they stop actively growing, during periods of sustained drought, heat or cold. During these periods it’s important not to feed or water excessively as this can cause rot to set in later. Wake them slowly from their slumber and they’ll flourish.’

A vibrant arrangement of succulents with a cycad to add height. Middle left: Aloe polyphylla

A quick browse through the Surreal Succulents website proves just how much choice is already out there. The range is staggering, each species or hybrid offering something different. I find it so easy to get carried away but choose just three to take home this time (I am also gifted Aloe polyphylla, which is lovely surprise).

I’ve been observing the development of this unusual green roof for the last four years

Meanwhile I have a major succulent-based project on the drawing board at home, inspired the roof of the nursery building at Tremenheere. Dan designed the structure himself, building the roof up at a 7º angle and using a multitude of light, free-draining materials to create the optimum growing conditions for succulents. Having gone from strength to strength, the roof was replanted this year. It is already becoming established and will soon be ready to face whatever the winter throws at it. The roof requires weeding and tidying 3-4 times a year and the plants remain in situ all year round. This is precisely what I want at The Watch House above the workshop, complete with glazed roof lights. I should be able to provide very similar conditions in Broadstairs, where we generally have mild winters and warm, dry summers. It’s top of my to-do list for when that big lottery win comes in! 

The nursery roof was replanted in July 2018

Real experts like Dan exude an infectious energy. They make me want to try new things, learn and be a better gardener. I leave Surreal Succulents with a spring in my step and a fresh appreciation for the beauty and diversity of this tolerant, tenacious group plants. TFG.

Agaves, echeverias, aeoniums and haworthias create a tapestry of colour in an iron bowl.