Our Desert Curator Extraordinaire

It is 97°F under the sun's sweltering gaze in Claremont, but this does not deter Joe Clements, director of Pitzer College's arboretum, from enthusiastically extolling the merit of succulent plants and drought-tolerant landscaping.

For many of us, xeriscape (a landscape approach that uses drought-resistant grasses and plants, efficient watering systems and proper maintenance practices) is a relatively new term. But for some like Joe, who formerly served twenty-two years as the curator of the desert garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, it has long been a lifestyle. “Cacti are really growing in popularity. People have latched onto the idea that they look good all year round,” Joe was quoted recently as saying in the Los Angeles Times.

Joe Clements, Pitzer's arboretum director, advises gardeners at the L.A. County Fair on how to plant their succulent gardens.

Since Joe's arrival at Pitzer in 2001, the campus landscape has become increasingly desert-like and distinctive among lush pruned yards in a community of Jacaranda tree-lined streets. “Pitzer has more than thirty families of succulents of which there are at least forty representatives (genera) from the aloe and agave families alone. We have many Mediterranean natives as well as some endangered species. The Huntington Botanical Gardens may be the only other place in California that has forty or more,” Joe said. “The campus is sprinkled with plants from every continent except Antarctica.”

Walking through the Pitzer campus, Joe points out the mundane and the not so mundane succulents that live among us and provides both the Latin and the nicknames of each. As I tried, to no avail, to jot down notes to remember each, Joe casually mentioned that there are approximately 20,000 varieties of succulents.

“I have always spent a great deal of time in the local deserts and have a true appreciation for succulents as a desert geologist,” Joe said. “Succulents are special plants that have had to adapt to desert conditions as demonstrated by their spines.” Many of us, especially those who hail from other parts of the country, generally think of cacti as tall or round green plants with clusters of spines (some of which have a foreboding look and a do-not-touch façade). Yet, flowering cacti come in all shapes, sizes and a range of spectacular colors. The Pitzer campus contains Pink Clouds, Fairy Dusters, Blue Paloverdes, Birds of Paradise, Boojum Trees and rosette-shaped succulents—to name only a few of the many water-saving wonders that surround us.

Mammillaria pringlei.

(left to right): Mammillaria geminispina “Pincushion”, Calliandra californica “Fairy Duster”, Echeveria hybrid.

“Our goal is to create a sustainable campus with a mixture of natives, succulents and Mediterranean-type plants,” Joe said. “These plants are drought tolerant, sustainable and water-wise. As our stock continues to build over time, it will become less costly to replenish these plants.”

On another heat intensive day, I visit the L.A. County Fair to listen to Joe give a public presentation on how to propagate succulents through cuttings and seeds. Those in attendance quickly take note of Joe's expertise and delight in his knowledge and casual conversational approach in front of an audience. They want to know what to plant, how to plant, and when to water a succulent garden. Their questions are answered and they leave inspired to create or enhance a little drought-resistant magic of their own. Joe currently serves on the national board of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America and is listed as a consultant in the Sunset Western Garden Book.

—Susan Andrews, Vice President for Marketing & Public Relations

Did You Know?

  • Many cacti have spines that are modified leaves and a specialized organ called an areole.
  • Some cacti look similar to rocks and some have spines to protect them from being eaten.
  • The succulent named Sempervivum (“Live Forever”) comes from Eastern Europe and can survive temperatures well below 0°F.
  • Tequila comes from a type of agave that exists on our campus—the Agave tequilana.
  • Water is stored in a cactus' stems, leaves and roots.
  • Some succulents can survive without water for up to two years.
  • Succulents often assume a shape, such as a ball, to store up water for that “Rainless Day.”
  • All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
  • There are a number of succulents, Haworthias, Baby Toes, Peperomia and Lithops, to name a few, that actually have clear windows on their leaf tips to store as much light as possible.
  • Saguaro cacti can grow to more than thirty feet tall and can store as much as one ton of water. Some succulents can be smaller than one inch in diameter.