Despite our wet climate, certain types of succulents can survive in the Northwest.

Share story

WHEN IT COMES to succulents, we live in the wrong climate. Our weather is too rainy, the soil too heavy, the sun neither consistent nor hot enough to grow the showiest ones.

And of course it’s all those seductive succulents with bravado that we crave. Like spiky Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks of Fire’, the fuzzy-leafed kalanchoes, spotted rosettes of aloes. And those beautiful auburn-toned, ruffled-leafed Echeveria hybrids that, unfortunately, melt away when the temperature drops below freezing.

In the past few years, as our gardening patterns change in accordance with shifting weather patterns, more hardy succulents are becoming available. I checked in with Debra Lee Baldwin, author of three books on the subject, to see whether there are any succulents for our climate that she is, well, actually excited about.

Keep in mind that Baldwin lives in Southern California and grows a half acre of what she calls “plants that drink responsibly.” (She blogs, photos, lectures about and collects succulents.) So while she might not truly understand our succulent deprivation up here, she’s certainly sympathetic. She points out that we can grow pretty much any succulent we’d like to in the Northwest … as an annual.

“Succulents are remarkably tough survivors, but if they aren’t adapted to your environment, they won’t make it,” says Baldwin. She says many succulents are surprisingly cold-hardy when protected from excess rain. I ask whether dragging the pots beneath a roof overhang from November to May would help. “Yes, but don’t you need to consider wind-driven rain getting into the pots?” she asks. Well, yes …

Baldwin recommends the Utah agave (A. utahensis) for the Northwest. In the wild, it grows at an elevation of 5,000 feet, so survives winter temperatures to a remarkable 10 degrees below zero. “Agaves are very collectible, and do well in pots,” says Baldwin. Which is good, because you’ll need to move your agave collection under cover in winter, or the plants will rot from the wet, which they don’t tolerate well.

“I just can’t get enough of the Haworthias, and they’re so easy to breed that more are coming out all the time,” Baldwin says. These textural little succulents from South Africa are star-shaped, peaked, ridged, variegated and even striped, in the case of the zebra plant (H. attenuata). Most don’t survive freezing temperatures, but because they do well in low light, they can be brought indoors to overwinter on a windowsill.

I asked Baldwin why, besides the obvious climate-centered reason, she became so enamored with succulents. As a lifelong gardener and flower-lover, she first admired Echeveria ssp. because of their flowerlike rosettes. “The ultimate progression of appreciation leads to cacti,” she says. “Not that I want to garden with plants that bite … but cacti are endlessly fascinating.” She admires their elegance, simplicity and refinement.

While we can’t cultivate cactus in the Northwest, other than our native prickly pear cactus (which Baldwin calls “a thug that draws blood”), there are actually some succulents we can grow more successfully than Baldwin can in California. She struggles with our common hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum ssp.), of which she says, “Once you get into them, you appreciate their eyelash edges and bi-colors.”

And then there’s Sedum ‘Angelina’, the yellow stonecrop that grows so aggressively here that it takes over, even on green roofs. “I just can’t grow it,” says Baldwin regretfully.

To learn more about succulents, see Baldwin’s newest book, “Succulents Simplified” (Timber Press, 2013), and “Hardy Succulents” by Gwen Moore Kelaidis (Storey Publications, 2008).