Califonia Bountiful

Living art that's not your standard garden fare

Nov./Dec. 2007 California Country magazine

Succulent plants may thrive best in the arid, desolate conditions of the desert, but these days they have found new life as topiaries.

Succulent plants may thrive best in the arid, desolate conditions of the desert, but these days they have found new life through a variation of an old art form.

For topiary artist Margee Rader, these popular desert plants have the ability to morph into shapes and forms that are limited only by her imagination. She has created an entire line of living sculptures from succulents that range from a 7-foot fountain to elegant lady's slippers.

Unlike traditional topiaries where evergreen shrubs are pruned and trained into geometric shapes or forms depicting people, animals and objects, Rader's work incorporates a wide variety of succulent cuttings to give her topiaries depth, color and texture.

The concept of using succulents for topiaries actually came from the late horticulturist and author Teddy Colbert, who established the technique in 1977 when she created her first "living wreath." Colbert filled a metal-wired frame with soil wrapped with moss and copper wire and planted the succulents to cover the frame. The succulent cuttings root easily in the mixture and can be pruned later to retain the frame's shape.

Before her death in 2001, Colbert sold her idea to EuroAmerican Propagators, a wholesale nursery in San Diego County that Rader's brother, John Rader, co-owns. The 57-acre nursery also inherited Colbert's plants and now grows all the stock used in Rader's topiaries, although its main business is growing liners, or whole trays of baby plants that other nurseries then grow into bigger plants.

Rader took over the living wreath line and has since expanded Colbert's idea to include topiary handbags, teacups, hearts, stars and hanging orbs. Rader has a small crew of workers—she calls them succulent elves—that painstakingly insert hundreds of succulent cuttings into the moss-covered frames that form the finished piece.

Rader said the trend toward water-efficient gardens and landscaping has propelled the recent popularity of succulents.

"They're really starting to catch on in the last few years," she said. "I think people are realizing that we need to conserve more water. They want their yards to look nice but they also want to be able to leave them and come back to them and have their plants still be alive."

Rader said the biggest mistake consumers make with succulents is overwatering them or not giving them enough sun.

"They kind of thrive on neglect," she said. "The less you do with them, the better."

For more information about Rader's living wreaths and other topiaries, visit or call 800-833-3981.

(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at

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