Sherman Gardens: home of the world's most famous succulent mosaic

Before my recent trip to Southern California, the only thing I associated with Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar is the succulent mosaic created by Matt Maggio. I'm sure you've seen photos of it; there are quite a few on Pinterest and other social media sites. Here's a section of it:

As it turns out, the succulent mosaic is just one part of the Succulent Garden, which was completely renovated in 2005-2006 with Matt Maggio's help. And the Succulent Garden is only one of a dozen different gardens; see this interactive map for an overview.

Most plant lovers come here to see the gardens but there's also a renowned research library specializing in the history of the Pacific Southwest, hence the official name Sherman Library & Gardens.

Reading up on the history of Sherman Library & Gardens, I was surprised to find out that the property was a nursery when businessman Arnold Haskell (1895-1977) bought it in 1955. The old adobe house at the corner of Dahlia Ave and Pacific Coast Highway was built in the late 1930s by the Lushbaughs, a young couple who hand-fired all the adobe bricks. They had bought the land from the City of Newport Beach for $600—that's less than the price per square foot of an average house today! Here is a very interesting article from the Sherman Library's collection entitled "When Nobody Bought $100 Lots in Corona del Mar." Wouldn't it be nice to travel back in time and buy a few of those cheap lots?

In the 1960s, Haskell acquired the rest of the 2.2 acre block and created a series of gardens open to the public as a refuge from the "stress and pressures of daily schedules" (1). He chose the name Sherman Library & Gardens in honor of his mentor and benefactor Moses Sherman (1853-1932), a pioneering Southern California real-estate developer (the city of Sherman Oaks still carries his name). So what I'd assumed to be a historical property with roots going back to pre-statehood days had actually been Norman's Nursery (plus the Lushbaughs' modest 1930's single-room adobe)!

Walking from the parking lot towards the entrance of Sherman Library & Gardens, I smiled when I saw poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) planted not only in window boxes but also in the hell strip separating the sidewalk from the Pacific Coast Highway. That's not a sight you'd see where I live in Northern California!

The dragon trees (Dracaena draco) along the sidewalk were yet another reminder that I was in coastal Southern California:

More Dracaena drago inside the garden:

And the largest bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.) I've ever seen:

Another surprise right inside the entrance was this plant appearing to climb up the trunk of an old trumpet vine:

On closer inspection it turned out to be a tapeworm plant (Homalocladium platycladium). It also goes by the less parasitic name ribbon bush. This member of the knotweed family from Papua New Guinea is easy to identify by its flattened jointed stems. I have one growing in the front yard in a shady spot near our hardy tapioca tree (Manihot grahamii), and it's never lost its leaves in the winter. Online sources say it's evergreen to 25°F but it will re-sprout from the base if the stems are killed by lower temperatures. Even though Homalocladium platycladium hails from a hot and humid tropical climate, it's quite drought-tolerant. Having seen how beautiful it looks seemingly growing up the trunks of the trumpet vine, I've decided to wire mine to the trunk of our Manihot grahamii.

The next photo caused a stir of excitement, especially among me and Denise of A Growing Obsession who had joined Hoover Bo (Piece of Eden), her husband and me for this outing. People in other parts of the country will probably laugh, especially if they can grow fancy heucheras with ease. In California, those multi-hued beauties have a hard time dealing with our hot, dry summers. Even if they survive, by fall their formerly brilliantly hued leaves have devolved into a muddy green, which defeats any reason for growing them. Denise suggested treating them like annuals, but considering that the nicer cultivars are fairly pricey, that would be an expensive proposition. Instead, I'll enjoy them in other gardens.

We visited the Sherman Library & Gardens on December 27 and the holiday decorations were still up. My favorite were these tinsel curtains. They moved and rustled in the slightest breeze:

Variegated Schefflera arboricola

These blue lights were pretty but hard to photograph

This over-the-top pink flamingo tree made everybody laugh

Now we're approaching the Succulent Garden, the main reason why I wanted to come here. This large rhipsalis in a hanging planter flanked by a softly fluttering curtain set the scene quite dramatically:

I almost missed the succulents planted under each step (thank you, Denise, for pointing them out):

I'm generally not a big fan of sticking succulents into an old disused fountain, but who can resist when it's this well done:

Now we've arrived at the much-photographed succulent mosaic bed. It was created by Matt Maggio in 2006 when he was a horticulture student at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. For two summers in a row he was awarded a scholarship by Sherman Library & Gardens that included a 6-week paid internship. During these internships, we helped renovate the old Cactus Garden which lacked interest and was often ignored by visitors. The overhaul expanded the scope of plantings (hence the name change from Cactus Garden to Succulent Garden) and significantly amped up the visual appeal. In a 2010 article in Pacific Horticulture Magazine entitled "A Succulent Oasis at Sherman Library & Gardens" (here), Matt describes the project in great detail:
To foster public appreciation of a xeric garden, we amplified the soft whispers of desert beauty. The concept was to concentrate 1,200 square miles of desert splendor into 1,200 square feet, erasing any empty voids between points of interest. Every square inch was carpeted with detail—no barren soil left at all.
He continues:
Molding succulents into a metaphor of water was no accident; I wanted a garden so packed with latent moisture that it could be deemed a water garden. To counteract widely held misconceptions about xeric plants, we used the dwarf blue senecios to represent a river, with “water” cascading into it from a massive terra cotta basin. If such opulence did not suggest a succulent oasis (rather than fabricated images of desolation), all hope would be lost amidst the swirling desert sands.
I highly recommend you read Matt's Pacific Horticulture article. It sheds light not only on the design process but also on the history of Sherman Library & Gardens.

To do the succulent mosaic justice, I took quite a few photos. There are so many details, I could have spent hours analyzing everything. Considering that plants like echeverias and sedums are vigorous growers, maintaining this bed in the perfect condition I found it in must be time-consuming. I, for one, appreciated the effort put in by the staff and volunteers to keep things looking pristine.

The large variegated plant in the background is Furcraea foetida 'Mediopicta'. The much smaller agave in front of the furcraea is what used to be called Agave gypsophila 'Ivory Curls', now Agave pablocarrilloi 'Ivory Curls'.

View of the entire succulent mosaic

Agave ovatifolia, one of my faves

The next series of photos are of the other beds in the Succulent Garden:

The large tree aloe is Aloidendron barberae

The greenish-yellow "cactus" is Euphorbia ammak 'Variegata'

Aloidendron barberae (left), Euphorbia ammak 'Variegata' (right)

Aloidendron barberae (left), Aloe ferox and Euphorbia ammak 'Variegata' (right)

Agave vilmoriniana and Pedilanthus macrocarpus

Euphorbia cooperi

Euphorbia cooperi with flowers

Euphorbia horrida 'Snow Flake'

Alluaudia (probably ascendens) in the back, Tylecodon paniculatus in the front

The tall tree "cactus" is Euphorbia ingens, not a cactus at all


Agave 'Kissho Kan'

Agave 'Moon Glow'

Adjacent to the Succulent Garden is a massive pepper tree (Schinus molle) planted in the early 1940s by the Lushbaughs after they had completed their one-room adobe house. The tree is now over 70 years old.

Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle)

In a fairly random fashion we ambled on through the Palm Collection to the Perennial Garden. One of the biggest surprise here was this flowering pin-cushion bush (Leucospermum sp.). Leucospermums aren't exactly rare in Southern California, but they don't typically flower until February or March. Clearly this winter has been very mild.

Leucospermum flower

Palm Collection

Looking back towards the Succulent Garden

Another eye catcher in the Perennial Garden was the amaranth you see below. The flowers were so red, they almost burned my eyes! I'm not sure what cultivar it was, but it looks a lot like Amaranthus tricolor 'Molten Fire', introduced by none other than Luther Burbank in 1922.

Amaranthus tricolor 'Molten Fire' with Leucadendron 'Jester'

Aeonium sp. and Encephalartos horridus

At the entrance to the Tropical Conservatory, I spotted this inspired combination of Lavandula × allardii 'Meerlo', a variegated hybrid between French (Lavandula dentata) and spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia), and a clump of purpled-leaved Neoregelia, a bromeliad native to South American rainforests. What a contrast in leaf color and texture!

More bromeliads are planted outside the Tropical Conservatory, including this Quesnelia marmorata with its strangely rolled up leaves:

Staghorn ferns, orchids and Spanish moss are attached to a nearby tree:

This mystery bromeliad caused quite a stir in our group:

Not only was the inflorescence remarkably tall (a good 4½ ft., I'd say), it had dozens of plantlets on it—offsets identical to the mother plant just waiting to drop to the ground and root. Denise finally asked a staff member; she couldn't ID it either but (bless her heart) proceeded to do some digging in the office and finally found an invoice from the grower the plant had come from. It turns out it is Tillandsia secunda, possibly the largest tillandsia. Unlike most of its relatives that live in trees, Tillandsia secunda grows on rocks or in the ground. The rosette can be as wide as 2 ft. While I'm not sure how much cold Tillandsia secunda can take, I bought two of them on eBay after I got home from my trip. I sense a new bromeliad obsession brewing...

The Tropical Conservatory contains a koi pond and the expected selection of tropical plants, including ferns, palms, orchids, gingers, etc. But what made it really special were the paper parasols suspended from the ceiling. They were like floating bubbles of happiness, bringing a smile to everybody's face.

My favorite palm, the ruffled fan palm (Licuala grandis), native to Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific

Literally the last photo I took at the Sherman Library & Gardens was of the Christmas tree in the middle of the Central Garden. Since the temperature was close to 80°F (27°C), I couldn't help but wonder if people in Southern California would even know it's Christmas if it weren't for the occasional Christmas tree!



  1. Wow, what a great overview of this garden. I'm even more determined now to squeeze a visit in between business commitments when I go down in March. Ha! I love that you bought Tillandsia secunda. Gotta push that envelope !

    1. Yes, definitely try to go. There's a lot of good stuff packed into 2 acres.

  2. Love this series. Looking at my home ground through a "foreigner's" eyes makes me appreciate it more.

    I would like to grow amaranthus like that. Maybe I'll try again. Yes, Heuchera is very problematical here. They only look good on the shaded nursery shelves.

    Thank you, Gerhard. PS I just bought a flamingo. What nonsense, eh?

    Yes, Christmas is that holiday that comes before New Year's and the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl. Much ado then. We love poinsettias because they bring Christmas color since we don't have snow and holly berries.

    1. We should get together on my next SoCal trip! Would love to see your garden.

      I'll order some amaranth seed and will give it a try as well. Heucheras are a lost cause for me. The only species I've had success with is the the plain old Heuchera maxima.

      As for pink flamingos, I'd be lying if I said that I've never owned one :-)

  3. You did a wonderful job capturing the succulent garden! I wonder just how many people spend how much time per week maintaining that garden? I was there just 6 months ago and I see all kinds of signs that it's been spruced up here and there. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    1. I think the success of a succulent tapestry like this one depends entirely on how actively it is maintained. I imagine quite a bit of replanting takes place, considering how quickly some echeverias grow leggy.

  4. Great shots of the succulent mosaic! It's a very interesting and inspiring garden. I'm sorry I can't help being amused by the excitement over Heucheras. They do grow well here, but right now, at this time of year, they all look like crap, while they wait to leaf out again. And it doesn't take long till they're leggy and ugly and need to be divided and pulled up and bits rerooted and and and. We all want what we can't have, don't we? Anyway, I've always wanted to see the Sherman Gardens mosaic, and your photos are the next best thing.

    1. I knew you and other gardeners in the PNW would be amused by my comments on heucheras :-)

  5. Playing with the garden cat, chatting up the staff about mystery tillandsias -- you'd think we owned the place! I do like Pedilanthus macrocarpus and need to find some - my tall, green, leafy one is definitely P. bracteatus. So glad we could join you for your visit to this little gem. I pop in frequently for the concentrated dose of plants ;)

    1. I had forgotten the garden cat! What was his name? I meant to take a picture but he didn't stay still.

      I bet the horticulturist we talked to was excited that we showed so much interest.

  6. Wow! What a place. I never tire of seeing pictures of that succulent mosaic. The parasols, flamingo tree, and fabulous plants have me swooning. Thanks for the garden porn!

  7. The cat's name was Julius Caesar, Jules for short.

    How did I remember that?

  8. I'd seen pictures of the succulent mosaic before, but your photos really got me excited, Gerhard! The Dragon Trees were wonderful as is the whole garden. Gotta get down there sometime!


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