Unsung heroes in our garden

Most posts about our garden feature plants that attract attention – the stars and divas, you might say. But there are plenty of others that are less visible. They aren’t less pretty or less valuable, they just play a quieter role. They may not take center stage, but they would be sorely missed if they weren’t there.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to shine the spotlight on some of these unsung heroes and express my appreciation for their steadfastness and dependability.

Many of these quiet characters are groundcovers – succulents, more often than not, but not exclusively.

Echeveria minima

I love echeverias, but many of them, especially the fancier hybrids, don’t do well in our hot summers. Through trial and experimentation, I’ve found a few that do. This includes Echeveria minima, a beautiful small species that slowly forms dense mats.

Echeveria minima

A larger form of Echeveria minima on the right

Nearby are a few hybrid echeverias that have done really well:

Echeveria 'Lola' (top center) and Echeveria 'Zaragoza' (right and bottom center)

Next to these echeverias is a small cluster of Deuterocohnia brevifolia, a terrestrial bromeliad native to Argentina and Bolivia. Over time, it forms large mats or mounds (check out this massive sphere at Grow Nursery in Cambria, California).

Deuterocohnia brevifolia

Here’s a wider view of these echeverias and the deuterocohnia:

Wider view of the echeverias and deuterocohnia above

Below are a few other clumping or mounding succulents that add interest to areas that would otherwise be bare. Some produce spectacular but short-lived flowers, but they look good even without them.

Sedum adolphii ‘Firestorm’ (bottom), with Ceratozamia aurantiaca behind it

Dudleya anomala × attenuata

Dudleya anomala × attenuata

Cephalophyllum alstonii ‘Red Spike’ has Day-Glo magenta flowers in the spring

Dudleya virens ssp. hassei (left), Dyckia choristaminea (right)

Ruschia lineolata ‘Nana’ produces white and pink-striped flowers in the spring

Dymondia margaretae has become a popular turf substitute because it does tolerate at least some foot traffic. I once tried to use it as a replacement for the small lawn we had in the backyard, but it failed to thrive in what is a mostly shady area. However, it is thriving in this spot (and a few others) in the front yard, slowly extending into the walkway:

Dymondia margaretae

I’m a big fan of ferns, but most species require a much moister situation than I’m able to provide. There are quite a few xeric ferns, but for reasons unknown to me they’re virtually unavailable in the nursery trade. I do have one, a Cochise scaly cloak fern (Astrolepis cochisensis) from Arizona, that has done extremely well in a sunny spot that gets very little water:

Astrolepis cochisensis, rare in cultivation. I’d have a dozen of them if I could find them!

I fell in love with dogweed (Thymophylla sp.) when I first saw it at Jeremy Spath’s Hidden Agave Ranch in San Diego County. I later got seed from Greg Starr in Tucson, Arizona and spread it all over the front yard.

Dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta)

It turns out that Jeremy has Thymophylla tenuiloba and I have Thymophylla pentachaeta, but both species look very similar, forming cheery blobs of yellow that flower almost year round. This is a short-lived perennial, and I remove it when it begins to look unkempt. It reseeds, so we always have new plants popping up, like the volunteer on the left in the photo above.

Crassothona capensis, which goes by the common names little pickles and ruby necklace, also provides pops of color most of the year. The large clump you see below started out as a cutting from my friend Kyle’s garden:

Little pickles (Crassothonna capensis)

The clump is large enough now to divide, so this time next year, I’ll have Crassothonna capensis in three or for other places.

Crassothonna capensis

Some unsung heroes are upright succulents like the aeoniums, ‘Gollum’ jade plant (Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’) and Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra) below:

‘Gollum’ jade plant (Crassula ovata ‘Gollum’) and aeoniums

Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra)

In addition, we have two ‘Blue Waves’ jade plants in the hottest and driest spot of the sidewalk bed. They shrivel up in the summer but promptly plump when we the fall rains return:

‘Blue Waves’ jade plant (Crassula arborescens ssp. undulatifolia ‘Blue Waves’)

One of the biggest succulent success story this past year has been an upright form of Curio ficoides (previously Senecio ficoides) sold under the cultivar names ‘Mount Everest’ and ‘Skyscraper’. Both names refer to the same plant. Unlike the species, which flops over when the stems reach a certain height, this cultivar remains vertical, even in shadier situations:

Curio ficoides ‘Mount Everest’ or ‘Skyscraper’ growing in partial shade

Curio ficoides ‘Mount Everest’ or ‘Skyscraper’ growing in full sun

I started out with two quart-sized plants and have several large clumps now. Plus, I’ve given away cuttings to several friends. This truly is a pass-along plant.

(Curio ficoides ‘Mount Everest’ or ‘Skyscraper’)

Lest you think all the unsung heroes in our garden are succulents, here are some non-succulent examples:

Blue ranger (Leucophyllum zygophyllum), its silvery leaves lighting up a corner outside the front yard fence

Salvia ‘Marine Blue’ has countless violet-blue flowers at this time of year

In late winter, I’ll give it a severe haircut, and it will retreat into the background until it flowers again next fall

Prostrate California sagebrush (Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray’) softens the transition to the sidewalk. It looks good even half-covered by sycamore leaves from next door.

Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ has finally reached a size where it needs to be cut back. I love the contrast between the saturated green of its thin leaves and the steely blue Encephalartos horridus in the Corten container next to it.

The last example I want to show is another cycad, a Dioon edule ‘Palma Sola’ from Mexico. It anchors the mounded bed next to the front door, injecting a quiet note of color in what is a fairly shady spot. It’s a truly beautiful plant; I don’t show it off often enough.

Dioon edule ‘Palma Sola’

There are plenty more unsung heroes in our garden, but this is a good start.

What are the unsung heroes in your garden?

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. I'm impressed by how well you've filled so many of the nooks and crannies between your larger succulents, Gerhard. I've struggled in that regard, especially with the large bed in front of our garage, which I'm planning to renovate (again). Even Dymondia and Ruschia 'Nana' have frustrated me. Ditto with Senecio/Curio 'Mount Everest' - mine is still relatively stunted and more celadon green than blue. (maybe there's an issue with my soil.) I'm going to bookmark this post to help me identify some additional plants for use when I get around to my renovation. As to "unsung heroes" I'd include Crassula pubescens ssp radicans among the succulents.

    1. How much sun does your 'Mount Everest' get? Maybe a bit more sun will keep it more upright? Although the one I have in semi shade is pretty darn upright. Since yours is more green than blue, I'm thinking it might be species, not this cultivar. Maybe they tricked you? 'Mount Everest' is very blue.

      Crassula radicans doesn't like our hot summers, as is the case with many smaller crassulas (unfortunately).

  2. What a great idea for a post, and the wider views, in particular, are stunning!

  3. Where’d you get the Astrolepis cochisensis from?!?!?

    1. A friend of mine gave me a piece of his. You can find the related Astrolepis sinuata for sale sometime. I bought a couple from Far Reaches Farm a few years ago.

  4. When we were in Thousand Oaks last week our niece showed us a neighbor's front garden that she liked, it was a sunny space and instead of lawn there was a thick carpet of Dymondia margaretae, it was gorgeous! Your Senecio ficoides (I'm just not down with that new name) against the fence is spectacular, and that Dioon edule ‘Palma Sola’ is doing a great fern impersonation.

  5. Beautiful plantings, I like that Astrolepis sinuata - I'm going to look around for it.

    1. I found some at Peacock Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol a few years ago.

  6. I've got a particular fondness for echeverias too, though they aren't hardy for us. Echeveria minima is a beautiful one that I haven't tried yet. I'll be keeping an eye out for that and the Deuterocohnia brevifolia this year. The unknown echeveria in the upper left next to the Agave might be Echeveria hybrid 'Lola' or a similar hybrid.

    1. Echeveria 'Lola', that's it!!! And the one next to it is 'Zargoza' (I found the tag).

  7. Great post with beautiful vignettes. photos 1,4,6,8 particularly. E. minima is excellent here also. Same experience here, that Dymondia can't abide shade, and that the blue of foliage like the Encephalartos looks great with the grass green of the Lomandra.

    I nominate Teucrium chamaedrys--manages to stay a beautiful rich green all summer in extreme aridity, and also plastic lawn flamingos--which can be painted Dias de las Muertos style or dressed in Santa Hats, or with reindeer antlers... Can't beat that versatility! 😁 --hb

    1. Echeveria minima may be small, but what a workhorse!

      I had Teucrium aroanium, which is even smaller. It did great for a few years but croaked during the 115°F heat wave last year.

      I have two Dia de los Muertos flamingos - black. Inspired by (of course) The Danger Garden. I'll post a picture soon.

  8. What would I do without Thymophylla and Portulacaria that survive the high night heat here in Phoenix. I would like to try Cochise scaly cloak fern (Astrolepis cochisensis) since you got it in Arizona. Do you remember where by chance? There are a couple of others you mentioned that I think can grow here but I don't have them because either too big or spiny!

    1. My Astrolepis came from Greg Starr's garden. Look for it in native plant nurseries in the spring. If you find any, let me know!

  9. I'm glad for the heads up on Echeveria minima--I loves the Echeverias too and like you it's hard to find cultivars that do well in my garden. My best are the agavoides--'Lipstick' and 'Ebony' and one that I think is secunda which I've had for so many years the tag is long gone --if it even had one.

    1. 'Lipstick' and 'Ebony' (like all Echeveria agavoides cultivars) do well for me, too.


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