2024 San Francisco Succulent Expo recap

Last weekend was the 2024 San Francisco Succulent Expo organized by the San Francisco Succulent & Cactus Society (SFSCS). With 40+ plant and pottery vendors and 150+ sale tables, it likely was the biggest event of its kind ever held in Northern California. The Bromeliad Society of San Francisco participated with about a dozen tables, broadening the range of plants you see at a typical cactus and succulent show. I, for one, was very excited about that because local retail sources for high-quality bromeliads are virtually non-existent.

Bay Bridge on our drive in on Saturday morning

I was there on Friday and Saturday to help my friend Justin Thiel with his plants (he was a vendor), do some volunteer shifts, and of course buy cool stuff. While I didn’t end up getting a lot (I’ll show you my haul at the end of this post), I did spend a lot of time looking. With thousands upon thousands of plants, this was a momentous task requiring mental acuity and good eyesight. Good thing I brought my reading glasses!

Most of the photos in this post are Justin’s. I’m glad he took so many pictures and let me use them, otherwise this post would have been pretty dull.

Also check out this 1-minute video walkthrough of the sales area.

During setup on Friday

Members-only hours on Friday

Justin’s table

Another component of the SF Succulent Expo was the judged show. This year’s theme was Nicely Grown! As stated in the Participants Guide, the “show focuses on educating and inspiring the public more than formal competition. The theme furthers this goal by making the information memorable and fun.”

The three judges (in the center of photo, leaning over a plant) doing their judging thing

The judges were Show Chair John Otter, world-renowned mesemb expert Steven Hammer, and this other guy who looked like he was having fun in spite of being mostly clueless :-)

The three judges (John Otter on the left, me and Steven Hammer on the right) chatting with Walker Young of the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Most succulent shows are based on very specific taxonomic classes. For example, the upcoming 2024 Cactus & Succulent Society of America Show at the Huntington has 136 such classes, ranging from “Cactaceae: Ariocarpus — single head” to “Conservation: Individual succulent seedling, 2–5 years old.” This is serious stuff and quite intimidating to less experienced exhibitors.

In contrast, the SF Succulent Expo show had general categories and was designed to be more inclusive. Awards were given for “Best Cactus,” “Best Succulent,” and “Best of Show,” (all for individual plants) and for “Best Display” (multiple plants in a staged arrangement). We also chose three entries that best represented this year’s theme, Nicely Grown!: “Best Nicely Grown plant,” “Best Nicely Grown from seed,” and “Best Nicely Grown Hybrid.” And finally, each judge had eight Awards of Excellence to give out at their own discretion – literally gold stars to be attached to the name cards of the chosen plants. Every award came with Showbucks, virtual money to be spent at the sale.

The judging criteria were very broad: which plant in any given category stands out above all others and makes you go wow. There were lively discussions among the three judges, but in the end, it was much easier to come to a consensus than I had thought. We were fully aware of the fact that the plants we picked were a reflection of our personal preferences and that three different judges would almost certainly have picked different plants. We took our job seriously, but not too seriously. After all, the goal was to have fun.

About half of the show plants were cacti. That’s not exactly a surprise, considering the main interests of members. Here are some of them:

Oreocereus celsianus

Thelocactus rinconensis ssp. nidulans, Best of Show Theme (Nicely Grown!)

Echinocereus lindsayi

Copiapoa griseoviolacea

Astrophytum myriostigma hybrid in flower

Variegated Astrophytum myriostigma

Astrophytum asterias ‘Super Kabuto V-type’

Astrophytum asterias ‘Super Kabuto’

Tephrocactus geometricus

Echinopsis ‘Flying Dragon’ (‘Flying Saucer’ is one of the parents)

Grouping of grafted Ariocarpus

Peniocereus rosei (left), Uebelmannia pectinifera (right)

Variegated Gymnocalycium mihanovichii

Justin’s Echinocereus rigidissimus var. albiflorus taking Best Cactus. The flowers were actually wide open at the beginning of judging (see my photos below). And since the judges were looking at the whole package, the fact that this cactus was in flower (and fitting the Expo’s theme of Nicely Grown!) was a major factor in our decision.

Echinocereus rigidissimus var. albiflorus earlier that morning

Echinocereus rigidissimus var. albiflorus earlier that morning

The majority of the non-cactus entries seemed to be either euphorbias or caudiciforms:

Euphorbia abdelkuri

Variegated Euphorbia poissonii

Euphorbia francoisii

Euphorbia cylindrifolia ssp. tuberifera

Euphorbia bupleurifolia

Cussonia paniculata

Operculicarya decaryi

Operculicarya hyphaenoides × pachypus

A few other highlights from the Succulent category:

Mesemb display by Steven Hammer, one of the world’s eminent mesemb experts and one of the judges. Steven also gave a presentation on lesser known mesembs.

Spring-blooming Conophytum pageae in Steven Hammer’s display. Most conophytums flower in the fall.

Informative display on lithops by Peter Beiersdorfer and Jaan Lepson (PB&J Plants). They are actively involved in lithops research and conservation in South Africa and Namibia.

Lithops with spectacular pattern (I forgot to note down the ID)

Deuterocohnia brevifolia

The judges chose this Gerrardanthus macrorhizus by Annie Wolf as Best in Show. This South African member of cucumber family is a popular plant among caudiciform collectors. Typically, the caudex looks like a giant donut (minus the hole), as seen here. Annie’s specimen was spectacular because the caudex was hollow, likely the result of some traumatic event earlier in the plant’s life. This gives the plant a unique sculptural quality. The vigorous vine was proof that the plant was very much alive.

I forgot to photograph the agaves in the show (I think there were only two), but here are a few aloes:

This aloe was one of my favorite plants in the entire show (I gave it an Award of Excellence)

Nobody knew the ID of this spectacular aloe – Naomi Bloss, who entered it, didn’t, and Brian Kemble and Walker Young of the Ruth Bancroft Garden were stumped as well. The aloe doesn’t offset, and it’s only bloomed once, so it’ll probably remain a mystery.

Aloe dorotheae

Aloe castilloniae

And finally a few real surprises in the Succulent category:

Monanthes polyphylla, an aeonium relative from the Canary Island. This entry won the award for Best Succulent because the planting in the rock crevices was simply masterful. If these plants (and flowers) look tiny, it’s because they are!

Rosulate viola on Troy Stephen’s table, which won Best Display. These succulent violas from the Andes have only recently appeared on the radar of many succulent aficionados. They’re notoriously difficult to grow, and virtually impossible to obtain. Troy is one of only two or three people in the Bay Area who even have one.

As promised, here’s my plant haul: a few agaves and aloes, as you would expect, and a few unexpected odds and ends.

Agave xylonacantha, originally from Pulver Gardens in Saratoga, Florida

I bought it because of the gnarly teeth

Agave schidigera from seed collected near San Cristóbal de la Barranca, Jalisco, MX. According to the most recent taxonomic treatment of Agave schidigera (Vásquez-García et al, 2023), this probably is Agave vestita, the smallest species in the complex.

Aloe conifera × laeta hybrid created by Brian Kemble

I’m a sucker for grayish aloes with pink teeth

Echeveria colorata from habitat seed

Lithops salicola ‘Malachite’ – a new plant to kill!

Possibly a new rabbit-hole adventure:

Three Astrophytum asterias ‘Super Kabuto V-type’. Each one is truly unique; no two have the same pattern.

And two terrestrial bromeliads:

Aechmea nudicaulis ‘Parati Rubra’

Billbergia ‘Darth Vader’

Billbergia ‘Darth Vader’

A big thanks to SFSCS President Jon Schwark, the big boss who made sure that everything ran like clockwork, and to Show Chair Jon Otter and Co-chair Tino Rosario who put on a truly memorable show. I bet they slept for 24 hours straight after it was all over.

I had a fantastic time and enjoyed the sunny but cool weather. At home in Davis, it was 20 degrees hotter than in San Francisco!

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing all the great eye candy. I look forward to more posts like this, in my mailbox.

  2. That show and sale is next level, Gerhard. Thanks for sharing Justin's excellent photos, as well as your own. I think you may make a cactus enthusiast out of me yet. Congratulations on your role as a judge - and your plant haul.

    1. I'm becoming more and more of a cactus enthusiast myself, beyond the cacti that beguile us with amazing flowers.

  3. Wow, I loved all the photos and that video. Oh, my goodness, it is a good thing for my husband that I do not live in California. Such temptation! I love the Monanthes polyphylla. Never seen anything like it. I got a Lithops this winter and I have not killed it yet! The old leaves died and I did not give it a drop of water until they were totally dried up. I continue to have hope even though I have killed so many!

    1. Plan a visit to SF next year, second weekend in June!

      I'm glad to hear you managed to keep lithops alive in a far more challenging climate. That gives me hope.

  4. What fun you must have had! I think it's wonderful you were chosen as a judge.

    The Tephrocactus geometricus made me smile, it reminds me of a wooden cactus I have that's meant for kids to use as a balancing game. You stack the pieces hoping the whole thing doesn't fall over. The variegated Euphorbia poissonii and container are a nice match.

    Love your haul, which there would have been a few photos of the bromeliads on offer. ;)

    1. Tephrocactus like this geometricus and the popular articulatus are designed to drop segments. They root where they touch the ground and make a whole new plant.

      I also wish I'd taken more photos of the bromeliads. There were some nice ones (and LOTS of tillandsias).

  5. Oh, my, I don't know where to start...so many fabulous plants at the show. I don't see Lithops or the Conophytums very often, although there are retailers in the area that sell them as house plants. They're so fascinating. Great coverage and great photos. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this post. These aren't exactly the kinds of plants you grow.

  6. You must have been like a kid in a candy store! So much to immerse yourself in, so many like-minded friends. Then you bring home long lasting memories and an amazing haul too. Monanthes polyphylla from the Canary Island is one of many astonishing plants in this post: great stuff.

    1. The social aspect of an event like that can't be overstated. Every day I walked away tired, but on a mental high from talking to like-minded people.

  7. You were a judge! With Steven Hammer!! 🤯Wow! Very impressed!
    I will say, though, that knowing him you have no excuse to kill that (really nice green) lithops 😆.
    I really want to get down there for a show and had considered very seriously getting to that one but it didn't work out. With every additional post or picture I see I am regretting that more. One of these years...
    I have seen other people post pictures of their visits to Steven Hammer's greenhouses (I have heard he has seven of them now). I hope that
    you have an opportunity to visit sometime as well.
    Otherwise, great pictures! I just bought a monanthes polyphylla, very cool to see it in display. That aloe castilloniae- no idea it would grow out like that! I knew it spread but I'd assumed typical clustering. I guess that's why it was a display, being so unique.
    Nice plant haul as well. I'm not really into bromeliads but I like that bilbergia as well as your aloes.

    1. I hope to visit Steven Hammer someday. His collection is incredible, from the photos I've seen. He's a wonderful man - humble and extremely eloquent. Plus, he has a sense of humor I really connect with.

  8. Succulent overload. What a great show. Would have been a very tough one to judge.

    1. It was. There were so many worthy plants. But at some point you have to take a deep breath and decide.

  9. Wow, what a great show. I was away for the weekend, otherwise I would've definitely gone. How wonderful they asked you to be a judge! The unknown aloe is a real stunner, as well as so many other plants. I think I saved myself some serious $ to NOT have gone.

  10. I almost feel as if I could have spent days at an event like this and still be marveling at the diversity and beauty of it all. Unworldly. Many of these don't look like real plants. Amazing what occurs naturally, as well as what we've been able to breed, in terms of form and color. The Gymnocalycium, Astrophytums, Copiapoa, and Ariocarpus, and Euphorbia...Ah, I like them all. I could just go on and on.

  11. What a great show a rival to the Inter-City. Excellent photos and post. Wonderful plants.

  12. the 2024 San Francisco Succulent Expo seems like a really cool event for succulent enthusiasts. It sounds like there was a wide variety of succulents and cacti on display, from vendors selling plants to a judged show. There were even informative presentations about specific types of succulents, which is great if you're looking to learn more about these plants.


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