The climate is changing. Many countries are becoming warmer and drier. Fire prone areas are experiencing longer fire periods and the hot and dry conditions allow for fierce fires. Many things need to change so we can adapt and one of them is how we build our homes and what we plant around them.
It is the 5th of January 2020 in NSW Australia. As I’m writing this post the smoke outside is thick, preventing me from working in our little plant nursery. There are enormous fires raging to our North, South and West. A large portion of Australia is on fire. The fires to our North are over 500,000 hectares in size and were started by lightning back in November.
So far we have been lucky, although, I fear our luck may eventually run out if we do not get significant rainfall that will put these fires out. Decent rain is not predicted for another few months. The firefighters are not able to put them out as they are simply too big and the country is in the grips of one of the worst droughts on record.
Many plants (and animals) have died/are dying as they are not able to cope with the extreme weather and temperatures that often go north of 40 C (104 F). The deciduous plants are quickly loosing their leaves as if it was autumn. It is heart breaking going for bush walks and see our gorgeous native plants suffer so. I can’t bear to think about all the animals.
The mood is grim and many lives are put on hold, including ours. However, we consider ourselves lucky. Lots of other people have lost everything to these fires. This is only a small inconvenience in the grand scheme of things but currently our nursery cannot ship plants to certain parts of Australia due to road closures and hazardous smoke. This is taking a financial toll and if our house and nursery don’t burn down there are many lean months ahead to recover from this. If we do burn down, it may be the end of our plant production business. This is the cost of doing very little/ nothing about Climate Change and it’s only the beginning. *
I could go on and on, but the point of this post is to have a closer look at a group of plants that will not catch fire, can provide a fire break and are also able to survive severe droughts. I am, of course, talking about succulents. These amazing plants are filled with water and in the face of fire will not burn, can trap embers that could potentially set something else alight and are said to absorb some of the heat.
Firstly, though, I’d like to say that we are big fans of native plants and would like to take this opportunity to stress it is important to put plants in your garden that are native to your area. If you’re in Australia here is a list of fire resistant native plants, though as the link says these plants may burn once dried out.
If you are in a fire prone part of the world it is not recommended to grow plants that are likely to catch fire within 20 meters of your house. Many of the native plants here in Australia are also very flammable and so should not be planted close to structures. Our garden is full of natives but they are growing at a safe distance.
Thankfully, there are always succulents to beautify areas close to the house. Succulents can also be planted alongside natives to reduce the chance of fire catching or even lower the fire temperature as the water evaporates from their leaves.
Fleshy succulents will collapse in a heap of mush when faced with fire and this may help in stopping the fire in its tracks and reducing the heat.
Although succulents will not replace native plants as a proper food source for the majority of wildlife many insects such as native bees, butterflies and even nectar feeding birds will flock to succulent flowers. For those of you in Australia, the battle of keeping succulents from the cute Possums will be also familiar. Possums absolutely love to eat succulents. We have also seen birds and bush mice eating succulent leaves.
Some succulents are better than others and you will find many that are not hardy at all but having said that, there are lots of superb succulents of many different shapes, sizes and colours to satisfy any plant lover. Their thick, fleshy leaves also look fabulous and add greatly to the overall aesthetics of the garden.
Some important points to take into consideration- succulents are not frost hardy and are, therefore, not suited to areas that have a permanent blanket of snow or deep frosts in winter. When exposed to fire, parts/ whole succulents can boil and collapse in a sludge. Depending on the fire intensity, succulents can die as a result. They will, however, not catch fire and can stop fire progressing further.
There are hundreds if not thousands of chubby, fire resistant succulents to choose from and if you already have a few succulents growing you will be well familiar with our picks as they are very common and very hardy. If you’re a succulent newbie, the plants listed below are a good starting point as they can be easily obtained, inexpensive and tough.
And so here is our top 10 fire resistant succulents that are also drought- hardy, reasonably priced and widely available around the world. They will look pretty together in a garden too as they are all different shapes, sizes and colours.
Crassula Ovata (Jade Plant)
Crassula Ovata an excellent all-rounder succulent for any garden with its thick trunk and branches and pretty dark green leaves that turn their edges red during the cooler months. It has a shrub-like habit and can grow to about 1.5 meters in the right conditions, if planted in the ground or very large pots.
There are other attractive Crassula shrubs such as the Gollum, Arborescens or Hummel’s Sunset. All of these are very hardy, colourful and superb additions to gardens that are close to the house. Because of their water filled trunks and leaves they will never burn.
Another fantastic thing about succulents in the Crassula genus is their resilience. They can withstand temperatures of over 40C (104F) and survive on very little water.
They will grow in full sun, part shade and filtered light. The best colour and compact shape is achieved in a high sun exposure.
Crassula can be mildly poisonous to humans and pets if ingested. Some online sources claim that they can be very toxic to pets, while others say only mildly. Not all pets/ humans are affected equally and so it’s best to keep an eye if your pets like to chew on random plants.
Crassula Ovata and Gollum are very common and can be acquired as a cutting from neighbours/ friends.
The other shrub-like Crassulas that have a bit of colour to them such as Arborescens (blue leaves, red edge) or Hummel’s Sunset (yellow, green, red variegation) may be a little harder to come by, but still very reasonably priced. Check your local garden centre or online nurseries.
Portulacaria Afra (Elephant Bush)
Portulacaria Afra is also referred to as Jade Plant or Money Plant due to the small, coin like leaves. It is a very popular and widely distributed succulent that can be found in many gardens. This is a fantastic shrub that can also be used as a hedge as it will grow to over 2m in good conditions. For a list of other tall succulents, see this article.
Small, glossy, green leaves grow on water-filled brown stalks. The height and the spread of this plant is similar to hedging plants. It also responds well to pruning.
Portulacaria Afra can also be trained into different shapes and sizes by cutting branches off selectively. So, for instance, you can create a hedge by pruning the top of the plant often or a small tree with a smooth trunk by taking the lover branches off. The possibilities are endless.
This plant is also very versatile and can be grown in sun and shade. Plants in sun will be more compact while plants in shade may droop a bit as the leaves will be bigger and heavier in the absence of the sun.
Portulacaria Afra is said to be non toxic to pets and humans.
Just like Crassula Ovata above, Portulacaria Afra is a very common plant and you may be able to get a cutting from a friend to start off with. These plants are also quite cheap and can be found in nurseries or online.
Graptopetalum Paraguayense (Ghost Plant)
Graptopetalum Paraguayense is an attractive spreading plant with pinky leaves arranged in a rosette. Depending on the conditions, the individual rosettes can reach up to 15cms across and 15cms height. In winter, the colour can turn hot pink. The plant can spread over large areas and is a fast grower.
Graptopetalum Paraguayense is pretty versatile and can be grown in full sun as well as shade. Plants in shade will have less compact rosettes and leaves that are not as colourful. In sun the rosettes will be tighter and more pink.
This succulent is definitely a worthwhile addition as it is extremely hardy and very attractive. It covers the ground and therefore can trap embers between the chunky leaves effectively. It is also one of those amazing succulents that have the ability to produce a whole new plant out of a single leaf and so can be propagated very easily.
Graptopetalum Paraguayense is non toxic to humans or pets.
It should be easy to come across this plant in garden centers or nurseries.
Delosperma Cooperi (Ice Plant)
Delosperma Cooperi is a favourite in the garden because of the cute, daisy like flowers it gets covered in during the warmer months of the year. There are several types and flower colours to choose from from large leaf to miniature, red to white.
This exciting succulent creates a pop of colour wherever its planted and can trail down walls for extra ‘wow’ effect. For best fire protection effects we’d recommend the larger leaf varieties as they hold more water.
One small cutting of this plant can eventually grow into a large, groundcover plant of several sqm. Native bees and butterflies absolutely love the blooms and when our garden Delosperma are in flower they are crawling with little insects.
Delosperma Cooperi is non-toxic to humans and pets.
It is also a regular in nurseries and garden centres and should be easy to come by and also inexpensive. For a funky effect you can buy different colours and plant them close. The plants will eventually start growing through each other creating a mutli-colour effect.
Senecio Serpens (Blue Chalkstics)
Senecio Serpens is trusted, hardy and attractive groundcover that adds a superb permanent blue colour to the mix. The leaves are cylindrical, powdery blue and grow upright to approximately 10cm. The whole plant has the ability to spread over large areas.
Senecio Serpens flowers often throughout the year with yellow-white flowers on tall stalks. Native bees, butterflies and other beneficial instects such as howerflies love to feed on the flowers.
This plant can be grown in full sun to part shade and is very hardy.
Senecio Serpens can be toxic to humans and pets if ingested.
Many people have this plant in their garden and so you may be able to obtain a cutting from a friend or neighbour. Alternatively garden centres and nurseries should have Senecio Serpens in stock regularly.
There are many Aloe species of all different size out there and they are a very good choice for a fire resistant garden as their this, pointy leaves are full of water.
Aloe Vera is one of the most common plants out there, easy to grow and pretty to look at. There are larger Aloe varieties available as well, some reaching a height of 1m, so if you have a larger garden a bigger Aloe might be the way to go.
Aloe Vera is a spreading plant and grows many pups every year. The individual plants can reach up to about 30cm height and clumps will keep growing indefinitely if they have the space. Orange-red flowers appear mostly in winter/spring and attract a variety of animals and insects including nectar feeding birds.
Aloes can grow in full sun and also full shade. Plants grown in shade will be more green and less compact. Plants in sun can have a bit of brownish look to them and grow tightly.
Aloe Vera can cause upset stomach and is mildly toxic to humans and pets if digested raw. The gel that is often used to treat skin problems and burns is said to be safe to use on skin.
Aloe Vera is an extremely common plant that can be found in many gardens. If you don’t have someone to give you a pup most garden centers/ nurseries should sell them.
This beautiful large growing Echeveria will be a centerpiece in every garden. It can grow to over 20cm in diameter and creates clumps of rosettes that will spill into any available space. The leaves are big and powdery blue with a hint of reddish pink if the plant is stressed.
In addition to its beauty Echeveria Imbricata is also hardy and can withstand extremes. Nectar feeding birds also love its prolific flowers that keep popping up in spring/summer.
The best position for this plant is full sun to part shade.
It has been reported that Echeveria Imbricata is non toxic to humans or pets.
While Imbricata is a little hard to come by and you may only be able to get one online (if no nursery stocks them try amazon or ebay) it is definitely worth it putting one in the garden. If it’s to hard to track one down a good alternative could be Echeveria Blue Prince, Runyonii, Violet Queen or Orion.
Sedum Clavatum is a very cheerful groundcover succulent with its chubby, powder blue leaves and rosette leaf arrangement. It’s tight growth creates a carpet of little blue rosettes.
It has a spreading habit and is best planted between plants or at the borders.
Sedum Clavatum prefers full sun to part shade. More sun exposure will result in a tighter plant and even pink tips.
Sedum Clavatum is non toxic to humans and pets.
This succulent can be a bit tricky to find in garden centers but online nurseries usually stock it.
Sedum Rubrotinctum (Red Jelly Beans)
Another super hardy Sedum that is a winner in the garden. Sedum Rubrotinctum or Red Jelly Beans is a ground cover succulent with cylindrical leaves growing on a stalk. The leaves turn bright red in winter/ when stressed.
Red Jelly Beans can spread over large areas. It also has 2 ‘cousins’- Pink Jelly Beans (Sedum Rubrotinctum Aurora) and Blue Jelly Beans (Sedum Pachyphyllum). These are also hardy, but not as common as the Red variety.
The best colour is achieved in full sun. Plants grown in shade will develop green leaves.
Sedum Rubrotinctum can be toxic to humans or pets if ingested.
This is a very common plant that can be obtained as a cutting from friends/ neighbours. Otherwise it is also widely available in plant shops.
You won’t be disappointed with this gorgeous succulent. All year round colour and beautiful rosettes are eye catching. Aeonium Schwarzkopf is a branching succulent that grows like a mini tree. Each branch ends in a burgundy red rosette.
In the right conditions this plant can reach over a meter height with multiple rosettes. The best colour is achieved in full sun, but the plant will tolerate shade as well. Aeonium Schwarzkopf is summer dormant, meaning it grows in the cooler months.
This plant is reported as non toxic to pets and humans.
Yet again, this is a very common plant. If not garden centres, online nurseries will have this succulent.
For maximum protection from fire use stones or pebbles as a top dressing for your succulents plantings. Wood and other mulches can catch fire.
Choose plants with thick leaves and stalks. They are filled with lots of water and even during intense fires, should not burn. They are, however, very likely to boil alive and collapse in a heap of mush but this is likely to hinder fires' progress.
Plant succulents around trees as they can catch embers at ground level, preventing them from reaching the tree and spreading into the canopy.
You can also place large pots with succulents in front of any vents that are low enough. Sometimes embers can enter a house through vents. The best protection is to cover vents with aluminium mesh. This way there is still airflow, but the mesh will stop any embers.
* UPDATE- We did not burn down and the rains came. It is now March and all the fires have been put out by the rain. We were lucky, but new data is showing the summers are getting longer by a month and temperatures are rising globally. While we are safe for now i am very fearful of the things to come.
** Beginning of 2022, we're now into are second cool-ish summer and lots of rain, which is such a relief. There is lots of new growth and the surrounding bush and al our plants look beautiful and lush. I wish every year was like this.