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This is the elephant foot palm.  Despite the name, it is not a true palm (nor an elephant!) but is instead a member of the asparagus family.  The genus name is Beaucarnea and the most common of the 10 or so species is Beaucarnea recurvata, which is widely grown as an ornamental houseplant.

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Beaucarnea recurvata

This species is from Eastern Mexico (from the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí) where it grows in dry lowland forests.  It is capable of reaching a height of 5 meters (15 feet) but is usually much smaller and it grows slowly (although it is capable of living for centuries).   The most striking feature of the little tree is the swollen caudex at the base of the trunk, which is used for storing water in the trees arid home range.

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Beaucarnea gracilis in the Huntington Garden, Pasadena

This caudex, combined with the punk rock leaves/fronds gives the tree an irresistible Dr. Seuss-esque appearance which has made the plants popular in the nursery trade (if you get one, be sure to keep it warm and don’t overwater it).  Alas, its popularity has been detrimental to the wild trees which have been overharvested for sale to nurseries and ornamental gardens.  However with the world’s climate warming up as fast as it is, maybe they will take over Texas or California or France or something.  Who knows anymore?

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Beaucarnea recurvata in Parrot Jungle, Miami

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

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Oh, there are all sorts of gardeners! Some people tend sugar plantations or farm huge monocultures of wheat whereas others raise variegated vegetable gardens or grow orchards full of exotic fruit. There are herb gardeners and OCD topiary gardeners. There are knot gardeners, and orchid keepers, and pharmacological botanists with climate controlled greenhouses. I am a flower gardener who also enjoys ornamental trees (a combination which makes for a beautiful but not entirely practical garden), however the strangest gardeners of all must be succulent gardeners who tend surreal writhing beds of mutated globes, obscene barrels, and fat tentacles all covered with thorns and spikes!
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The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

Succulent plants are desert dwellers which store water in specialized internal storage structures (which, because of the nature of water, are usually thickened and fleshy). In order to fend off the animal inhabitants of deserts (who also live on thirst), these plants have evolved all sorts of defenses to protect their internal cisterns. Thus the cacti, aloes, orpines, agaves, spurges, and so forth are covered with wicked siliceous spikes or with rows of tooth-like spines or with stinging alkaline sap (or in some cases are just straight-up deadly poisonous).

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SucculentBlog
Succulent gardeners revel in this botanical arms race. The best cactus gardens look like the homes of hallucinating sorcerers. Forboding olive towers loom over chartreuse striped tendrils and purple spiky blobs. Snaky limbs bearing obscene fluorescent blooms reach out from a fat orange orange caudex above a world of yellow globes studded with black spines. Just look at these strange landscapes and revel at the combined power of nature’s asceticism and humankind’s sybaritic excess!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

I have assembled a little gallery of these monstrous and beautiful dry gardens, but none of the images rival the real thing. You should jump in your car and head for a nearby botanical garden (even in cold latitudes there are usually desert greenhouses), or, if you are really feeling disenfranchised just head for Los Angeles where the craziest cactus gardens on Earth are right there on some absentee producer’s front lawn.

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

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Berkeley Cactus Garden

Berkeley Cactus Garden

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