16 Feb 2019

Queen of the Succulents: Debra Lee Baldwin

From Saturday Morning, 8:40 am on 16 February 2019

There’s a crime wave on the coast of California. People are clambering around the cliffs stuffing hundreds of succulents in bags and shipping them back to Korea and China.


Succulents. Photo: 123RF

Succulent smugglers have been targeting a particularly beautiful specimen of the plant in southern California and last week two people were in court charged with poaching 1800 Dudleya farinosa, (or Powdery Liveforever) from a state park.

It was the fourth such prosecution in a year and reflects a growing demand by Dudleya fans, especially those in China and Korea.

San Diego-based Debra Lee Baldwin is known as the Queen of the Succulents. She’s a garden photojournalist and distributes a popular newsletter about the hardy plants. She’s the author of three books about growing succulents and she joined Kim Hill to discuss the recent spate of thefts.

“It’s just extraordinary that we have these beautiful cliffs and public parks in Northern California and the Bay Area and people are flying in from Asia, renting a car, stopping by Home Depot and getting cardboard boxes and rappelling down sheer cliff sides to grab our native plants from their habitat. I mean, seriously, how dare they? This is very disconcerting on so many levels.

“Not only are they stealing form the citizens of California and the United States and anybody else who wants to see these plants in habitat – they’re stealing that experience – but they’re also damaging the local ecology. These plants that are stolen will never be able to reproduce, they’re just gone from the ecology. It’s just outrageous.”

She says that farinosa is not a particularly popular species of Dudleya succulents in the US so she’s unsure why it’s being targeted specifically. She speculates its partly accessibility, but she’s also heard it could be because they resemble Lotus flowers.

Debra Lee Baldwin at Dudleya farinosa habitat

Debra Lee Baldwin at Dudleya farinosa habitat Photo: Supplied

“It just makes you wonder, why don’t they buy the plants from nurseries? If they’re so popular, nurseries are on it.”

“Getting plants from a wild environment is like taking a wild animal out of its native habitat and expecting it to thrive. Nursery grown plants are far better suited to garden cultivation than something that has a very particular environment that it requires – absolutely requires – in order to live.”

The plants are known as 'Liveforevers' which Baldwin says is ironic because when they’re stripped from their habitat and packaged into boxes and sent overseas, they’re doomed to rot. Normally they can live between 50-100 years.

Baldwin hasn’t always been passionate about succulents. She was working as a gardening photojournalist when her editor suggested a book on the subject because of the images she had collected over the years. She says doing the book changed her life.

The popularity of the plants started in southern California and grew throughout the state and the South West. The pivotal moment, Baldwin says, was when brides got into succulents.

“Brides realised that these plants look like fleshy roses but come in colours like blue that match their eyes and can be included in bridal bouquets to give not only a new colour scheme, but also a whole new look. If there’s one group of people who want a whole new look, it’s brides.

“Brides propelled the plants into the stratosphere.”

Another factor was drought. She describes succulents as plants “that drink responsibly”. Their fleshy leaves are made to store moisture and they can go for long periods without water. When having a green lawn became frowned up in California (due to water shortages in drought), a popular response was to let lawns die and grow succulent gardens.

She says give them adequate light, good air circulation and fast-draining soil, and you can grow succulents in a pair of socks.

Today, Baldwin runs a popular newsletter on succulents which has 10,000 subscribers worldwide. You can learn more about the plants here.