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House & Home

Fire-Resistant Plants Protect Your Home

Posted November 5, 2007
Updated November 13, 2007

The fast-moving wildfire roared down a eucalyptus and palm-filled canyon, lapped at the edges of the Schaefer family's garden, scorched mounds of aloes and senecio groundcover - then halted near a corner of their house.

A dwelling across the street wasn't as fortunate. It was declared a total loss.

The Schaefers credit their yard full of drought-resistant, moisture-containing succulents with halting the fire's advance late last month into their expansive home in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe.

"The fire came within six feet of the house but our garden saved the house from burning," said Suzy Schaefer, who with her husband, Rob, began replacing turf grass with succulents more than a decade ago.

There is no such thing as a fireproof plant, but many of the 10,000 species classified as succulents come close, said Debra Lee Baldwin, from nearby Escondido, California, and author of "Designing With Succulents" (Timber Press, $29.95).

"In the intense heat of a wildfire, even gel-filled aloes blacken and turn to ash," she said. But succulents are more fire-resistant than other plants. "The thicker and juicier a succulent's leaves, the longer it will take to catch on fire."

Not all of the structure-saving credit should go to the seared but surviving succulents, however. Fire crews were able to contain most of the wind-whipped flames that destroyed more than 2,000 homes in southern California in October.

Stringent construction and landscaping standards banning flammable vegetation and building materials on Rancho Santa Fe properties also limited the damage, homeowners and officials said.

But Schaefer is happy with her plants - and notes that homeowners should also think of succulents for hillsides to hold back mud when rain comes.

"I've always been a succulent fan," she said in a telephone interview. "They've been my plant material of choice from Day One. I'm a painter. I just love being able to arrange them for their color, texture and composition. Everything about them appeals to me."

Succulents are easy-care, incredibly hardy plants that store moisture in their leaves and stems. They do well when grown inside or out and can withstand cold Ontario winters or the scalding hot sands of the desert Southwest.

"The emphasis by gardeners here in the West has been on drought up to now," Baldwin said.

"But the perception has shifted. People are seeing a link between choosing plants that can survive drought and then landscaping with something fire resistant. What plants are available that can serve both functions? There's only one group," she said. "Succulents."

 

Here are some attractive succulents capable of serving as firebreaks:

--Agave americana (Century Plant). "A big, blue, thug-like plant that grows anywhere, with no care at all," Baldwin said. "Here in the Southwest, it's the plant most people think of when they hear the word `agave,' but there are many small agaves better suited to residential gardens."

--Agave americana Marginata. "The variegated version of Agave americana. Its undulating, green-and-yellow striped leaves resemble ribbons. Like the americana, it gets as big as a Volkswagen."

--Agave americana Mediopicta Alba. "A polite, civilized plant, much smaller than its large cousins. I call it the `tuxedo agave' because of its crisp, fountain-like silhouette," she said. "It grows to three- or four-feet tall and about that wide, has gray-green margins and a center stripe of cream and looks gorgeous wherever you put it.

 

Many species of Opuntia cactus are indigenous to North America and could be used as firebreaks or security fences. The latter is a tradition in Mexico, Baldwin said. The following are frost tender but ornamental succulents that make good hedge plants. None is invasive.

--Euphorbia tirucalli. "A green shrub that grows to six feet in height and several feet wide with pencil-like stems and insignificant leaves. It has a caustic, latex-like sap so care must be taken when handling it."

--Crassula ovata (Jade plant). "A green, mounding shrub with thick branches. Slow growing but it gets by on rainfall once established."

--Portulacaria afra. "A shrub that resembles jade but has smaller leaves and red branches. All of these are lovely when intermingled."

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For a flammability rating of selected plants and trees, tap the Virginia Firewise Landscaping site: http://www.ext.vt.edu.

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You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick(at)netscape.net.

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