In the late 1980s, while consulting with a client about her garden, I came across a succulent she was growing in a long linear bed bordering a pathway. The other side of the path was planted with a succulent I recognized – Echeveria elegans – whose gray-green, translucent leaves are distinctive. But the succulent on the other side was a pale yellow-green, but otherwise very similar. When I asked the owner about it, all she could tell me is that both were given to her by a friend who had passed away a number of years ago. During a later consultation appointment, she offered me some cuttings which I happily accepted.
Each plant had a distinctive wax-like texture, and the outer edge of the leaf seemed almost translucent. The charming, tight rosettes were attractive enough, but topped with their arching, flamingo-pink flower spikes they were irresistible.
I took these cuttings home and grew them easily. When I had the chance, I started some research to understand what it was I might now have in my possession. I have always relished the task of trying to ID an unknown plant. At this period in time, the handy internet was not yet in existence, so visits to libraries were the only approach. Fortunately, working for the University of California, I had access to some of the best libraries in the world. But Echeverias were not yet written about so frequently.
The book showing the most promise was Echeveria, by botanist Eric Walther (1892–1959), published posthumously in 1972 by the California Academy of Sciences. Mr. Walther was the First Director of The Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (which is now The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum) and had done extensive studies on the genus over the years. John Thomas Holland took on the laborious task of bringing Walther’s (very) unfinished work to press, by which time it was already becoming out of date to the continuing research of others.
Walther’s Echeveria (page 116) mentions E. gilva based on a cultivated plant found in Mexico (rather than a wild-collected specimen). This seemed a good fit for my new plant. Friends who knew succulents seemed to concur. Walther does not mention much other information about this plant, nor is there a clear photograph. But it seemed I had found out what this new Echeveria was, so I moved on.
Echeverias do quite well in our San Francisco Bay Area region of California. They are not a fan of intense, dry heat, so our consistent maritime influence is perfect for them. In the wild, these plants often grow in the light shade of other plants, or on shaded cliff-faces. They are very shallow rooted and consequently well suited to growing in pots (preferable not too deep). But I also find them well suited to grow at the base of other plants, not providing direct root competition and shading the soil for deeper rooted plants.
Over the years, Echeverias gained in popularity and we started seeing the more and more in nurseries. A gardening friend’s statement while visiting our garden sums things up well – “This is all very nice, but what are all these succulents doing here?!” Special succulents are still collected by certain groups of horticulturalists, but their appearance in garden plantings was just starting to take hold. Today, it is hard to imagine NOT seeing various common Aloës, Crassulas, Sedums, Graptopetalums, as well as Echeverias in local gardens. Their unusual forms and coloration contrast beautifully with leafy and grassy plants. And they are quite easy to grow and propagate and then share with friends!
A BRIEF BOTANY BREAK
Echeveria gilva × Walther “Gilva” van Keppel; Cactus & Succulent Journal of America 7: 61, 1935; Type: California Academy of Science No. 223895
In 1968, before Walther’s book publication, J.C. van Keppel had already tested his theory that this plant was in fact a hybrid of E. agavoides and E. elegans by carrying out a breeding program (a number of additional new cultivars seem to have arisen from that effort!) With its hybrid status established, the new designation for this plant became E. ×gilva or E. ‘Gilva’.
A gallery of photographs of the true Echeveria ‘Gilva’.
So, in the early 2000s, I began to wonder if I really knew what my succulent was. My doubt was inspired by seeing more and more specimens of E. ‘Gilva’ that looked different from my own. My eyes seem to have always been more sensitive to subtle differences in plants, even when people more learned than I were dismissive (my artistic talent combined with some OCD?). Eventually I purchased a specimen of E. ‘Gilva’ from a reputable succulent nursery and made a direct comparison.
The potted plant in the left foreground is what is commonly sold in our area as the true E. ‘Gilva’. The rosettes are strikingly similar, though perhaps a little larger than our plant, and seemingly slower to offset. They are decidedly flushed pink at their tips (our plant almost NEVER flushes pink – instead tinting yellow when stressed). The true E. ‘Gilva’ also produces many more flower stems per rosette, and whose flowers are a bit larger, with a distinctive yellow tip to the flower petals.
The main succulent in this photo (background and right foreground) is the Echeveria we’ve grown for many years under the name ‘Gilva’. The plant habit is very similar to E. elegans, offsetting freely and making a nice ground cover (to achieve the same will the true ‘Gilva’, you must separate and replant offsets from the natural tighter clump). The flower spikes are more delicate than either E. ‘Gilva’ or E. elegans, and the flowers smaller with only a hint of yellow at their tips. They also tend to appear as only one or maybe two spikes from a single rosette.
Because of the more natural tendency to spread, I’ve started to refer to our plant as ‘Gilva Spreader’.
One year, while tidying up the planting, I chanced to notice some of the flower spikes had a small branch into two equal parts at near their tips! These branches did not diverge but remained together so they were difficult to notice easily. Checking all of the current flower spikes, I found about half of them were like this, the others being unbranched (I tried to photograph this but it was hard to separate the forked branching enough without destroying the spike). This type of branching, called dicotomous, is a trait of E. agavoides which is known to be one of the parents of ‘Gilva’. The next year, I checked again for this branching – NOTHING! I will continue to look for this phenomenon in future.
I’ve been growing these side by side for some time now and while it is sometimes hard to tell them apart when not in flower. I still prefer ‘Gilva Spreader’ as it makes a much more effective ground cover and there are always lots of offsets to start new colonies or give away. The pinker ‘Gilva’ is certainly a better pot specimen (‘Gilva Spreader’ more quickly outgrows its pot).
A gallery of other types of E. ‘Gilva’.
With the current craze for succulents, and then sharing them on social media, there seem to be numerous other ‘Gilva’s out there! It is somewhat mind-boggling to try and keep track of them all and determine if they really are the same hybrid or merely look-alikes. Google research for this article turned up many misidentified plants (sigh) and some erroneous information (double sigh). But such is the internet age. Below I’ve tried to restrict my links to more the more accurate.
REFERENCES & LINKS
Historical Notes on Echeveria (2), J. C. van Keppel and Susan Roach, The Cactus and Succulent Journal of Great Britain, Vol. 42, No. 1 (February 1980), pp. 13-20 (8 pages) [hosted by JSTOR]
Echeveria ×gilva Walther [GBIF – Global Biodiversity Information Facility]
International Crassulaceae Network
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