Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2016: Daniel Michael can still remember the thrill he felt when he took delivery of his first order of rare succulents. “I used to buy them from America, and sometimes I was the only person in the country to have them,” he says. Fellow enthusiasts don’t need to order their plants from the other side of the Atlantic: Daniel can now supply a huge variety of aeoniums, echeverias, and many lesser-known succulents from his West Cornwall nursery.
Daniel started Surreal Succulents in 2010, and orders now pour in from all over the country via his website. But these exotic plants have a special affinity with the Cornish climate, as he explains. “Our winters are usually wet and mild, and these plants love a bit of wet. Many have bright green leaves in winter, and as the days get longer, they start to colour up a deep red. By May and June they look amazing. Some are still looking good well into the autumn. I love the way they adapt to our climate.”
Daniel is also attracted by the dramatic, sculptural shapes of many succulents — and when he was invited to set up a nursery at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens by owner Neil Armstrong, he knew it would be the ideal showcase for his plants. “When I first walked around Tremenheere with Neil, I got goose pimples. Creating a garden on that scale is a Victorian thing. For someone to do it now is amazing.”
The garden nursery opened in April 2014, and has a growing reputation for quality and variety. “People keep coming back, because they know this is a place where you can get plants that aren’t always easy to find,” says Daniel.
“We grow more than 50 different echeverias, and they’re always sought after. Crassulas are also very popular. They’re good under glass, and if you keep them watered, they flower in March. They’re not as hardy as some of the others, but they make lovely house plants. Crassula capitela ‘Campfire’ is fast growing and turns fiery red — it makes a great contrast if planted with other succulents in a pot. We’ve had a lot of interest in our hanging baskets, and we’re also doing glass globe terrariums, and quirky little planters — all locally made.”
Visitors can see some of the plants growing in the garden at Tremenheere — and on the green roof on the nursery shed. “It’s a mixture of lampranthus, aeoniums, echeverias and crassulas, with gazenias and a few perennials — stuff that stays low,” says Daniel. “The roof should be at its peak in May.”
In the last few years, he has begun to create his own hybrids. He is particularly proud of Aeonium ‘Phoenix Flame’, which he describes as “absolutely stunning”, with its bouquet shape and deep red colouration. “By doing everything ourselves, we can produce good, healthy plants, adapted to our climate,” he points out. “We’ve got a couple of new echeveria seeds coming through at the moment, and there is potential for some strong plants. I’m trialling them in a new growing system, using growlights specificially made for echeverias.”
Daniel’s interest in plants took root when he was just six years old, and grew his first runner beans. As a teenager, he had a part-time job at St Teresa’s Cheshire Home in Long Rock, and he went on to work at nearby Trewidden Nursery. Then a friend told him there was a job going in the garden on St Michael’s Mount. It was there that his passion for succulents flourished. “It was a brilliant place — I loved that garden. I‘ve always liked aeoniums, and they were everywhere on the Mount. While I was there, I started Surreal Succulents as a sideshoot business.”
Although the Mount is just a boat trip and a short walk away from Tremenheere, there are subtle differences between the growing conditions in the two locations. “The Mount has incredibly warm spots, and in other places it’s very exposed to the wind. Tremenheere hasn’t got those extremes — it’s in a valley, with trees to protect the plants,” says Daniel.
“When a succulent freezes, it becomes like a rock, and the whole plant just goes. In the winter of 2009, I lost half my collection, but I managed to get the varieties I’d lost from other growers. You still get cold nights in March, so we fleece them in case of frost damage: we don’t want blemishes on plants which are about to go on sale. I’m now trying to build hardiness into my hybrids — like Aeonium ‘Ice Warrior’, which is not invincible, but will put up a brave fight against freezing temperatures.
“As well as fleecing them, you can take cuttings, and put them on windowsills. They grow so quickly that in a few years you’ve got a good mother plant again. I’d like to do some talks at Tremenheere, and tell people how we get our succulents through the winter. In the future, we might do evening garden tours, as we used to do when I was on the Mount.”
Daniel is also talking to Neil Armstrong and the team at the garden’s Tremenheere Kitchen about introducing some Mediterranean and subtropical plants and trees to the café area, so that even in the dark depths of winter, visitors can almost believe they’re enjoying an exotic holiday.