Succulent plants are hard to love. They tend to be parsimonious about offering shade and seem rather pointedly inhospitable so that pleasure-seekers are disinclined to settle among the yuccas for a leisurely afternoon glass of wine.
But their virtues may outweigh their drawbacks, especially now in the age of water concerns and global warming.
For starters, they are endlessly visually interesting, with forms that make green-leafed shrubs seem deprived of imagination. And they are survivors, with a will to live that is in-your-face apparent, meaning they may be more at home here than you think.
''The tropical look here is an illusion,'' says Harvey Bernstein, who has landscaped his front yard with succulent plants.
If someone says his succulent-laden South Miami yard looks like Arizona, Bernstein has a counter argument: ``No, it's more related to what was here, the South Florida pine rockland.''
Pine rockland, now almost completely covered with development, has a limestone base and shallow or even nonexistent soils. In winter, this ecosystem can be extremely dry. So succulent plants that store water during wet weather in order to survive months without rain can grow well here if they are planted in sandy and rocky growing beds that allow better-than-average drainage.
As a plant curator at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Bernstein has discovered that ``I can fall in love with almost any group of plants, and have. First it was bromeliads and orchids, then palms and cycads, and I have curatorial responsibility for gingers and heliconias.
``But I noticed time and time again that I get attracted to succulent plants because of the form. And they can have startingly beautiful flowers.''
Bernstein and his wife, Barbara Glaccum, therefore grow some of the wildest, most interesting succulents you're likely to find in Miami outside of Fairchild, where the 51-year-old Bernstein oversees the garden's display of arid plants from Madagascar's spiny forest -- as well as the gingers, heliconias and other herbaceous plants.
A fine-arts photographer who grew up on Miami Beach, Bernstein has grown and sold plants and designed gardens for a living, so the visual and floral go hand in hand for him.
Barbara, who works in a family-owned geophysical consulting company, helped construct the berm and build the limestone borders when the couple bought their home four years ago. Harvey took over, arranging plants by ecological association.
That's one of the surprising aspects of this garden: coastal and pine rockland plants of South Florida and the Caribbean live happily with Madagascar species and even plants from the American Southwest. They evolved to endure similarly difficult surroundings.
Bernstein's first succulent acquisition is still with him, sitting in a pot in his garden. It's Euphorbia tortirama, a South African plant. ''It started this whole mess,'' he says. ``I bought it at Kmart and I can't get rid of it. It goes with me.''
It traveled to Montana when the couple moved there in the 1990s so Harvey could take a photography workshop. They fell in love with the countryside, stayed off and on, moved to Missoula to run an art gallery, and finally returned to South Miami. The little euphorbia came back home with its owner and was rejoined by plants that had been left with friends when they went to Montana.
Using salt bush and spiny black olive, trees from Florida and the Caribbean, Bernstein took advantage of the plants' small foliage to create a cloud-like effect separating the garden from the driveway. The trees create a visual screen for a sense of privacy as well. They surround a young Keys thatch palm, a Macrozamia cycad from Mexico, Euphorbia punicea from Jamaica and a rescued Dade County pine.
A native Sargent's cherry palm and Sabaletonia, or scrub palm, and the native cycad called coontie are all Florida contributions from xeric conditions.
And that's a major point here. Bernstein has taken up the commitment of Fairchild to reduce water use and made it his own.
''The only things that go into [my] front landscape are things that do not use much water,'' he says. ``The sooner individuals and municipalities get on board, the nicer it will be.''
Mingling harmoniously among drought-tolerant natives in the never-irrigated garden are plants of Madagascar, Africa and the American deserts:
Alluaudia procera (al-you-wad-ee-ah) has long slender arms like some bristly sea creature. A shrub or tree of Madagascar's spiny forest, it flourishes among similarly barbed plants in a harsh landscape that is dry for eight to nine months of the year. That area averages about 20 inches of rain annually, so the alluaudia thrives here in wetter weather as long as the soil has excellent drainage.
Adansonia ruprostipa, a baobab that produces orange to red flowers. This is the smallest of the baobabs and it is just a baby in Bernstein's garden. While it usually reaches 15 to 18 feet, it can stretch up much higher. Its fat reddish trunk has a distinctive bottle shape when it matures.
Euphorbia stenoclada from the sand dunes of southern Madagascar. Its branches are reminiscent of candelabra cactus or even some corals, but they end in wicked spines. They like to be shrubby, but Bernstein is training his to be more treelike.
Pyrenacantha malvifolia from the Horn of Africa and Kenya is a caudiciform vine, meaning the base is a caudex or water-storing organ. When Bernstein first bought this plant, about 10 years ago, its base was baseball size.
He put it in the ground four years ago at football size. Now, it's the size of the Great Pumpkin and could well reach six or eight feet across.
Herunia species. This stapelia relative has crawled out of its clay pot and spread into a dwarf forest of squarish green fingers. Lovely star-shaped flowers are dark red, though smelly enough to attract flies.
Fouquieria splendens, also called ocotillo and buggy whip, from the American Southwest and Mexico, does just fine here next to a handsome blue Agave neglecta that's another Florida native.
Among the tallest plants in this collector's garden are the pachypodiums and the variegated Opuntia cactus.
Pachypodium rutenbergianum, another Madagascar plant, is full of leaves now and grows quickly in the rainy season. In winter, when it's deciduous, Bernstein says it photosynthesizes through its bark so while leafless it isn't dormant. It has oleander-like flowers that are white.
In the summer rainy season, Bernstein keeps his small potted succulents in a small fabric shadehouse set up in the side yard. It protects them from too much water, not too little.
Outside, the big plants grow like crazy and are this photographer's personal paradise.