In 2015 the very first Semponium ever was born. A cross between an aeonium and a sempervivum. The offspring of this truly unique crossbreeding, the Semponium Destiny, was named RHS Plant of the Year earlier this year, a coronation on the life’s work of Daniel Michael. He shares with us the wonderful story of his discovery.
Daniel Michael with his Semponium Collection
On the cliffs of the tiny island Saint Michaels Mount, just off the coast southwest of Cornwall, various types of succulents flourish. This was discovered by its gardener, Daniel Michael, who had a particular love for these plants and, as a hobby, kept an ever-growing collection. He scouted the world to seek extraordinary varieties and spent many hours every day in his greenhouse growing and cherishing his plants until, at a certain moment, a disaster occurred. “In 2009, we had a very cold winter, and half of my collection froze to death. This nearly became the end of us. I was about to throw in the towel and give up. I have four young children, and pretty much all my money and free time went into my plant collection. If all that can go down in just one night – I simply couldn’t justify that to my family.”
Unless, he thought to himself, I start breeding myself, and my plants become more resistant to cold. “I mainly looked into aeoniums, since these plants are fairly strong, and in 2012 I had my first hybrid, the Aeonium Fenix Flame. This was a crossing between two aeonium breeds, which was winter hardy up to -7 (degrees Celsius) and of remarkable ornamental value.”
However, he wondered, wouldn’t it be possible to get them even hardier? Could the aeonium, for example, be crossed with a truly winter-hardy sempervivum? “I tried for two years but without success. It’s a real challenge to bring about crossings, for aeoniums bloom from April to the end of May/beginning of June and the sempervivums in July and August. To be able to pair them, however, they both need to flower, but thanks to our large collection, we eventually succeeded anyway. After that, I have attempted a staggering amount of crossings, hundreds of them, knowing that for every one hundred crossings, an average of about one actually might lead to something. ‘If I could get this color into that plant, or that shape in there, that would be awesome!’ but it was actually only in the third year I reached my first success. In 2015 we could finally show the first true Semponiums.”
Conquering the world
Currently, Daniel has discovered its potential and, to that end, founded his own breeding company Surreal Succulents, which has six varieties available for professional growers (three as we speak, the other three following soon). These are trademarked and marketed further by Plantipp.
Kim and Peter van Rijssen. One year ago, they took over Plantipp from their father.
“In 2020, a client told us about the existence of Surreal Succulents and the Semponium,” account manager Thijs Veldhuijzen tells us. “It concerned a crossing between an aeonium and a sempervivum, i.e., an intergenic crossing. We immediately wanted to hear all about it. We reached out, got along well right from the start, and from that point on, things really gained momentum.”
Unreal Succulents was already known to true aficionados but not yet to professional growers worldwide. Up until that moment, there was no sales or marketing nor serious propagation in the sense of scale. These aspects have been taken up by Plantipp and the propagation is now outsourced to Veldhuijzen Sierteelt, a Dutch company that’s already specialized in propagating sempervivum.
More or less parallel to these developments, external acknowledgment started seeping in. In 2021 the Semponium Sienna won the 3rd place at the Chelsea Awards, and this year the Semponium Destiny took 1st place. In the UK, these awards are considered very prestigious and one of the best possible references one can wish for.
“The upcoming year, Plantipp is determined to take the product to the next level. It’s a drought-resistant plant; it can withstand extreme weather conditions and hardly requires any maintenance. We have high expectations for sales in both the Netherlands and Southern Europe. In The Netherlands, there are a lot of professional growers, and the local North European markets will love the Semponiums both in the garden and as an indoor plant. In Southern Europe, where succulents are very popular already, the demand for drought-resistant plants grows faster every year.”
Breeders are supplied by Veldhuijzen Sierteelt, and from 2023 on, the parent material of all six varieties will be available. For more information, people can reach out to Plantipp, although Daniel would also like to share a little bit of cultivation advice himself. “Allow for as much sun as possible, a light substrate, and if it gets really hot, just let them be. They enter a kind of dormant state. To water them would actually be a stress. But the most important thing is this: just enjoy them.”
Tieme van den Haak