I have a passion for Mediterranean plants and gardens. I first started following Dan and Mark on Instagram because they seem to have a similar love for succulents. However, these guys live and breathe succulents with a passion. I made it a point to go and visit them at their earlier stand at Hampton Court Flower Show and we really hit it off. The next time I saw them at the show they surprised me with one of my favourite plants, the Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Surreal Succulents created their first ever stand at the Chelsea Flower Show 2021 and walked away with a thoroughly well-deserved Gold Medal. I have invited Mark and Dan to tell us more about them and Surreal Succulents.
This container shows the Surreal Succulent handwriting to great effect. The boldness of the Yucca rostrata with Aloe polyphylla nestled at the base. Aeonium Nobile with its majestic flower head and xSemponium Destiny in the forefront with green central floret that matures into the darker outer leaves.
Surreal Succulents is Born
Surreal Succulents started out as a hobby for Daniel but quickly became an obsession. Daniel worked on St Michael’s mount in Cornwall as a gardener and found his love of plants and succulents. This hobby soon outgrew his windowsill and migrated into a passionate business.
This container has some of my favourites Aeonium Mardi Gras, x Semponium Vortex, Aeonium Phonenix Flame and Crassula Lucky Star. You can tell that Mark and Daniel are really at the top of their game.
Mark Lea joined Daniel Michael at Surreal Succulents about 5 years ago, he brought with him an extensive design background teaching at Falmouth University for over 12 years on courses such as Contemporary Crafts and 3D sustainable product design.
Being childhood friends, they reconnected later in life and decided to combine their expertise and go into business together to take Surreal Succulents to the next level.
Surreal Succulents Nursery
Surreal Succulents are well-known for their extensive collection of rare and unusual succulent plants. They have over 2000 different varieties, all propagated and grown in house including Surreal Succulents very own hybrids. They focus on producing quality plants, learning, and fully understanding them before releasing them to be sold. They have produced many of their own hybrid and cultivars as part of their extensive collection. They specialise in producing beautiful plants that are hardy enough to be grown outside in the UK, all year round.
Surreal Succulents has one of the largest collections of Aeoniums available for retail in the world. Including species, Aeoniums, hybrid Aeoniums as well as their own cultivars and hybrids
Surreal Succulents have a nursery outlet in the grounds of Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall. The nursery has a vast number of succulent plants, palms, Yucca’s, Agave’s and many of the shrubs and rare plants found in gardens at Tremenheere. Whilst producing most plants in house, imported plants are hand-picked by Mark and Daniel.
Shows & Services
They showcase their plants in inspiring displays at the nursery demonstrating how these plants can be grown. These displays show how to use the plants, whether it’s in the garden with a range of small and large succulents, growing vertically or in a corten steel bowl on a patio, how to get the most out of these structural and colourful plants all year-round.
Surreal Succulents offer garden design, and they have their own in-house style consisting of exotics palms and structural succulent plants. They are happy to get involved at any stage, from getting planning permission of a new extension garden room or to come and design a new planting scheme. Using Mark’s skills, they can transform your garden, creating a design that is truly personal to you.
These gardens are very low maintenance and will look very architectural year-round because of the unusual plants offered by Surreal Succulents
Daniel’s favourite plant, the incredible Sprial Aloe (Aloe polyphylla) growing at the nursery in Penzance. It has the perfect Fibonacci swirl. Sadly, these beautiful plants are becoming rare in their natural habitat. However, Surreal Succulents raise their plants from seed so can offer these for sale.
Surreal Succulents have won multiple RHS gold medals. Their latest gold was awarded for their 9-meter display garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower. It featured over four meters of bespoke designed vertical garden, corten steel and a range of their rarest plants. This display was one of their biggest achievements yet, as they showcased their incredible plants, some of which were in the collection for over 25 years. This garden also featured their brand-new range of xSemponiums.
Surreal Succulents have achieved a world’s first, through their breeding program known as the xSemponiums. These are inter-generic cross species hybrid consisting of Aeonium and Sempervivium creating a hardy succulent plant that can live anywhere in the UK. Daniel works on creating new varieties pushing the boundaries on what can be achieved.
Aeonium’s grow with amazing branching sculptural forms and Sempervivium’s are incredibly hardy, some go to as low as -20 degrees. This was possible as they are genetically similar with both being members of the Crassulacean family.
Six varieties have been bred so far. xSemponium “Sienna” was the first to be released at the Chelsea Flower Show 2021. It was awarded third place in the ‘Plant of the Year’ competition.
Sienna grows with the most amazing formation, it naturally offsets with neat layers of rosettes to form an amazing pyramid, which is just breath taking. Sienna grows with the formation of an Aeonium, but the rosettes have a Sempervivum appearance, showing how amazing Semponiums really are.
So far there are six varieties in the xSemponium range xSemponium “Sienna” xSemponium ‘Vortex”, xSemponium ‘Destiny’, xSemponium ‘Halo’, xSemponium ‘Dimond’ xSemponium ‘Mrs Frosty’. These other f varieties are due for release in 2022
Achieving a RHS Chelsea gold was a dream come true for Mark and Daniel. They were selected to exhibit in 2019. The pandemic meant the 2020 show was cancelled and Chelsea 2021 was then moved from May to September. This did not impact their ideas for the stand as many of the succulents included are very sculptural.
Having an unexpected extra year to experiment with planting played in their favour. They wanted to create a display of mature succulents. This meant that the planting had to be big, bold, and compact. Choosing plants that could be layered, showed each plant to its fullest splendour.
The design for their stand included four meters of bespoke vertical planting, raised beds and large corten steel bowls. The design was chosen to show how succulents can be grown in many locations from up a wall, in a container on a patio, raised beds or in the garden. Mark and Daniel selected plants for colour, form, and texture. Their selection included Aeoniums, Echeveria, Aloes, Sempervivums, Agave and the world’s first Semponiums.
Semponium Sienna awarded third place in the Plant of the Year competition at the Chelsea Flower Show 2021.
We Are Heading To Chelsea
Transporting the plants from Penzance to London for the show needed military organisation. They pre-planned how to pack the 3 Luton vans. They allowed for accidental mishaps by allowing 20% more plants. From past shows they have learnt that it is not easy to pack and transport large succulents. Having a high-water content in their leaves means they bruise easily. Their team were packing the first van whilst Mark and Daniel took charge of the second. To their horror they learnt that the first van had left for London without lots of the large plants. Unable to get the driver to turnaround, they had to think outside the box and find a way of getting the plants into the two remaining vans. They left Cornwall in the evening heading to London.
The Fun Begins
Hoping to enjoy their Chelsea experience they had planned a build time of 6 days. They managed to get all 3 vans into the show grounds, unpacked and commence the build. Shattered after the first day and hoping to get some much-needed rest, they checked into their hotel. Marks was faced with a leaking in the ceiling and a damp bed. No more rooms in the inn. Eventually they found a new hotel. No taxi’s available, they had to drag two weeks’ worth of gear including their suits by foot to the next hotel. What was to be a joyful experience was turning into a nightmare.
After moving hotels everything settled and they progressed with the build of their stand. After 3 days the stand was really coming together, and their excitement was fuelled again. There were emotional moments. Mark and Daniel had been growing certain plants for many years just for this moment. For Daniel particularly it was a lifelong dream coming true.
Everyone who enters the Chlesea arena is hoping for that elusive gold medal. However, in the end the medal didn’t really matter to them. What mattered was, they were finally here achieving their dream and showing off some of their best work. A real moment to be proud of. They were featured on the BBC coverage of the show.
Arriving to the show grounds on medals day was nerve racking. They high fived as they arrived. Walking up their exhibit, not only was there an RHS Gold Medal but an award for third place in the ‘Plant of the Year’ competition for Daniel’s creation of xSemponium Sienna. The boys were ecstatic. All the hard work had paid off. Mark did a radio interview and Daniel was in tears talking to his mum over the phone.
The rest of the week they enjoyed the limelight of Chelsea and meeting celebs and the public whilst the rest of the world was panicking outside about petrol shortages.
Aeonium Pomegranate is one of the Surreal Succulent hybrids. Contrary to belief Aeoniums prefer a moist well drained soil. They prefer bright light but not direct sunlight. They are beneficial plants for pollinators.
Mark’s favourite plant has to be the outstandingly beautiful intergeneric hybrid ×Semponium Sienna. The world’s first official cross between Sempervivum and Aeonium which has been named after his daughter. In full sun this plant has the brightest red colours and looks like it’s been photo shopped into your garden. Mark and Daniel are very excited about this and their other varieties of xSemponiums which will be introduced in 2022. XSemponiums will offer another dimension to their designs through height, colours, and textures that Surreal Succulents will be able to offer through their range of plants.
The ‘A’ Team Daniel Michael (on the left) and Mark Lea (on the right) with a couple of handsome Redcoats keeping them in check at the Chelsea Flower Show in case they get overly excited.
Without doubt Daniel’s favourite plant is the magnificent Aloe polyphylla or more commonly known as the spiral Aloe, but at the nursery they refer to this succulent as the holy grail of all succulents.
The Aloe polyphylla offers everything you could ever wish for in a succulent, it’s hardy to -15 and can happily survive winter wet which makes it ideal for the UK climate. It has the stunning spiralling leaf formation that directs the rainfall from the crown to its thirsty root system. It holds its shape, colour and form giving the garden amazing interest no matter the time of year, but above everything this plant is visually the most beautiful plant on the planet and one that Daniel had to have in his collection from the very beginning. Surreal Succulents now sustainably produce their own seed in house, ensuring that this special Aloe will be available to everyone.
Sadly, the Aloe polyphylla is in decline in its natural habitat and has been placed on the cities banned list for many years now. It is pollinated by hummingbirds and with the loss of habitat the Aloe polyphylla just isn’t getting pollinated.
It is a thirsty and hungry plant. Need to be grown in free draining soil as it requires oxygen to the roots. Grow it on a mound and at a slight angle so that the crown does not become waterlogged. Feed regularly through the growing season.
Another of Mark’s favourites, this is a Surreal Succulents hybrid and is probably one of the fastest and largest growing Aeoniums. It can also survive cold temperatures to -3 so is one of the more forgiving Aeoniums to grow. It freely offsets with large heads of up to 45cm to form one impressive show plant.
Once mature it can produce 6-foot flower spikes bursting with bright yellow flowers. Aeoniums will flower for several months and are loaded with nectar which bees and other pollinators just love.
That thoroughly well deserved RHS Gold Medal for their first ever RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Daniel has always been particularly interested in breeding new varieties of succulents and has done so with great success for more than ten years now, always pushing the boundaries to what’s possible with these amazing plants. Daniel spends hours if not days during the Spring passionately working on creating the next batch of hardy and ornamental succulents.
The rest of the year he would tend to the seedlings picking out any plants that had potential; these would then go on to the next process which would be accessing them, these plants would need to pass three key features to make it through to the final cut and they are hardiness, commercial viability, and public appeal.
This process can take more than 5 years, but Mark and Daniel want be sure they are releasing a plant that will be enjoyed by everyone for years to come.