Diane Shields, known locally as Queen of the Succulents, surrounded by several of her plant friends. A green thumb is not enough to describe her passion; rather it is green love. Shields does not only grow plants, she respects, nurtures and appreciates them.
Rumi. Succulent plants. Financial advisor. Singing waitress at Farrells Restaurant. The Dalai Lama. Childrens singer-songwriter. Jeweler. Mother, wife, daughter. Daybreak homeless womens program. Tarot card reader. Traveler. All of these endeavors contribute to the persona of Topangan Diane Shields, a long-time resident of the Canyon.
Nestled at the top of a hillside grows a landscape as diverse as Dianes background. Turning down into her driveway, oaks, pines and chaparral hillsides greet visitors. Its impossible not to notice the large barrel cactus with orange yellow spines, the fleshy lobes of unusual jade plants peeking out from under the brush and rosettes of Crassulas huddle amongst rocky hillsides.
Within a few moments of wandering the gardens of Shields home, which she shares with her husband, photographer Anthony Verebes, it becomes apparent why she has earned the name Queen of the Succulents. A green thumb is not enough to describe her passion; rather it is a green love. Shields does not only grow plants, she respects, nurtures and appreciates them.
After a few hours in her presence, it is clear that gardening is not her only gift. Her talents are as diverse as the more than 100 species of succulents she cultivates.
Born in California, Shields was born in Hollywood, grew up in Northridge, attended UCLA and then CSUN to graduate with a degree in sociology. Soon after, she became a social worker, negotiating government bureaucracy while helping people organize and re-establish their lives. The job took its toll.
Social work is stressful, and dangerous, but most of all, heartbreaking, she says.
Nestled at the top of a Topanga Canyon hillside grows a diverse landscape. Turning down into Shields' driveway, oaks, pines and chaparral hillsides greet visitors. Situated on six acres, the fully landscaped property was done with drought-resistant plants to help make this hilltop Canyon home more fire resistant.
After eight years, she left social work behind and opened a plant store specializing in succulents. For four years her business thrived and she relished in what thus far had been her favorite job.
However, in the mid-Seventies, she found herself stretched too thin between running a household, caring for a new baby and nurturing her plants. So once more, she cast her talents into the world and searched for new work. For a short time she worked as a singing waitress at Farrells Restaurant where she met Verebes. Though Farrells allowed her to sing on the job, she soon left and began a career as a financial advisor, then known as a stock broker.
Japanese water pearls are among the many semiprecious stones Shields uses to craft her unique and wimisical jewelry. For more information, see www.DianeShieldsDesign.com.
Thirty years later, Shields ponders how strangely similar her life as a social worker was with monetary advising: For both jobs I was trying to solve peoples problems and organizing their lives. Clients would share their long-term dreams and she looked at available resources and tried to make them happen.
Her financial job not only allowed her to meet her desire to help people, it also gave her the time she needed to raise her daughter. As the stock market opened early, work began at 6 a.m., and she was home by 2 p.m. Once home, she shed her fiscal adventures and donned the dress of musician and songwriter. Diane, her daughter and several of her daughters friends comprised the musical group Diane Shields and the Topanga Canyon Fairy Tales. She and the girls had a message to get out and their lyrics reflected their intentions:
We dont want no war
knockin on our door.
We dont want you to fight
when were sleepin at night.
Milk and cookies and peace please
Were just askin to live.
Although the band broke up when the girls reached junior high, Diane did and still continues to create music. Several of the girls, now adults, have carried on their musical legacy by becoming members of local bands or through songwriting.
This varigated aloe has the feeling of a Zebra with it’s contrast of dark green and white. “Often people ask me why succulents,” Shields says, “and I answer, because I have always been interested in the bizarre. Each plant has its own face. They can be left alone and survive or can be attended to and flourish. Succulents are a lot like people that way.”
After three decades of financial advising Shields left her career and offered her gifts to community endeavors. She currently holds a part-time job offering opera and symphonies to communities nationwide. This work allows her to bring art and music to small towns as well as indulges her personal passion for classical music.
She also volunteers for Daybreak, a non-profit organization under the umbrella of Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC). Its mission states: Founded in 1987, Daybreak is the only program on the Westside designed for homeless women suffering from long-term debilitating mental illness. Daybreak provides a safe and accepting environment where they can find dignity, support and access to information and resources needed to stabilize their lives and move into permanent housing.
While Shields and 14 other women work to raise money for the program, she has uncovered an interesting conundrum among those she is trying to serve. Although there is a need to support these women and get them off the street, she also recognizes that the women experience a loss of freedom in the process. It is tough for these women to come into the shelter. They have been independent and living the way they want to for so long that there is often resistance to Daybreak.
Succulents come in color combinations or varigations, almost as diverse as the grower’s own backgroud. After eight years in the field of social work, Shields left that world behind to open a plant store specializing in succulents.
And, perhaps, it is this recognition of two sides to every story that has given Shields much of the wisdom she lives by.
As soon as you start to compare yourself to someone else, you lose. Your progress can only be measured against your own progress.
She believes that you are the only one who truly knows how you are doing so it is better to check in with yourself rather than rate yourself against an ideal created for someone else.
Once you get into comparing yourself with others you start living by should haves and what ifs, she says.
In addition to community opera and Daybreak, Shields spends much of her time creating jewelry, in what she describes as a passion-turned-addiction. Her love began when she started collecting beads and pendants from around the world and locally, all of which she turned into jewelry for friends. But as her collection and obsession grew, she knew she had to sell her jewelry to support her addiction. She describes her art as both elegant and offbeat a place that blurs the boundaries of the sacred and the secular. One necklace may be comprised of a Buddhist relic, American turquoise and a Celtic cross.
Her artistic nature does not only manifest indoors. Her love for plants, especially succulents, becomes apparent in a walk along her garden paths or around her patio. Often people ask me why succulents, she says, and I answer, because I have always been interested in the bizarre. Each plant has its own face. Some people are repulsed by how alien they are, but I love them because of it. They can be left alone and survive or can be attended to and flourish. Succulents are a lot like people that way.
The Aeonium, sometimes called pinwheel.Tthe common name of many succulents are local to the area of the country so you might know these by other names.
Amongst her and Verebes six acres of chaparral, garden pockets of succulents have been carefully tended, especially one that she calls the Angel Garden. Under a live oak in pots and soil, she has cultivated more than one hundred species of succulents that she has been collecting for at least thirty years.
Each succulent has a character and story of its own stretching back to its native habitat, for few of these plants come from Southern California. Even so, they are well adapted to a climate in Topanga, flourishing in hot days and coastal fog nights. Because of their ability to take hold and smother our native plants, succulents are best kept in pots and well-confined gardens.
Much in the same way Shields embraces the alien nature of succulents, her belief system rejects any set dogma. Rather, she opts for the potential that anything is possible. Both the poet Rumi and the words of the Dalai Lama have contributed to her open mind and compassionate nature.
As she reaches out to caress a nearby succulent she turns and says, Each day I say a prayer: Please make it so that I no longer want. So I can appreciate what I have. And to know that what I have is all I need. Perhaps this is what has allowed her life to flourish in so many diverse, bizarre, loving and passionate tendrils.