For many of us one of our first gardening experiences was that cactus on the windowsill. Often that one round, prickly plant formed the foundation of a small collection.
A row of curious plants that had the ability to survive, even when we lost interest and moved on to other things. I can never remember cacti being fashionable, but they’ve always been there.
Various forms of the Christmas cactus, schlumbergera, appear each December as a seasonal houseplant, and I remember the purple pink flowered mamillarias being popular for a while, but I’ve never come across many with a real passion for the plants.
Having said that I have seen some amazing collections in botanic gardens and in gardens in southern Europe.
The hilltop garden at Eze on the French Riviera, some private gardens in the same area, and I’ve seen them used in contemporary landscapes in Australia.
However I’ve never come across a private collection of any extent at home in the UK, until just recently. I was speaking to a regional horticultural society and the organisers kindly invited me to their home for something to eat beforehand.
Inside the house I was greeted by windowsills crowded with pots of orchids; a passion of mine.
“I see you collect orchids”, I remarked. “We collected a few recently, but that’s not our real interest, we are really into cacti and succulents”. I was soon to discover this was an understatement.
An overgrown and relatively wild garden was dominated by three large greenhouses, their roofs peeping above surrounding vegetation. We went out to explore.
Tony and Suzanne are true collectors and enthusiasts. They live their hobby, lecture, spread the word and are a link with like-minded cactus and succulent enthusiasts across the world. “There is a lot of interest in Poland”, Tony remarked.
One glasshouse is filled with stock. Plants they have propagated to sell at talks, lectures and on the internet. These are not great showy subjects, they are potted treasures for those that are passionate about them.
I was overwhelmed and reached for the camera. He was rather dismissive and keen to point out that this was not the main collection.
We moved on to another enormous glasshouse further down the garden, partly hidden by a large stand of bamboo.
Late spring is a good time for cacti to flower under glass in the Northern hemisphere, apparently, so there would be lots to see. He was quite right, the collection in this glasshouse was quite mind blowing. Specimens Tony has owned for much of his life.
Many are now large and quite spectacular and the variety of form, texture and colour is incredible. Some are planted in the ground and reach the roof, some are even restricted by their boundaries.
In here there were subjects that I had never seen before, ones that unlocked a whole world of knowledge.
This collector has travelled to see the plants he is passionate about growing in their natural environments. Others he has researched, learning everything about their history and habitat.
I had never heard of the succulent forests of Madagascar where lemurs live. The Madagascan Octillo, Alluardia procera hails from there and a fine specimen reached from floor to roof.
This is a thorny pole of a plant which it is hard to imagine a lemur climbing, but they do. I can’t say this succulent is a thing of beauty; that is until you examine it closely.
Its structure and detail is exquisite. Like all collectors that’s how the plants are seen: not as part of a design or planting combination, but for their individual attributes.
As an orchid enthusiast who has been an orchid society member, and shared the interest with other orchid nuts, I know you never look at the surroundings, just the attributes of the individual plant.
Another huge specimen the glasshouse is Aloe pillansii from Namibia. This has a tall trunk with yucca-like leaves at the top.
The silver grey stem is smooth, silky and marble-like; tactile, almost like a refined eucalyptus.
Apparently this subject is now critically endangered in the wild, so here the collector is performing a conservation role.
It’s hard to imagine how a collection like this is cared for and watered by two people; it is undoubtedly a way of life.
Admittedly cacti can be left for a few days, but they cannot be neglected. Mealy bug can be a pest, and cacti do need watering.
As Tony is keen to point out, people either water them too much, or not at all. I feel rather embarrassed having been guilty of the latter crime.
Suzanne’s main collection is housed in another glasshouse. Here lithops, living stones, and related succulents peep through the fine grit topping of thousands of small pots.
It takes an enthusiast to tell the subtle differences, but just like the rest of this extensive collection every individual is immaculately labelled. Many cacti and succulents are raised from seed.
Seeing the tiny seedlings of these curious plants reminded me of my own attempts to grow cacti from seed when I was a boy.
Whatever your particular plant passion, anyone that is interested in plants is enthused by another individuals interest.
This is an extensive extended family of plants with world-wide appeal. Whether the form the basis of the palette of plants for your garden, whether you grow them in the greenhouse, or treasure them on a windowsill few other plant groups are as versatile and accommodating. If you would like to know more there is a wealth of information out there wherever you are in the world.
As a first stop visit www.cactus-mall.com where you will find details of collections, collectors, clubs, periodicals and organisations that specialise in cacti and succulents across the globe. You never know: you may be bitten by the cactus bug!
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