Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Prickly business: a Southern California specialty nursery

Southern California might well be considered the Mecca of all cactophiles: Mexico may boast the largest number of species, and of course South Africa postively bristles with succulents (albeit not cacti), but Southern California boasts dozens of dazzling public gardens displaying fantastic succulent collections (not just the Huntington, btw), and more specialty, wholesale, and retail nurseries growing and selling succulents than you can shake an ocotillo cane at. I was lucky enough to visit several of these during my recent lecture tour: I was captivated by Prickly Palace. The picture above was not taken at that palace, exactly, but in the private garden of the absolutely astonishing garden full of all manner of spectacular specimen succulents grown to perfection. As I looked up and down their street full of conventional gardens (lawns, blobby bushes) that could have been in New Jersey or Idaho (whose owners pay untold thousands of dollars to keep their dullish gardens surviving on life support) when they too could have a desert garden full of beauty. Are people nuts or what?

Buck Hemenway (above) and his wife (whom you shall meet shortly) started this nursery to support their serious addiction to all things succulent. I must qualify in the latter category, since they were very hospitable during my recent visit. Here you can see Buck pulling aside one of the many aloes and other goodies he gathered and gave Denver Botanic Gardens for our collections (gratis, incidentally). In addition to being a nurseryman, Buck has dedicated countless hours in service to many affiliates of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, as well as serving on the National board of that organization in many capacities. People like him are the ones who keeping the flickering flame of civilization glowing.

A glimpse of one of their growing areas, this one featuring all manner of cacti--in all sizes. I suspect many of the plants you see are specimens they are growing and perhaps grooming to put into one of the innumerable Plant Shows sponsored by CSSA throughout Southern California. Buck and Yvonne are frequent (and extremely successful) entrants in these shows. Moreover, they usually sell plants at them as well. Buck is likely to be conducting the auction at one of these meetings (he did so at two I happened to attend), to which they donated many of the best plants. And, oh yes, Yvonne will be outbidding others at the same auction...I think you call people like this "players".

One little corner of one of their houses where they cluster their non-cactus succulents...we shall take a a closer look at that out-of-focus red blur in the foreground next...

Here is Yvonne, a full partner to Buck in the business. I think her smile speaks volumes. She is accompanied by Monadenium coccineum, a delightful, everblooming succulent in Euphorbiaceae. I notice I brought one of those back (the plant, not Yvonne silly!). I enjoyed chatting with Yvonne about many things, especially the wonderful plans she and Buck have to move to Calitzdorp, a village in the Little Karoo of South Africa in a few years: their appetite for travel made me feel like a tyro.

Another flashy succulent I found there--a spectacular cultivar of Adenium. It's amazing these are not more often seen as house plants!

They had extensive beds outdoors for propagating larger succulents--such as this mass of Agave. Their Aloe beds will be in peak bloom over the next rew months: I may have to find my way back there soon...

They had flats full of treasures, such as this outlandish Ariocarpus agavoides, an amazing miniature cactus that reminds me more of a Lewisia than an agave.

And of course, they had to have the requisite Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii): you never know when some Chinese plutocrat might drop in looking to replace the sentinel lions on his front stoop.

My one glimmer of schadenfreude occured when Buck told me that his Delosperma sphalmanthoides (pictured here) had never bloomed. Until I realized his plant was twice the size of any I have managed to overwinter. This was growing in a special area (with many tables and some overhead protection) where they cluster hundreds--maybe thousands--of special treasures, many of them South African bulbs, which they wish to keep track of. That treasure trove merits its own Blog posting--except that my camera had trouble focusing through my hot tears of envy!

Buck and Yvonne: I salute you, and thank you for all you do for the world of horticulture and its wandering minstrels like myself. Long may your reign in your Prickly Palace--whether in Riverside county or the Little Karoo!


  1. I saw a gardening show on PBS the other day about the garden of a Cycad collector/author. His garden was in the L.A. area. They have some really exceptional gardens in Southern California.


  2. There are many great centers of horticulture in America: the Delaware valley boasts amazing public gardens and nurseries, as does the Potomoc Valley--and Lake County, Ohio is another hot spot. San Francisco is one of my favorite garden/nursery destinations. Florida has no end of nurseries--and Portland, Oregon is another of my favorites. Texas and much of the South don't really have a single center--there are dozens of smaller centers because of the ease of growing plants there, and the popularity of gardening. I don't think I need to tell you about Chicago, James. And even Denver (partly due to the institution I am proud to be part of)is no shirker in the garden/nursery arena...but for the quantity and quality of great public and private gardens and the sheer density and variety of nurseries, I have come to believe that the area between Santa Barbara and San Diego is America's greatest garden.

  3. Just out of curiosity, how much does a Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) cost?


    1. A monster specimen like the one in the picture would probably go for many hundreds of dollars. One the size of a soccer ball is apt to retail for $30 or more. Smaller ones can be found in you shop around for ten or even five dollars at the right spot. These were produced by the tens and hundreds of thousands for the Asian market, and that market is now shrunk--so there are large inventories. If you bought quantities, you could get some amazing bargains. I have two myself that need repotting--they do tend to grow!

  4. Those numbers are very affordable. Your mention of "Chinese plutocrat(s)" made me think the cost would be much higher.

    Do you know of any places where you can get seedlings of trees that grow on cliffs that get hundreds (if not a thousand or more) years old. I think it would be really neat to plant a seedling of an actual cliff tree in my garden, instead of the usual garden selections which are sports from an otherwise typical example of the species.


  5. What a beautiful face Yvonne has! As usual your photos do a great job of illustrating your posting.


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