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Growers of Cactuses, Other Succulents Say the Plants are Addictive

By Eric Billingsley
Of the Journal
    On a hot, sunny afternoon on the outskirts of Belen, Steven Brack enters a greenhouse filled with hundreds of cactuses and succulent plants. His childlike enthusiasm is contagious.
    He begins pollinating the plants by dipping a tiny paint brush in one flower and transferring the pollen to another. He does this partly out of necessity, because he raises cactuses, succulents and seed for customers worldwide. But beyond business, Brack is passionate about these plants.
    "There's never a day without hundreds of flowers here. Some days there are tens of thousands of flowers," he says with a gleam in his eye. "It's also fun to grow cacti and succulents from seed because you can see so much diversity."
    Brack is one of many cactus and succulent enthusiasts in New Mexico.
    Whether they are raising well-known plants of the southwestern United States such as agave, prickly pear and cholla, or exotics from Africa, South America and other parts of the world, enthusiasts say these plants are addictive.
    On a practical level, many cactuses and succulents are well-suited for New Mexico's arid climate, use minimal water and once established often require less maintenance than lush landscapes. They also provide gardeners with an abundant supply of color and flowers.
    "To me, there's a real rare beauty to cactus and succulents," says C.V. Porter, who grows nearly 350 species at his home in Albuquerque.
    Generally the term succulent refers to plants that have soft water storage tissue that helps them survive periods of low rainfall, Brack says. While nearly all cactuses are succulents, not all succulents are cactuses. Cactuses also have specialized tissue that produces spines or flowers, according to Brack.
    There are hundreds of native species of cactuses and succulents in New Mexico and many more worldwide. New species and genus are being discovered every day. They range from cactuses with sharp spines to succulents so small they're barely noticeable to the untrained eye.
    Ralph Peters of Albuquerque stumbled into the hobby of growing cactus and succulents more than two decades ago when he was looking for ways to decorate his front yard. Now, he displays several dozen there and grows thousands more in a greenhouse.
    "Some of them are truly modern sculptures, works of art. There's some that are really weird-looking things. And almost all of them flower at least once a year," says Peters. Cactus flowers cover the spectrum of colors and sizes and are a great way to attract wildlife.
    Porter says he's attracted to the hobby because few people do it on a serious level. "It's also just about the oddity," he says.
    But some enthusiasts are interested in more than just growing cactus.
    "I enjoy backpacking and hiking, and this is an excuse for me to travel and camp on the ground," says Peters who treks throughout the Southwest observing species in their native environment, looking for new species and collecting seed. He says it's fascinating to observe how these plants distribute themselves in their natural habitat.
    Members of the local chapter of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, which is about 60 members strong, share presentations about the plants they've seen throughout the world in places like Peru and southwest Africa, says Peters.
    Brack used to spend as much as three months of the year traveling the world to track down cactuses and succulents. He now travels about two weeks out of the year and particularly enjoys the abundant plant life of Baja California and Africa. "Parts of Africa are much more like the wild west," he says. "I'm always looking for new seed.
    He says there is also an expansive community of enthusiasts worldwide who enjoy swapping stories, clippings and seeds from their travels. Many people living in Russia, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand raise cactuses and succulents and occasionally travel to New Mexico.
    The science behind raising cactuses and succulents is another reason many are attracted to the hobby.
    "That's one of the mistakes people make is sticking them in the ground and thinking they're done," says David Ferguson who does plant acquisitions and runs garden crews at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden. "They're not going to look attractive unless you give them loving care."
    Brack chuckles that many of the people attracted to growing cactuses and succulents come from science backgrounds.
    Like other plants, cactus and succulents have certain light, soil and moisture requirements. Ferguson says you don't want to water them too much and most won't fair well in rich, organic soil. Most also like to be in bright light.
    It's important to realize that not all of these plants will fare well outdoors in New Mexico. Some are vulnerable to freezing temperatures in the winter and to drought conditions. So it's necessary to raise some species indoors.
    "You definitely need to research what you're getting," says Ferguson, adding, "A cool shady yard won't work well for most cactus and succulents." Look for species that come from climates similar to New Mexico.
    Many traditional nurseries have a limited selection and often won't include the specific name of the species. Enthusiasts recommend buying from specialty growers.
    And some species can be invasive, so it's important to plant in areas that will allow for growth but not encroach on walkways.
    Brack says planting in separate areas or containers is a good strategy because of the plants' unique water requirements. And, once you plant them, try not to move them.
    "These are not like planting a tomato, which can establish roots quickly," says Brack, adding that it can take months or years for some species of cactuses and succulents to re-establish their root system.
    Want to grow cactus?
    People interested in taking up cactus gardening are encouraged to attend a meeting of the local Cactus and Succulent Society of American chapter, read books and talk to retailers specializing in cactus and succulent plants. Contact Steven Brack at 864-3131 for information about meetings of the local cactus society.
    Cactus and Succulent Resources
    Cactus and Succulent Society of America, cssainc.org
    High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, highcountrygardens.com, (800) 925-9387
    Mesa Garden in Belen, (greenhouses not open to the public) mesagarden.com, (505) 864-3131
    Rio Grande Cacti, riogrande-cacti.com
    Santa Fe Greenhouses, santafegreenhouses.com, (877) 811-2700

E-MAIL Eric Billingsley