Cacti & Succulents

Being excited by cacti and succulents has been in the same realm as being a country music fan – each qualifies as the ultimate social faux pas. Still, just as country music seems to be gaining some legitimacy – look at Nicole Kidman’s recent choice of spouse – so are cacti and succulents.

So I now feel able to come out and own up to being a cactophile (in which case I may as well even go for the double and own up to following Hank Williams, Hank Jr and Hank III).

A couple of decades ago the Fairfax colour magazines included national treasure Leo Schofield reviling the Sydney botanic gardens’ cactus garden as reminiscent of ‘a crematorium in New Mexico’ and James Hitchmough denouncing ‘Succulents of any kind (as) … putrid plants … the kiss of death’ for aspiring garden designers. Today succulents are generally considered rather smart and are accorded the accolade of being bold, architectural plants.

While our public figures abound with rosarians, cactophiles are rarely famous beyond the world of cactus and succulent collectors. Julien Mamier-Lapostolle, while admittedly better known for Grand Marnier liqueurs, is one noteworthy exception: his exceptional cactus and succulent garden Les Cedres on Cap Ferrat in southern France, can still be visited by appointment through the Saint Jean Cap Ferrat town council – or vicariously, through his liqueurs).

There are some interesting intersections between the history of cacti and succulents and other plants – for example, Pierre-
Joseph Redoute, fabled illustrator of roses, began his career painting succulents. This was a scholarly necessity, as they make such poor herbarium specimens. Robert Brown, the erstwhile Father of Australian Botany, is also considered the Father of the Asclepiadaceae – a wonderful and complex plant family including many bizarre succulents, often with beautiful, malodorous flowers pollinated by blowflies. (In case you’re wondering, Sir Joseph Banks is best viewed as the Patron of Australian Botany through his championing James Cook’s geographical expedition to underwrite natural history collecting and publishing. Robert Brown’s credentials in collecting Australian plants as the naturalist accompanying Matthew Flinders resulted in Brown committing himself to the task of writing the first flora of Australia.)

Given the somewhat uncertain position of cacti and succulents in the firmament of the plant world I was uncharacteristically reserved in promoting the resurrection of the cactus garden in Adelaide Botanic Gardens. In this context I’ve been content to wait and see where Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ cactus collection would end up – the quite marvellous collection was relocated to temporary accommodation in about 1993 during the restoration of the wonderful Palm House. The collection is only now being returned to its previous location on the Palm House’s north side since we completed the Gardens’ conservation study and site master plan. The Gardens staff have done a wonderful job in sourcing plants both from within the Gardens and from commercial nurseries (a very rarefied commerce) and the new garden is now taking shape – you can take a look through the temporary fencing to get some idea of what’s happening.

The plants already look much more impressive here than in their temporary location adjacent to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and I was surprised to see some favourite species I didn’t even realise were in the Gardens. As you might imagine, transplanting large cacti and succulents is not for the faint hearted or for the under-prepared, and the Gardens staff have dearly shown their professionalism in pulling this project together without injury to themselves (or the plants). I’m hopeful the garden will be unveiled in late winter or early spring.

Of course the rarest and most prized cacti are most likely to be found in private collections – or if you’re able to travel in the
right company, in the wild. I’ve been fortunate to meet worldrenowned collectors – and in some cases visit their collections
– and to travel through Mexico with American and Australian cactophiles. Gordon Rowley’s books and films, particularly, A
history of succulent plants, give some flavour of the obsessiveness, even addiction of succulentophiles. His 8mm movie, Cactus polonaise leaves audiences speechless (how many movies feature cacti dancing beautifully to Chopin?). It is a far cry from John Ford’s and John Wayne’s familiar epic Western landscapes of saguaro cacti or Monument Valley.

The only way to really learn about cacti and succulents is to join a society and get to meetings to discuss their finer
points (literally) with other collectors. South Australia has a strong Cactus & Succulent Society that is working closely with the Gardens on the development of the new cactus garden. The Society will be hosting the national cactus and succulent convention in 2008. Succulenticon will run from Thursday April 24 to Sunday April 27 2008 ( At this stage the star attraction is Steve Hammer, a world authority on mesembranthemums, but there will, as always, be a stellar line-up and an opportunity to rub shoulders with other cactophiles. The next meeting of the Society will be 7:45 pin Friday July 20, 2007 at the Western Youth Centre 79 Marion Road, Cowandilla and of course visitors are welcome. The website includes details on membership or alternatively you could send the membership fees of $25 to the Secretary, Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia Inc, PO Box 10104 Gouger Street, BC, Adelaide 5000 – membership is based on a calendar year.

You might even end up, as I have, captured by these remarkable plants. Indeed, our wedding invitation featured a commissioned illustration of Pelecyphora pseudopectinata by Noel Butler, a theme embodied in the wedding cake, while the guests took home individual cakes decorated as container-grown Astrophytum asterias. Nurseryman Tom Kapitany from Collectors Comer provided advanced cacti and succulents as table centres which were deftly handled by florist Beth Knol in conjunction with artist James Morrison whose idiosyncratic papier-mache creations completed an interior scene competing with parts of the remarkable Mexican central highlands. You will understand that it would not be sensible of me to write on this subject without mentioning the joy of these things.

Caring for Cacti

While cacti are succulents, there are many succulents that aren’t cacti – even Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ cactus garden is in fact a succulent garden as it includes many succulents outside the Cactaceae family.

Aloes are easy to grow and range in life forms from trees, to climbers and groundcovers. Aloe bainesii is a marvellous
tree aloe currently in flower next to the Palm House in Adelaide Botanic Gardens while Aloe potypl ylla, with its leaves in a Fibonacci-series spiral reminiscent of a formal double camellia, a sunflower in seed, or a pine cone, is a wonderful container or in-ground rosette-forming shrub.

Mammillarias make outstanding container plants if you’re stuck for space – some protection from direct summer sun
and from rain reduces scorching and fungal attack but they’re generally robust. Few collectors aspire to all 170 species but it would be a lofty and worthwhile aspiration – these are sublime plants whose exquisite ornamental spines are best understood in the context of a collection. While the flowers are beautiful, the patterning of the spines is more than reward enough. One of my favourites, with curious spines reminiscent of silverfish, is Mammillana pectinifera which features this month as plant of the month for the Cactus & Succulent Society of South Australia for July (

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 6 July 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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